Your next therapy dog could be a biomimetic robot

Having an animal as a companion can be helpful for dealing with a whole range of psychological and physical health issues, especially among children. But not everyone is able to keep a pet. Now, a new study shows that spending time with a robotic dog as a companion can bring many of the same benefits as spending time with a real dog.

The research, performed at the University of Portsmouth, is published in the International Journal of Social Robotics. It found that when a group of 11- and 12-year-old children spent two sessions with the biomimetic MiRo-E robot dog, they experienced many of the same positive emotions as when they spent time with a real therapy dog.

The researchers point out the potential benefits of robot therapy dogs for those who have allergies to animals or who are scared of dogs. Dr Leanne Proops, who supervised the study, said in a statement, “We know that real dogs can provide calming and enjoyable interactions for children — increasing their feelings of wellbeing, improving motivation, and reducing stress.

MiRo-E biomimetic robot along with therapy dog Tallulah
MiRo-E biomimetic robot along with therapy dog Tallulah University of Portsmouth

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

Dogs are the most popular therapy animals because they are sociable and can be well trained. They also have many requirements, like needing regular exercise and needed to be cleaned up after. Robotic dogs like MiRo-E are able to mimic many dog behaviors, like wagging their tails and turning their ears or expressing emotions through sounds, but require less intensive care.

The lead author of the study, Olivia Barber, owns a therapy dog herself. Barber mentioned that robot dogs could also lessen the stress placed on busy therapy dogs. “Although lots of people in schools and hospitals benefit greatly from receiving visits from a therapy dog, we have to be mindful of the welfare of the therapy dog,” she said. “Visits can be stressful and incredibly tiring for therapy dogs, meaning that we should be exploring whether using a robotic animal is feasible.”

This study was only on a small scale, so more research is needed before its findings can be generalized. But potentially one day in the future, your animal companion could be a cheery robot instead of a furry friend.

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