Interpreting Canine Body Language

Adults don’t always understand dogs’ behavior around kids
By Karen B. London PhD, June 2017

Supervising children and dogs when they are together is an important part of preventing dog bites as well as of protecting the well-being of both kids and canines. However, even carefully monitoring the interactions will do little to prevent trouble if the adults watching aren’t knowledgeable about dog behavior. Research has shown that adults often underestimate the risks of dog bites to children, and that children tend to engage in riskier behavior around dogs when an adult is present.

According to a study called "Adults' Ability to Interpret Canine Body Language during a Dog-Child Interaction", misinterpreting the body language of dogs during interactions with children is quite common. Three videos of young children and dogs interacting were used in this study to assess adults’ ability to understand canine body language. A panel of behavior experts considered the dogs in all three videos to be fearful and anxious, emotionally conflicted, and lacking in confidence. However, approximately two-thirds of the subjects in the study considered the dogs to be relaxed and a similar percentage thought their behavior indicated confidence.

The subjects of the study came from four different groups: 1. People with dogs and with children, 2. People with dogs but no children, 3. People with children but no dogs, and 4. People without dogs or children. Interestingly, people without dogs were more successful at interpreting the emotional states of dogs than people who are dog guardians. Dog guardians were more likely to think the dogs were relaxed than people without dogs and less likely to label their emotional state as conflicted. Parents and non-parents did not differ in their ability to interpret the emotional states of the dogs in the video, to determine the dogs’ response to the situation, or to categorize the predominant behavior of the dog (e.g. play, friendly behavior).

Previous work has yielded conflicting results about whether people with dogs are better or worse at interpreting canine body language and emotional expressions. This study suggests that experience with dogs without any theoretical knowledge of dog behavior may not enhance people’s ability to recognize signs of trouble in interactions between young children and dogs. Perhaps people with dogs are more likely to give dogs the benefit of the doubt and assume they are friendly. Similarly, people without dogs may be more cautious when observing dogs, especially around young children, and may therefore be more receptive to the possibility of danger.

The general conclusions of the study are that people have great difficulty interpreting the signs of fear and anxiety in dogs who are interacting with young children and that it is important to educate people about dog body language in order to minimize problems when dogs are interacting with young children.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.