A Bitter Irony


People with serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s often benefit immensely from contact with a dog. I know this from personal experience. You see, my late father was stricken by Alzheimer’s a number of years ago. As his illness progressed, my dad, who was hard of hearing, became increasingly isolated. In his last couple of years, he came to rely more and more on his little Bichon dog, Buckley, for comfort.


Unfortunately, my dad was about to run up against one of the bitter ironies of old-age care. The day came when my father could no longer take care of little Buckley. It was then that he had to give up his loyal little companion. In other words, when my father needed Buckley the most, Buckley was taken from him. But my dad isn’t the only one.


A Possible Solution


Tom Stevens’ mother had a similar experience. When she received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she, too, had to give up her beloved dog. As Stevens said, “My mom was devastated, so I started looking at substitutes for life animal companions.” He decided to found a company, Tombot, to develop robotic dogs. Unlike regular dogs, these dogs do not require care, so they cannot be taken away.


Robot Dog to the Rescue


Jennie the robot dog is a prototype robot therapy dog. Tom Stevens designed her to help patients who are unable to care for a real pet. The synthetic fur for the robot dogs comes from Jim Henson’s “Creature Shop,” producers of “The Muppets.” This fur has sensors in it which allows the dog to respond to touch.


Autumn Kerr says that sometimes Jennie’s touch is the only thing that can get her dad, Dennis, to smile. Dennis, a Parkinson’s patient, finds moving and speaking extremely difficult. Autumn Kerr says, “She’s calming. You can just pet her. She’s not active and all over the place. Sometimes with pets, they can get a little rambunctious.”


Growing Acceptance in the Scientific Community


Dr. Maja Mataric, winner of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring – among others – is the founder and director of USC’s Interaction Lab. Dr. Mataric said therapy pets may help patients to cope with stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Dr. Mataric added, “There are now an increasing number of studies that show that people really thrive and feel better when they have some amount of physical contact in their lives.”


And there’s some evidence that robot dogs can do this, too. Like a real dog, Jennie barks and wags her tail. Jennie also responds to touch, which enables her to bond with patients like Dennis.


“Something like this would help him engage his mind, calm his body,” Kerr said. “So, I think it’s a wonderful tool.”


The robots go on the market next year for about $450.