Your next therapy dog could be a biomimetic robot

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  • Dogs have proved to provide excellent emotional support for many people
  • However, in some instances, having a dog is not an option, such as due to allergies
  • Researchers found that the solution may be in the form of 'robot dogs'

Previous studies have shown that animals can provide emotional support as they assist in reducing symptoms of anxiety and improving one’s mood. Our four-legged, furry friends’ may be replaced by robots, according to a recent study by researchers of the University of Portsmouth.

Dr Leanne Proops who supervised the study said: “We know that real dogs can provide calming and enjoyable interactions for children – increasing their feelings of well-being, improving motivation and reducing stress.

"This preliminary study has found that biomimetic robots – robots that mimic animal behaviours – may be a suitable replacement in certain situations, and there are some benefits to using them over a real dog.”

Programmable pups

The researchers conducted their study at a secondary school, where they had real therapy dogs, as well as a robot dog, interact with children aged 11 to 12 years. Before interacting with the dogs, the children were asked to complete questionnaires on their beliefs and attitudes towards dogs and robots. They then engaged in two free-play sessions with an interactive MiRo-E biomimetic robot and a real therapy dog.

The researchers stated that: “Behavioural observations of social interaction, initiation and reaction behaviours by the child and dog/robot showed that participants spent a similar amount of time engaging in positive social touch with the robot and the dog, but overall more time interacting with the robot.”

Although the children spent more time interacting with the robot overall, in a self-report they expressed that they preferred engaging with the living dog. There were, however, also positive emotions and enjoyment associated with interactions with the robots. 

Good news for those who are not fond of dogs

In the present study, the participants preferred sessions with real dogs, but there are many people who are allergic to, or even afraid of dogs. The concept of biomimetic robots resolves these issues by eliminating possible discomfort that could be caused by real dogs for some people.

The researchers also noted that pet owners often miss signs of stress and anxiety in dogs, and they suggested that concerns around animal welfare can be improved through the use of social robots. 

“This is a small-scale study, but the results show that interactive robotic animals could be used as a good comparison to live dogs in research, and a useful alternative to traditional animal therapy,” Dr Proops stated.

READ | During Covid-19 lockdowns, our furry friends become lifesavers

READ | How four-legged friends help buffer loss of a spouse

READ | A silver lining for foster, adopted pets – and their people – during coronavirus pandemic

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