As a dog trainer, one of the main things I tell people is that dogs are not robots. What I mean is that, no matter how well trained our canine companions might be, we cannot expect dogs to be perfect, and to assume otherwise sets up unrealistic expectations. My favorite thing about sharing my life with dogs is that their very essence is joyful imperfection.
They’re also (and maybe somehow because of this) good for us. Canine companionship can relieve stress, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. They also help to keep us physically active, and thus healthier both mentally and physically. Most of us have seen viral videos of the robotic dogs that scientists and the military are working to build. Some of these move like dogs and are inspired by real dogs. But they are distinctly not doglike. That said, robotic dogs are much more accessible and less like science fiction than you might think.
Enter the Robot Dog
Electronic pets are becoming increasingly common, and no, we don’t mean the keychain Giga Pets of the 1990s (though those are making a comeback as well). Joy for All Companion Pets are “lifelike” robotic dogs (and cats) specifically designed for seniors. These programed plushies are designed to give a sense of companionship and comfort to senior citizens, especially those living with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Companion Pet dogs cost around $130 and can be purchased online through retailers like Amazon and pharmacies like CVS. Unlike a traditional stuffed animal, the Companion Pets are interactive—they have a heartbeat and respond to human touch and interaction.
Ted Fischer, coounder and CEO of Ageless Innovation, the company behind the Joy for All Companion Pets, explained that its robotic dogs were “developed with extensive input from older adults” and designed “to look, sound, and feel just like real puppies—without the responsibilities of pet ownership.” Fischer says that “older adults want realism, interactive two-way companionship, and pets.”
Essentially, they were designed to be lots of people’s idea of what a perfect dog would be. Joy for All’s Companion Pet comes in two varieties: the Golden Pup and the newly announced (but not yet for sale) Freckled Pup. Fischer notes that these robotic dogs “provide a similar type of warmth and love that real pets offer their owners, all without the mess or time-consuming responsibilities.” They have doglike fur, make realistic puppy sounds, and are somewhat responsive to people near them. “The Companion Pet pup reacts to the sound of its owner’s voice and responds to their touch, much like a real puppy. This two-way interaction helps create a personally rich experience that can bring fun, joy, and friendship to older adults,” explained Fischer.
That interaction is key to fostering the relationship between seniors and their Companion Pets. Fischer notes that many people name their robotic dogs and form attachments to them. Beyond that, the relationship each person forms with their robotic dog is unique to their cognitive abilities and their caretaking team. Some treat the dogs as though they are real puppies; others understand them to be robotic stuffed animals. Either way, they seem to benefit from the companionship of these robotic dogs.
Are Robot Dogs Ready to be Therapy Dogs?
In pre-Covid times, trained and certified therapy dogs visited hospitals and nursing homes, along with their owner/handlers, to entertain and emotionally support patients and residents. Significant research has shown that these therapy dogs benefit the people they visit in a variety of ways.
Beyond being a link to the outside world and providing a welcome distraction from a medical environment, petting dogs can support mental stimulation that assists Alzheimer’s patients with recalling memories. Therapy dogs can also serve as ice breakers between doctors, medical staff, and patients. They can also help patients relax during physical therapy exercises and offer gentle motivation. Some patients can even develop similar kinds of relationships and benefits from engaging with robotic dogs.