Study Shows Robot Dogs Help Nursing Home Residents As Much As Real Dogs

RobotA sophisticated robotic dog could be a good companion for your dog-loving grandmother who can’t care for a living pet, a new Saint Louis University study suggests.

The researchers compared how residents of three nursing homes interacted with Sparky, a living, medium-sized mixed breed, and Aibo, a dog robot once manufactured by Sony.

“The most surprising thing is they worked almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments,” said William A. Banks, M.D., professor of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University.

“For those people who can’t have a living pet but who would like to have a pet, robotics could address the issue of companionship,” Banks said.

To test whether residents connected better with Sparky or Aibo, researchers divided a total of 38 nursing home residents into three groups. All were asked questions to assess their level of loneliness. One group saw Sparky once a week for 30 minutes, another group had similar visits with Aibo, and a control group saw neither.

During visits, Marian Banks, Banks’ wife and co-researcher, brought Sparky or Aibo into a resident’s room and placed the pet companion near the resident. Both pets interacted with residents — wagging their tails and responding to the people they visited.

After seven weeks, all residents were asked questions about how lonely they felt and how attached they were to Sparky or Aibo.

The residents who received visits from real and artificial pooches felt less lonely and more attached to their canine attention-givers than those who got visits from neither.

There was no statistical difference between whether the real or robotic dog did a better job easing loneliness and fostering attachments.

Source: Houston Chronicle

Photo: Saint Louis University

9 Responses to “Study Shows Robot Dogs Help Nursing Home Residents As Much As Real Dogs”

  1. furmom says:

    Do you mean to say all these years I’ve put up with hair on the furniture and muddy paw prints on the floor, all those hours of dog walking and obedience training, were for no use? I could have just had a robot, who would at least not wake me from sleep to go outside and admire the moonlight and deer grazing. Who knew? Do these poor people, who are so lonely they’d warm up to a robot sleep with it too? Does this robo-dog warm their feet on a cold night? How many lonely people do you think would go out walking their robot and socializing with the neighbors? Lonely people also spend a lot of time in front of the TV too, that doesn’t mean it’s just as good as a chat over coffee with friends. Will people cry over Robo-Rufus when his mechanics finally wear out for good? Will they bury him lovingly and ache to hear his quiet sleeping breath at night?

  2. furmom says:

    Come to think of it, I can see an important role for robot pets. For those owners who can’t be bothered to care for another living being, or those demonstrating neglect or abuse of their pet, instead of ignoring the problem or banning them from owning pets for two years(after which they are free to abuse again), a court could order they must only own a robo-pet. That way certain types of people could have the pleasure of owning/neglecting or even abusing their pet, but wouldn’t be harming a living creature. I could go for that plan.

  3. Doni says:

    If you haven’t read the whole story, click on the link to read the whole thing.

    I have real mixed feelings about this story. My first reaction is to be very pissed that anyone would insinuate that a robot could come anywhere close to giving the feelings of love and bonding that a real dog does. I then have feelings of concern that places who are not familiar with therapy dogs will use the study to justify not allowing therapy dogs into the facility and then just getting a few robot dogs that they would bring around once a week. I then thought about if I were in a place where I could not have any animals how would I react to a robot dog. It would certainly bring up memories of my companions of the past and it might even make me feel closer to their spirits and their presence (which I do believe they hang around us and watch over us after they have passed over.) I can’t imagine snuggling up to one of these at night, I’ld have to have a stuffed one for that. If they truly are programmed as well as the guy says they are, then maybe it would be a good alternative. I can’t imagine that it would replace the joy I would feel at the visits from a real dog. I would be curious to see if the people who responded positively to the robot had ever had an animal companion. I would also like to see a study where they had visits from both the robot and the real dog and then ask them if one or the other was more comforting to them.

  4. Don Earl says:

    Three groups of 12 is hardly a statistical universe.

    In the mean time, by any chance were both the robo dog and the real dog accompanied by people? Do you suppose an old person, lonely from a lack of visitors, would be just as happy seeing some half-wit with a robo dog as they would be seeing a real person?


  5. Squeezit says:

    Well, of course the robot dog warms its master’s feet at night. …with LAZERS.

  6. Max says:

    geez - the ultimate answer to mandatory spay and neuter……

    Don - I’ve spent time visiting a loved one a nursing home - some of the residents would be delighted with a visitor bringing in a turnip, so long as the visitor also said ‘hello’.

  7. mikken says:

    Oh, I don’t know…my great grandmother had a wind up mechanical bird music box thing that she loved. She said that it reminded her of a canary she had some years back and she loved to hear him sing.

    When she was down, she asked us to wind up her bird for her (she couldn’t do it herself anymore) and have him “sing”. The mechanical bird would flap and bob and move its beak while the music played.

    She was in no condition to care for a pet, but her little mechanical bird brought her some pleasure.

    For folks whose only company is the radio or television and they are not physically able to tend a live pet, something mechanical to interact with might help them fight depression and keep them mentally together for longer than nothing at all.

    And should these folks die or become very ill, there’s no live animal suffering for that loss/lack of care.

    Are mechanical pets a good idea for everyone? Of course not. But in some circumstances, they may be a good idea.

  8. NH says:

    I’d rather have the real thing - nothing like smelly breath, wet kisses and dog farts to keep you young. :)

  9. Linda's Cats says:

    Mikken, great point.

    I imagine someone with Alzheimer’s for example, wanting something to come when called, or getting teh sensation of feeding something to reward it for a trick… but these people couldn’t be trusted with a live animal as a permanent pet… it’s an interesting solution.

    And the TV/Conversation comparison was quite apt, i think. If you have fear of others, or are seriously incapable of interaction with people; or if you live out in the middle of nowhere (prior to internet, i suppose) then teh tv was replacement “human interaction” and did stave off some aspects of depression, loneliness, and isolation. but it’s not a “fix”. just a “bandaid”.

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