Can robotic dogs replace therapy animals?

Can robotic dogs replace therapy animals?
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All of us who live with dogs know how much they benefit us. The main ones are camaraderie, love, affection and a feeling of calm and happiness. Numerous research projects have studied these real and measurable effects and have unequivocally demonstrated the positive impact dogs have on our health and well-being.

Recently, some players in the healthcare world are taking the concept even further by studying the benefits robotic animals can have for the elderly. Research reveals that this traditionally isolated social group can derive great comfort from a robotic “pet”. Although sometimes expensive, they have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and reduce the need for pain and behavior medication.

In his column of September 26, 2020 “The New Old Age” of New York Times, Paula Span considered this phenomenon:

Long before the pandemic, loneliness and social disconnection were recognized as public health issues for older people, linked to significantly poorer mental and physical health. Now, their risk of serious illness from the coronavirus has deprived many seniors of the stimulation and comfort of personal visits, cultural events, volunteering, and even grocery shopping.


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“Covid has created a strange world where no one can kiss anyone,” said Laurie Orlov, veteran industry analyst and founder of the newsletter. Watch on aging and health technologies. “The idea of ​​an animal that you can hold – a tactile experience – somewhat transcends that.”

Harsh times often inspire innovation, and a handful of institutions – including hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities – have embraced the use of robotic pets as companions for their patients. Since the Food and Drug Administration classifies the robot as a biofeedback device, Medicare will cover its purchase and use by therapists. (We’re not sure if this applies to real live therapy pets as well; if not, it should.)

In one study, patients who were paired with a robotic animal were followed over a six-month period. Staff reported that the robots – “who acquired names and, during the holidays, party outfits – helped calm residents, increase social behavior, and improve mood and appetite.”

At the high end, priced at $ 6,120, is the PARO therapy robot (above), a popular model from Japan, which mimics a baby harp seal in appearance and behavior.

The robotic seal pup has sensors that register touch, light, sound, temperature and posture, and can sense people and the environment. For example, its light sensor allows PARO to recognize light and dark. The touch sensor allows the robot to respond to a caress and the posture sensor to be held. Its audio sensor allows it to recognize the direction of voice and words such as name, greetings and praise.

A much cheaper (and simpler) device sells for between $ 65 and $ 130 and is produced by Ageless Innovation, a spin-off of Hasbro. They offer dogs and cats that look a lot like traditional plush toys, but are specially designed and marketed for families who “are looking for engaging products that promote meaningful bonding through play, joy and happiness…”. These battery-powered animals contain built-in sensors and speakers that allow devices to interact at a basic level. Features include a soothing heartbeat, realistic coat, and authentic barks that respond to the human voice.

Robotic pet companions were initially tested on adults with dementia, with the idea that those with reduced cognitive ability would accept robots as real animals. A 2017 randomized controlled trial that evaluated the effectiveness of PARO pets with these people found that animatronic seals were useful to those involved and, by extension, their families and the institutions that cared for them.

Later, when trials were conducted with older people who were not the same impaired but suffered from loneliness, positive results were also reported. It seems that having a beneficial relationship with a robotic animal doesn’t require a suspended sense of reality.

These relationships have been compared to the relationship one may have had with a favorite doll or soft toy as a child – which for many has served as a beloved companion, confidante, and source of solace.

Despite their growing popularity and positive reviews, they do have their reviews as shown in Time:

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has a long history of studying how older people use technology. “The promise is that he will become a companion and you have a relationship with him,” she said of a robotic animal. “As if there was reciprocity. There is no reciprocity. It’s a bunch of bits and bytes. “

Then there is Sister Imelda Maurer, who has extensive experience in caring for the elderly, who does not like the idea of ​​cheating on people with dementia and may think of robots as real pets. “There is an element of ethical dishonesty about this,” she said.

Maurer and Turkle both point out that enthusiasm for robots has highlighted the many failures in the way our society cares for the elderly, whether in understaffed facilities or isolated in their homes.

Most people have embraced the value of therapeutic visit dogs, many of which are rescued from animal shelters and trained specifically to work as therapy dogs. While the practice has grown steadily, the need unfortunately exceeds the supply of volunteers. As long as it does, robotic pets may be the best thing to do.

While some may see them as a step towards increased reliance on machines and computers for emotional well-being, it is difficult to discuss the beneficial results. As we face a growing and increasingly difficult social and medical challenge – providing our elderly population with quality care – they can be a valuable tool.

Have you experienced any positive or negative effects from a robotic animal interacting with a family member or friend? We would love to talk to you about it!

Photo credits

Courtesy of Joy for All / Ageless Innovation Facebook (top, bottom)

Courtesy of (middle)


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