Child and Parent Perspectives on the Responsible Care of Dogs, Safety Issues with Canines, and Behavioral Problems in Companion Dogs

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Introduction

In reviewing the literature on children and the family dog, we found few studies that collected data directly from children; this was particularly true for young children. To date, most attempts to investigate the family dog have relied on questionnaires administered to older children, on adults’ reminiscences about childhood experiences with dogs gathered through surveys or interviews, or on data gathered from parents.

We wanted to discuss dogs directly with children along three different dimensions, namely their: (1) concepts of responsible canine care, (2) understandings about behaviorally healthy interactions and safety rules, and (3) interpretations of canine behavioral issues and dog training. At the same time, we wanted to get more in-depth information from parents about their experiences with the family dog. Rather than repeat details of this research in every chapter that drew from that data base, this Appendix explains the study.

Throughout the Appendix, we refer readers to the relevant chapter where specific findings are reported. Within the book, we refer readers to this Appendix for further details about the study.

Study Purpose

Although there are numerous programs designed to teach young children to be kind to their companion animals, to accept responsibility for their pet’s care, to learn rules for safer interactions with dogs, or to encourage them to participate in a dog’s training, most of them are based on common sense rather than research.

For example, the dog bite prevention research consists mainly of emergency room statistics about how many children are bitten. Such after-the-fact information, while important, does not provide any guidance for designing prevention programs and community outreach projects of animal welfare groups.

Likewise, the reasons that people give for surrendering a family dog to a shelter have been tabulated and rank ordered; however, that does not offer any direction about how to avert some of these situations. The findings from this study assist in planning education programs for children and families by beginning with the issues that they have encountered and discussing commonly held misconceptions.

Based upon this information, it is then possible to infer some of the changes that need to be made when educating children and families about dogs. The purpose of this exploratory quantitative and qualitative investigation was to study four dimensions of young children’s interactions with dogs. These dimensions are the young child’s: (1) general interest in and experience with dogs, (2) knowledge of responsible dog care, (3) ability to interpret canine behavioral signals, and (4) ideas about problem behaviors in dogs kept as companion animals.

It is important to investigate these four aspects because they have implications both for the child’s well-being and for the dog’s welfare. A second purpose of the research was to study parents’/guardians’ perspectives on (1) previous and current experience with owned dog(s), (2) opinions about responsible dog care, (3) appraisal of their child’s understanding of safety rules for interacting with dogs, and (4) the reasons they give for surrendering or rehoming a dog.

Background

Four themes dominate the research literature on children and their pets: (1) understanding animals and their requirements from a biological perspective (Meyers 2007), (2) developing attitudes about the treatment of animals/preventing cruelty (Ascione 2005), (3) measuring the strength of the emotional attachments that children form with companion animals (Melson 2003, 2008; Poresky et al. 1988), and (4) building empathy through humane education activities (Daly and Morton 2006; Thompson and Gullone 2003; Mariti et al. 2011; Williams et al. 2010).

The overwhelming majority of previous studies have tended to focus on children old enough to complete a survey and most studies have included all types of animals kept as pets (Anderson 2007; Zasloff 1996). Based on a thorough review of the literature, we arrived at three dimensions of young children’s knowledge about and perceptions of dogs that were underrepresented in the research literature.

These three dimensions are discussed below. The first of aspect that was investigated was the child’s understanding of a dog’s requirements and responsible care. When families acquire a dog, 58% do so because they believe it will “teach the child responsibility” (American Pet Products Association 2011–2012); however, research would suggest that the adults—most often, mothers—are the ones who actually perform the caregiving routines for family dogs and train them (Smith 1983).

The young child’s ability to observe and emulate responsible caregiving for the dog is a crucial, yet largely unexplored, aspect of successfully integrating a dog into the household (see Chap. 4). We sought to examine child/canine interactions, expressed in children’s own words, as a route to understanding children’s bonds with companion dogs (Chap. 2) and the formation of behaviorally healthy relationships (Chap. 3).

A second dimension of the child-companion animal bond that has not been adequately researched is the child’s ability to correctly interpret canine behavioral cues as a way to help them interact more safely with dogs in their homes and communities. This is a major mission of many leading organizations–including the American Humane Association (AHA) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)–and, although there is an abundance of dog bite prevention literature, it tends to be based on practical experience rather than research.

This study made a contribution to the literature by simultaneously examining dog safety issues from the children’s and parents’ perspectives (see Chap. 13). A third aspect of this study is virtually absent in the research; it has to do with the child’s perceptions of problem behaviors in dogs and naïve ideas about how dogs should be socialized and trained (see Chap. 4). Various studies have looked at children’s interest in dogs, the time that they spend with dogs, the types of activities that they prefer, and the child’s self-reported bond with the dog (Anderson 2007).

Yet an extensive review of the research did not uncover a single study that went beyond these important issues to explore children’s ideas about problem behaviors of dogs and how to address them. This aspect is important because it not only influences interactions with dogs during childhood but also can shape values, attitudes, and behaviors across the lifespan, thereby affecting the next generation of adult dog owners (Chap. 15). Our study is unique in that it examined canine behavior and training not only from parents’ perspectives but also from children’s point of view. Many times, behavioral issues from a dog lead to it being rehomed, taken to a shelter, or abandoned—an outcome that can be a devastating loss for a child who has formed a bond with a dog. Thus, dog training, or the lack thereof, often has serious consequences for children and their dogs.

Participants

During 2015–2016, members of the research team made direct contact with families who met the selection criteria of owning at least one dog and having a child or children between the ages of 4 and 14. All participants were volunteers who were willing to give approximately 45 min of their time to the child being interviewed and at least one parent willing to complete a detailed survey.

The research team was successful in recruiting 51 families who met the inclusion criteria; 46 parents were included because four of them filled out a separate survey on more than one of their children and one survey was incomplete. There was no attempt to get equal numbers of male or female children or equal numbers within age groups.

Rather than attempting to differentiate concerning the strength of the child and family’s bond with the dog, the team recognized that parents/guardians and children willing to devote time to the study were more likely to think that their family dog was important.

Thus, the characteristics of this sample were not assumed to be representative of all dog owners; rather, we were working with families who, for the most part, regarded their dogs as important to their families. All adult and participants were from the Eastern United States, primarily from Western Pennsylvania. The study purpose was shared with families prior to scheduling the interviews with the children and administering the survey with one parent of each child.

Ethical Treatment of Human Subjects

This study did include minor children; however, the information being requested was not sensitive or intrusive. In fact, studies have indicated that young children are eager to talk about their pets (Tipper 2011).

Minor children were included with their parents’/guardians’ consent and the child’s assent. The child gave assent by marking a page with a yes (smiling face) or no (frowning face) in response to the question, “I would like to talk with you about dogs and about your dog. Would you like to do that?” The research protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Boards of the employers of the university faculty members associated with the project: Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh.

When the children were interviewed, the parent/guardian was within close proximity completing the survey. There were seven interviewers, all of whom were experienced public school teachers/ graduate assistants or college/university faculty members with the clearances necessary to work in a school that are required by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Confidentiality was maintained by assigning pseudonyms to the children. Each interview with the child was audio recorded with parent/guardian/child consent.

Afterwards, each interviewer listened to the recorded interview and typed a transcript of the interview. These tapes kept the identity of the family confidential and were stored and secured in the interviewers’ home offices.

Conclusion

There is a dearth of research that includes the perspectives of children on the family dog. Relatively little is known about parents’ concepts of responsible care, their reasons for rehoming a dog, and the safety rules they impart to their children.

Without this valuable information, many well-intended efforts to promote behaviorally healthy relationships between families and their dogs may falter. In addition, dog bite prevention initiatives set forth by individuals and groups may be less effective when the perspectives of two key stakeholders—children and families— are not adequately addressed. There is widespread agreement among the experts— humane educators, dog trainers, animal shelter workers, dog breeders, and representatives of animal welfare organizations—that many of the problems that surface surrounding dogs are preventable.

We sought to provide some additional focus to those efforts by listening to many different children and parents as they reflected on their own dogs, the network of other dogs they know, and their ideas about the species in general.

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