Beware of dog: Young kids struggle to spot signs of canine aggression

JYVÄSKYLÄ, Finland — Many dogs appear adorable from afar but can turn terrifying quickly when someone approaches them. Picking up on subtle facial changes and expressions in dogs can help people of all ages avoid unwanted canine encounters. Now, new research out of Finland suggests both more years on this planet (being older) and owning a pet dog have a connection to a better ability to recognize dog emotions from facial expressions.

In a study involving both children and adults, four-year-olds weren’t as successful as six-year-olds and adults at correctly reading dog facial expressions, especially when it came to signs of aggression.

Recognizing emotions from facial expressions is a key part of nonverbal communication between different species, study authors from the University of Jyväskylä explain. Earlier research has suggested that three to five-year-olds may be less capable of recognizing dogs’ emotions than older kids and adults. However, more research is helping to clarify the precise relationships between age, prior dog experience, and the capacity to recognize dog emotions.

So, to research these nuanced topics, study leader Heini Törnqvist and her team conducted a study involving 34 adults, 28 four-year-olds, and 31 six-year-olds. Each child viewed images on a computer screen of various dog and human faces displaying different expressions and was then asked to rate each expression’s level of happiness, anger, positivity, negativity, and emotional arousal.

Dog kissing cute little girl
(© fizkes –

In line with earlier research, scientists found that people of all ages and prior dog experience (having had a pet dog in their family) provided roughly similar ratings of the images. However, some statistical differences between the groups emerged.

Regardless of pet dog experience, adults and older kids (six-year-olds) correctly recognized aggressive dog faces more often than four-year-olds. Meanwhile, four and six-year-olds showed similar abilities when recognizing human expressions.

Compared to adults, kids rated aggressive dog expressions as being more positive and having a lower level of arousal. Participants with no pet dog experience rated aggressive dog expressions as more positive than others with dog experience. Compared to aggressive human expressions, aggressive dog expressions were rated by kids as being more positive and displaying lower arousal.

All in all, study authors say this work indicates people’s capacity to identify dog emotions, particularly aggression, may improve with age. This may stem from more experience with dogs and the maturation of brain structures that recognize expressions. The team says more research should be conducted to build on these findings, which may one day help inform efforts to improve the quality of interactions between children and dogs.

“Aggressive dog expressions were especially rated incorrectly by 4-year-olds, and they rated aggressive dogs as significantly more positive and lower in arousal than adults,” the study authors conclude in a media release.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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