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Animals

Virtual dog sheds fresh light on dog attacks on kids

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DAVE. (DogsTrust/ Virtual Engineering Center/ University of Liverpool via SWNS)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

A virtual Labrador named Dave has shed fresh light on the growing threat of dog attacks on children.

Scientists have harnessed the power of the immersive technology to simulate bites - and help Britons stay safe.

Named DAVE (Dog Assisted Virtual Environment), it could hold the key to reducing the tens of millions of injuries suffered each year.

They are a public health concern, often leading to physical and psychological trauma in patients.

Lead author James Oxley, a PhD student at Liverpool University, said: "In England, hospital admission data indicates the frequency in which people are ‘bitten or struck by a dog,' is increasing.

"In 1998 and 2018 dog bite figures per 100,000 were 6.34 and 14.99 respectively."

A pilot study investigated human behavior towards DAVE and interpretation of non-reactive and aggressive behaviors during an exploration task.

In experiments, 16 students recruited via an online survey were exposed to the two different modes.

They were randomly allocated to an aggressive followed by a non-reactive model (group AN) or vice versa (group NA).

"Participants moved overall significantly closer to the non-reactive dog compared to the aggressive dog," Oxley said.

"Descriptions of the aggressive dog given by participants often used motivational or emotional terms.

"Participants appeared to perceive the dog as realistic and behaved and interacted with the dog model in a manner that might be expected during an interaction with a live dog."

The objective was to test the recognition of dog behavior and associated human approach and avoidance behavior.

"This study also highlights the promising results for the potential future use of virtual reality in behavioral research, education and psychological treatment," Oxley said.

When participants were asked if they noticed anything about the behavior of the dog, they most often referred to the movement of its body as a whole or part of the body.

Participants frequently used adjectives to describe the emotion or motivation of behaviors of the dog rather than describing actual behavioral signals.

In the non-reactive scenario, five noted the tail compared to one in the aggressive scenario.

Regarding individuals that were 'bitten,' all three stated seeing the dog showing its teeth and that it indicated a threat or warning.

Two reported noticing the earlier lip lick. Only one provided an answer as to what it meant, commenting 'not sure, maybe wanted to wet its mouth.'

All participants stated they heard some form of dog vocalization during the aggressive exploration scenario. Most reported vocalizations including growling or barking.

"Participants who moved more slowly towards the aggressive dog tended also to stop earlier and at a greater distance from the dog," Oxley said.

"This could potentially indicate that either certain individuals are more cautious or can recognize relevant earlier signals more readily and therefore approach at a slower speed."

He said: "This study tested a range of objective and subjective measures which were modulated by the dog models non-reactive and aggressive conditions.

"Participants moved significantly closer to the non-reactive dog model compared to the aggressive dog model, indicating they perceived it as less of a threat to them, as supported by their reported interpretations.

"Participants most often focused on body movements when describing behaviors and often stated emotional or motivational justifications for behaviors seen, and also noticed vocalizations.

"Participants appeared to perceive the dog as realistic and act in a manner similar to what might be expected during an interaction with a live dog."

Dog bites to humans make up most bite injuries seen in emergency departments in developed countries.

"Globally, it is estimated that tens of millions of injuries occur each year as a result of dog bites," Oxley said.

"The tripling of adult admissions (from 4.76 in 1998 to 14.99 in 2018) were found to be the reason for this increase as bites to children were consistently high.

"Two age groups were most frequently admitted due to dog bites including children (1–19) and adults aged between 40 and 49."

Hospital figures are likely to be a vast underreporting of actual dog bite incidence, he pointed out.

For example, dog bite data is not consistently reported at GP surgeries, walk-in centers, and accident and emergency departments.

Sometimes an injury is deemed too minor to warrant medical attention, such as bruising or a superficial wound.

Injuries from serious dog bites have soared in the past year, with untrained pets bought during lockdown being blamed.

The number of people in England admitted to hospital due to canine attacks rose by almost 20 percent, to 8,655, according to NHS data.

Roughly 600 children aged under four have been bitten badly in the last 12 months - up from 565 the year before.

Major charities have warned the public against approaching dogs if they are "frightened or unhappy."

Dr. Samantha Gaines, dog welfare expert with the RSPCA, said: "Signs include showing their teeth, growling, putting their ears back and avoiding eye contact."

The reason for the rise is said to be pandemic-related.

"There was a boom in dog adoption during lockdown, and most of those dogs would have missed out on socialization, which is key for controlling aggression," Gaines said.

Oxley said: "To prevent dog bites and reduce the impact for potential victims, owners, dogs and local services (e.g. police, hospitals) we must first understand two contributing factors.

"Firstly, the ability of people to recognize and interpret dog behavior signals and, secondly, the behavior of people directly before dog bites occur."

The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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