Prof Developing Video Game Aimed at Preventing Dog Bites

April 08, 2010 - News Release

A University of Guelph researcher is studying whether a video game can prevent dog bites by teaching children how to safely interact with their furry friends.

Psychology professor Barbara Morrongiello has teamed up with researchers in Belgium to develop a software program called The Blue Dog, which helps children understand a dog’s behaviour and recognize when it’s friendly and wants to play or when it wants to be left alone.

Many dog bites happen in the home and are triggered by an interaction initiated by the child, said Morrongiello, who is director of U of G’s Child Development Research Unit.

“Dog bites are considered a major issue because when they do happen to children, they tend to be severe. Young children are similar in size to dogs, so when a dog bites, it often bites on the face or neck. Despite this, there is little out there in terms of effective educational tools to prevent dog bites.”

The video game teaches children how to behave around dogs by giving them different scenarios such as a dog eating, playing with its favourite toy or hiding under a table. The child is then asked to choose how to respond to the dog’s behaviour. If the child makes an unsafe decision, the dog shows its teeth and growls.

“We’re trying to make the child aware of the dog’s behaviour and, based on that, whether it’s a good time to interact with the dog,” said Morrongiello. “Children assume their own dog won’t hurt them, but a dog is still an animal. They need to know how to read their dog because a dog can communicate only through its behaviour.”

The software program also teaches children how to behave around dogs, she added.

“They are taught not to play with a dog’s toys or to hold treats above their head because their pet might jump at them, which could knock them down.”

Morrongiello’s study of the effectiveness of the video game involves children from ages three to five.

Before introducing the game, researchers evaluate what a child already knows about dog safety by presenting photos of dogs in different situations and asking whether it would be safe to play with the animal. They also act out different scenarios using a dollhouse and figurines.

The child and parent are then given a copy of the video game to play at home. When they return to the lab a few weeks later, researchers again evaluate the child’s dog-safety knowledge to see if it has improved.

Morrongiello and her team are using the same procedure to also test a video game aimed at teaching children about fire safety and how to respond in a house fire.

Children playing this game are also asked to make decisions based on given scenarios that change each time they play. In one case, for example, the child will see smoke and the doorknob will be hot, so the best choice is to not open the door but to go to the window and signal for help. In another scenario, the doorknob is cool, so the best choice is to quickly leave the room and stay low to the ground.

Although fire-safety programs are currently offered in schools, most information is given in a group and there is no evaluation of what an individual child understands or how he or shell will react in a fire situation, said Morrongiello.

“The video game is more effective because each child has to decide how to respond and with repeated playing once can see improvements in the child’s understanding. Video games are also a great teaching tool because they are fun and familiar to children.”

If these video games are found to be effective, they will likely be distributed nationally by Safe Kids Canada to children through daycares, schools and other community sources, she added.

Morrongiello and her research team are still looking for study participants. Interested families can contact the Child Development Research Unit at 519-824-4120, Ext. 55033, or

Prof. Barbara Morrongiello
Department of Psychology
519-824-4120, Ext. 53086

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or

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