Misunderstood: research shows link between dog attacks and ‘misunderstanding of dog behaviour’

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New research from Edge Hill University – surveyed 1,535 people, focusing on their perceptions of dangerous dogs, bite risk, and information sources on dogs – shows that dog owners often misinterpret dog behaviour. The study suggests this contributes to the rise in dog attacks in the UK, as the majority of dog bites occur in the victim’s home and involve a familiar dog.

Led by Professor Claire Parkinson, Co-Director of Edge Hill’s Centre for Human Animal Studies (CfHAS), the reseach team found that many respondents (44 per cent) “incorrectly believed that a dog would actively avoid biting a child”, and struggled to identify body language or recognise banned dog breeds.

Almost half respondents agreed that “parents are almost always absent when a dog bites a small child,” while only 28% correctly recognised it as false. Tellingly, they also tended to believe that their own dogs were better behaved than most other dogs. Despite all this, most participants were “broadly confident in their ability to interpret canine communication”.

Based on her findings, Professor Parkinson,  is calling on the Government to overturn outdated breed-based legislation and shift the focus onto owners. This is far from the first time this occurs: in 2021, a report commissioned by the Government cast heavy doubts over the effectiveness of Breed Specific Legislation – but no changes followed.

Professor Parkinson said, “Dog bites are a growing public health issue, and my research sheds light on why. The findings clearly demonstrate a lack of understanding of dog body language. Dogs seldom attack without warning. People may hold a misguided anthropomorphic view of their own and other dogs, resulting in inadequate training and misinterpretation of behaviour which can increase the risk of a dog bite occurring.”

Moreover, respondents “displayed diverse responses to dog behaviour, including concerning instances where a significant number chose responses that could escalate a dangerous situation”.

Professor Claire Parkinson and her dog, Cosmo

Professor Parkinson added, “The data highlights people’s inclination to perceive dogs as inherently gentle or humanised. Owners may not recognise when a dog is trying to communicate their stress or discomfort. It is particularly important that children are taught how to interact appropriately with dogs.

“An important finding is that almost two thirds of respondents believe there should be more public information regarding the risk posed by dangerous dogs,” Professor Parkinson added. “Without more support for dog owners, dogs will lack training, and owners will continue to misunderstand dog behaviour. There needs to be a shift away from the focus on breed bans to education and awareness-raising. A public information campaign and improved access to dog training would definitely help to address some of the current issues.”

Of the sample size surveyed, 89% were current dog owners, 87% claimed dogs liked them and that they were good with dogs and 20% had experience with bull breeds.

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