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Their Byte Is as Good as Their Bark

Mechanical dogs offer companionship to the elderly

SUNDAY, Dec. 29, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Purdue University scientists are proving that dogs really are man's best friends -- even if they run on batteries.

In an ongoing study that offers robotic dogs to nursing home residents, researchers are finding that the machines reduce isolation and promote social activity among the elderly, just like real puppies. But without the mess.

"The robots decrease social isolation, increase physical activity and improve morale -- people feel a little less lonely," says Alan Beck, director of Purdue's Center for Human-Animal Bond. He's also one of the leaders of the robotics study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Beck and his colleagues have placed the Sony-manufactured robots -- named AIBO, which means "pal" in Japanese -- with four elderly women living in nursing homes to assess whether the machines can replicate the beneficial effects known to result from real animal-human bonding. While the final results are in for only two of the four women, the answer -- so far -- is yes, Beck says.

"Being an animal lover, I initially thought it was a crazy idea," Beck says. "The AIBOs don't have the obvious triggers of big eyes and fur, and I didn't think people would have the emotional commitment to them. But even after three weeks, they did."

For instance, Beck says, when the women were initially given the robots, they were asked what they thought the machines would need. The answers were practical -- the robots needed batteries that had to be recharged regularly.

"But when we asked after three weeks, the answers to the same question were that the robots needed to be held and loved. They didn't even mention the technology aspect," Beck says.

The robots, which cost about $1,300, are quite sophisticated, Beck says. Small and black with a flat face and no resemblance to a particular breed, they have programming that allows them to walk slowly, right themselves after a fall, and recognize colors so they chase balls. They're even programmed to act up if you ignore them, waving their paws and making squeaking noises.

But they can also be turned off, which is part of the appeal to the elderly, Beck says.

"It is a super low-maintenance pet," he says, which makes it a perfect companion for people who lack the facilities or the abilities to care for a real dog.

For the study, Beck and his colleagues selected four women, all over the age of 65, who were relatively healthy, physically agile and mentally acute. They live in nursing homes where they are able to take care of themselves in a community setting.

The researchers brought them the robots for six weeks. They video-taped interviews with the women when they first got the robots, after three weeks and again after six weeks. They also asked the women to keep a daily journal about their experience.

The researchers looked for changes in social activity, like whether the women had more visitors, as well as changes in mental states. They also assessed the women's attitudes toward the robots. Overall, Beck says, the results were very encouraging.

"It's not as if the women didn't know the difference between a real dog and the robot. But they had a nice suspension of belief, the way you do when you cry at a movie," he says, when you know something isn't real but you're emotionally affected by it.

Beck says that while initially skeptical of the research, he, too, was taken by the "dogs."

"I caught myself being very careful when putting the robot on the charger," he says.

Beck is finishing his assessment of two more women and hopes to include a dozen men and women in his final study. The value of robotic dogs is that they can, like real animals, improve the quality of lives of elderly people who may live in nursing homes where no pets are allowed, or who may be unable to take care of a live animal.

Presently, the cost of the robots is prohibitive for most nursing homes and many families, Beck says. "It may get enough attention that companies will manufacture robotic animals and direct the market to older people as a stimulator," he adds.

What To Do

To see a picture of a robotic dog and learn about the Purdue study, visit the Center for the Human-Animal Bond. Some of the benefits that pets bestow on the elderly can be found at the Pets for the Elderly Foundation.

SOURCE: Alan Beck, Ph.D., director, Center for Human-Animal Bond, professor of animal ecology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.
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