Safe Relationships Between Children and Dogs: A One Health Approach
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
T. Keuster, European Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine

Man's Best Friend

Dogs are the most popular pets globally, owned by 33% of households, followed by cats (23%), fish (12%) and birds (6%) (GfK 2016). The majority of dog owners consider their pet dog as a close family member, a relative or a best friend. A lovely example on how families treat their pet dog came from a US survey wherein all respondents reported that they give their pet dog a holiday present; 87% include their pet in holiday celebrations; 65% sing or dance for their pet; 52% percent prepare special meals for their pet; 53% take time off from work to care for their sick pet; and 44% percent take their pet to work (Walsh 2009).

In families with children, keeping a dog appears to be positively associated with the child's physical activity, and children who walk their dog are significantly more likely to play outside, walk locally and are more independently mobile compared with non-dog owners (Christian et al. 2014).

Furthermore, dog ownership appears to provide psychological benefits for the child, in terms of emotional, cognitive, behavioural, educational and social development, and has been associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety. Recent papers, however, stress the importance of long-term follow-up studies to understand the true relationship between dog ownership and benefits to child development (Purewall et al. 2017).

Pitfalls in Human Behaviour Towards Dogs

Humans and dogs have a lot in common. Both are a social species, which means they not only enjoy the presence of a companion, but both are species whose optimal functioning is dependent on social relationships with other members of society. At the same time, optimal functioning within social structures requires effective communication and a mutual understanding of species-specific signalling, social gestures and interactions.

For example, social gestures like sitting close to show affiliation, putting one’s arm around someone’s shoulder and restraining someone in a friendly hug, are lovely gestures from a human perspective. Especially young children like to hug dogs as a sign of their friendship, not realising that their (benign) actions might intimidate a dog and induce fear. The fact that the dog freezes and does not move, may lead parents and teachers to think the dog feels happy with this well-intended attention.

Most of the dog bite accidents with family dogs result from such seemingly benign (from the human perspective) interactions, hence the importance to stimulate awareness in parents about how their dog behaves when being hugged, petted or approached in different situations (Reisner et al. 2007).

As most dog bites happen in familiar surroundings involving a familiar dog and a child victim, they represent a serious health and safety issue for both families and the pet dogs involved, because injury and trauma to humans risk destroying the human-dog bond, exposing dogs to relinquishment or euthanasia.

Why a Blue Dog?

In the last three decades, 'Prevent a bite' programmes mainly were aimed at the age group of 7 years and older and focussed on public safety rules, like how to behave when encountering an unfamiliar dog, and programmes intended to prevent bite accidents at home were non­existent at the time. They also traditionally attempted to teach how to recognize the dog’s body language. But young children score badly in discriminating dog body language and look mainly at the face of the dog to make their decisions: they will often confuse a frightening with a friendly dog (Lakestani et al. 2015).

To fill the gap in dog bite prevention strategies relating to age group (younger than 6 years) and context (at home situations), the Blue Dog team decided to create a dog bite prevention tool for families with young children: The Blue Dog.

The Blue Dog - A One Health Approach

Due to the complex nature of child-dog interactions, it was considered crucial to establish a multidisciplinary team. The professions involved in the project were veterinarians (general practitioners and behavioural vets), ethologists, child psychologists, paediatricians and teachers from the Royal College of Fine Arts University of Ghent.

In September 2003, Soraya Verbeke, a graduate from the College of Fine Arts, created the "Blue Dog figure." Being blue, the dog was not like any living dog. The teeth were visible at any moment to indicate that a dog, even being friendly, still had teeth and could represent a danger. The artist's idea was to transform computer graphics into an interactive programme with click animation. In that way, children would be able to choose a way of reacting by pressing an action button. The situation would develop depending upon the child's choice.

In order to explore the viewpoints on dog bite prevention, 52 people with relevant expertise in the field of dog bite prevention, child behaviour and dog behaviour were contacted. According to the feedback, 16 risk scenes and corresponding prevention messages were selected to include in the programme.

Even though there was a fair consensus on prevention messages from the respondents, it became clear that for the majority of risk situations, the message to the child would be to encourage "no" interaction, or "leave your dog alone." Advice was sought from experts in the field of communications and child psychology in how far it would be possible to make a no-interaction message acceptable and pleasant for children. The concept of the children's TV programme Sesame Street was used as a model. In this, educational messages are wrapped in an entertaining context, thus transforming the prevention­only screenplay into an edutainment tool.

In this way, the Blue Dog programme and printed parent guide focused on teaching parents and children to recognize potential risk situations that trigger dog bites in everyday household situations (De Keuster et al. 2005). These include resource guarding (such as food, bones and toys) or interactions (such as petting, hugging or kissing).

Scientific assessment of the programme showed that children of the target age group learnt from the Blue Dog scenes, and that parental input enhanced the performance of the child and improved the ability to retain the acquired knowledge of making safe choices in risk situations (Meints & De Keuster 2009).

Future and Outlook

The aim of The Blue Dog story has been to educate parents and children about the safest way to interact with their dog in a household setting, and according to research, children in the target age group learn from the Blue Dog Programme (Meints & De Keuster 2009). The aim of Blue Dog is also to create parents awareness in parents about age-specific child/dog behaviours that are considered to lead to potential risk situations, and so promote preventive strategies.

The Blue Dog should be considered as a first step on the way, in using a One Health approach to create a prevention tool, to be incorporated as part of a bigger prevention program in veterinary practice, human health care practices, schools and canine rescue centres.

In order to provide safe relationships between parents, children and their pet dog, veterinarians might need to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries and get in touch with those disciplines 'barking out loud' (Bykowsky et al. 2017). Our profession also might benefit of getting along with social sciences and those disciplines who investigate the human-dog relationship and the underlying dimensions that comprise the construct of dog companionship (Knight et al. 2015).

The Blue Dog has now reached a new stage: as CDs are no longer used and tablets have outnumbered laptops and desktops worldwide and have shown to be useful in patient education, our team aims to jump for the next leap: the Blue Dog App, making sure that young families will be able to find support in safer relationships between children and dogs, as it already is aimed in other domestic injury prevention fields (Chow et al. 2016).

Towards the future, our team hopes that integrated research projects between the veterinary, medical, psychological, communication and social sciences can be developed as a result of these efforts and produce real impact on One Health-related injury prevention challenges.


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Speaker Information
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T. Keuster, European Veterinary Specialist in Behavioural Medicine

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