Supervision of child-dog interactions – implications for dog-bite prevention

Dr. Christine Arhant, Institute of Animal Husbandry and Animal Welfare, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna

Dog bites suffered by young children are often inflicted by the family dog and preceded by an interaction. On the one hand, poor supervision of child-dog interactions may be a key cause of these incidents. Therefore, we investigated dog owners’ attitudes to supervision of everyday interactions of their children with the family dog and whether interactions with family dogs were judged differently than those with unfamiliar dogs. On the other hand, the development of everyday interactions between children up to six years and their family dogs is an important element that might put children at risk. Additionally, we investigated whether behavior of dogs that had lived in the family for longer than the child differed from those that grew up with children.  To get insight in these everyday interactions and their supervision by caregivers an online survey was conducted over a four-month period. To take part, respondents had to live with a child (≤6 years) and to own a dog. The questionnaire contained sections about demographics (participant, child, dog), child-dog interactions, supervision and daily management of the child and dog, intervention in interactions and awareness of risks of interactions (all scored on a scale from 1 to 6). Questions about intervention included five pictures of child-dog interactions which were chosen based on concordant expert ratings.

Respondents’ average level of toleration of unsafe behaviours was in the middle of a scale from one to six, (3.05±1.29), and their level of attentiveness was similar (3.12±1.47). Environmental control of interactions, such as a resting place away from the child, was reported less often (2.83±1.47). However, respondents rated the need for an intervention in child-dog interactions very differently than experts (p<0.001): on average, participants agreed with experts on only two depicted situations involving the family dog and on four encounters with an unfamiliar dog. With regard to interactions, benign child behaviors towards dogs were most frequently reported (4.1±1.2), increased with child age (rs = 0.38, p<0.001) and reached high levels from six month on. Overall, resource-related interactions were relatively infrequent (2.1±1.1). Most common was the dog allowing the child to take objects from its mouth (4.1±1.7). This behavior was more common with older children (rs = 0.37, p<0.001). Reported injuries during resource-related interactions occurred while feeding treats or taking objects from the dog during fetch play. Dogs that had lived in the family for longer than the child showed less affiliative behaviors towards the child (e.g. energetic affiliative: p<0.001) and more fear-related behaviors (p<0.001). Finally, the caregivers’ attitudes to supervision were related to all reported child behaviors (e.g. allow unsafe behaviors – benign child behavior: rs = 0.47, p<0.001).

Overall, many dog owners need to improve their supervision of child-dog interactions. It is vital to educate caregivers about potentially unsafe behaviours and safety measures to use with the family dog. The results of this study further underline the need for a dog bite prevention approach directed towards the caregivers very early in the child-dog relationship, taking into account the child’s age and individual needs of the dog.