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BARK May Lead to Fewer Bites

Pilot study confirms that education increases children's awareness of safe dog bite prevention measures

Pilot study confirms that education increases children's awareness of safe dog bite prevention measures

"Stop, Drop, and Roll": It's a mantra most people learn when they're only three feet tall—and remember until the day they die. The visit from the local fireman in his shiny red truck is one of the most memorable experiences of elementary school, and is undoubtedly partly responsible for the success of fire safety programs.

But what if teachers and humane educators could achieve similar success with dog bite prevention programs? What if safe behavior around dogs could become almost second nature to people—as automatic as knowing when to pick up the phone and dial 911?

At 4.5 to 4.7 million a year, the incidence of dog bites in the United States is high enough to warrant the integration of dog bite prevention programs in the elementary school curriculum. Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death and disability among children less than 14 years old, a fact that has led schools to teach kids about avoiding potentially dangerous activities; typical prevention programs include those that educate students about "stranger danger," HIV/AIDS, illegal drug and alcohol use, and even the injury potential presented by improperly carried backpacks. But so far few schools have taken the step of making dog bite prevention a similar priority, writes Ian Brett Spiegel in a study published recently in Anthrozoös (Vol. 13, No. 3, 2000).

To address this gap in safety and humane education, Spiegel launched a pilot study three years ago to measure the effectiveness of a dog bite prevention program in seven elementary schools in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. His findings are included in the first-ever published report that attempts to gauge the impact of a school-based dog bite prevention program.

Spiegel undertook the project as part of his master's thesis for the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health; he also received support from The HSUS, where he worked as an intern. Calling his program "BARK (Be Aware, Responsible, and Kind)," Spiegel created a workbook and an activity book for young students. Among the other materials he used were a coloring book originally developed for the SPCA of Texas and a 15-minute, professionally produced video that teaches children how to be safe with animals.

Study participants included 486 second, third, and fourth graders. Interaction with the students was divided into three sessions. During the first, 15-minute session, students responded to a questionnaire inquiring about their past history with dogs and their understanding of dog behavior and body language. Spiegel's preliminary findings were as follows:

  • Nearly half (47.3 percent) of the participants reported they had been bitten by a dog in the past; 80.7 percent of those victims were familiar with the dog who had bitten them, and 60.5 percent reported they had bled or become bruised from the bite injury.
  • Slightly less than half the students participating said they had a dog, and 79.4 percent of students who did not have a dog indicated they wanted one.
  • The majority of students liked to play with dogs (91.2 percent), and most children said they loved dogs (88.3 percent).
  • Even though almost half the students had been bitten, only 7 percent of the entire sample reported being afraid of dogs.
  • Less than one third of the children who had previously been bitten indicated having a fear of dogs. Fear did not appear to be gender-specific, nor did the likelihood of being bitten.
  • Children who owned a dog were about twice as likely to have been bitten by a dog.

Two weeks after administering the initial questionnaire, Spiegel devoted a second, hour-long session to education, presenting the concept of BARK and helping children through the workbook. The children viewed a 15-minute video and then engaged in role-playing with life-size toy dogs; they learned how to "stand like a tree" or "lie like a log or rock" when a dog runs up to them. At the end of the session, Spiegel distributed supplemental materials children could take home and share with their families.

After presenting an hour-long dog bite prevention lesson to the students, Spiegel tried to reinforce what he had taught by sending children home with supplemental materials.Included in the packet were these and other pages from a coloring book called "Be Bite Free"; the book was originally created by Gail DeLay and Ann Ramsbottom for the SPCA of Texas.

Returning for a third session after two more weeks had passed, Spiegel gave the children a post-education questionnaire to determine the effectiveness of the program. The answers showed that students' knowledge of dog behavior and dog bite prevention methods had improved dramatically:

  • Initially, only 10.6 percent of second graders knew that neighborhood and family dogs are most responsible for dog bite-related injuries; after the education session, that number jumped to 41.4 percent. For third graders, the number rose from 9.1 to 54 percent. And for fourth graders, the figure went from 5.6 to 65.4 percent.
  • In their responses to the pre-education questionnaire, 65 percent of second graders thought it was not safe to pet a sleeping dog; that number jumped to 95.3 percent after the education session. For third graders, the numbers jumped from 51.7 to 90 percent. For fourth graders, the level rose from 54.4 to 86.6 percent.
  • Of the second graders, 75.6 percent initially believed they should stand still and remain quiet in the face of a strange dog running at them; after Spiegel taught them, 94.5 percent of second graders believed this. Third and fourth graders had a similar increase in knowledge.
  • The number of children responding that they would run from a dog dropped dramatically from the pre- to post-education stages; the percentage of second graders went from 14.6 to 1.6, the percentage of third graders went from 18.9 to 0.7, and the percentage of fourth graders went from 18.4 to 1.6.
  • In the earlier questionnaire, about half the children believed they should not pet a dog when he's eating; in the later questionnaire, this number jumped to between 80 and 90 percent.
  • Also in the pre-education questionnaire, students often confused the warning signs of scared dogs with those of angry dogs. But in the post-education questionnaire, the correct responses to the question about canine body language increased substantially—from 80.5 percent to 96.1 percent for second graders, and from 80.8 percent to 99.2 percent for fourth graders.
  • More than 70 percent of the students responded that they had shared the materials from the program with their families, and data analysis indicated that 66 percent of the students worked on the supplemental materials after the education session.

Both children and teachers reported they'd enjoyed the sessions, and results indicated that eight-year-old children in the third and fourth grades are the ideal candidates for such a program, writes Spiegel. But, he adds, the integration of a dog bite prevention curriculum requires community backing, funding, parental cooperation, and sanctioning by local schools. And even with programs in place, communities would still need to go even further to address the problem, Spiegel writes. An increase in knowledge does not necessarily translate into a change in behavior; other programs that support the dog bite prevention message need to be put into place in communities. "In addition to effective dog bite prevention programs (targeting children), there must be greater public awareness, increased promotion of responsible dog ownership, enforced impartial laws, and enhanced animal control systems," Spiegel concludes. "This would help to reduce the problem of severe and deadly dog bite injuries to children, as well as help to safeguard the longstanding, beneficial, and rewarding relationship between dogs and humans."


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