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Interviewee: William Banks, St. Louis University
Faux Fido as Man’s Best Friend?
When you call his name, he wags his tail, yelps, and slowly maneuvers his squeaky, plastic legs to waddle over your way. If his battery is low, don’t hold your breath. There’s no forgetting that Aibo is a robot pup, but he makes a good companion for nursing home residents, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.
William Banks, a physician and author of the new study, says that playtime with Aibo reduces loneliness in nursing homes as much as visits from a real-live drooling and shedding animal. “We thought there would be a difference in loneliness between the two,” says Banks. “What we found basically was that the living dog and Aibo were equally effective in decreasing loneliness.”
For their study, the researchers randomly assigned residents of NHC Healthcare in Maryland Heights, Missouri to one of three groups: some folks had weekly one-on-one visits with Aibo, some played with a real dog named Sparky and others played with no pooch at all. Banks and colleagues used the UCLA loneliness scale to track their subjects’ feelings, and they used another questionnaire, the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale, to gauge how attached people felt to the canine companions. In both measures, loneliness and attachment, Aibo and Sparky tied.
Banks says the results may help researchers develop better robotic health care devices, which are gaining in popularity and sophistication. “These things don’t have to be inanimate impersonal objects, with a little bit more engineering,” he forecasts. In the future, the machine that measures blood pressure and transmits the result to the doctor’s office could also be your friend.
More immediately, the Aibo study could help nursing homes set up effective animal therapy programs to keep residents active and engaged. That’s a necessary goal, says Lisa Cochran, a five-year resident of NHC Healthcare. “You can’t exist in this facility if you don’t become involved in some parts of it, she says. “You need to feel connected with something or someone.”
For Cochran, playing with Aibo brings up bittersweet memories of the cocker spaniel she had years ago. After that dog passed away, Cochran swore she’d never have another dog. “It’s just like losing a child, you know?” she says.
Now, when Cochran cuddles the electric animal, she knows it looks silly. She says, “You say to yourself, my god, what am I doing here talking to this dog?” But for Cochran, Aibo’s effects are plenty real. “It didn’t make any difference that it wasn’t alive,” she explains. “If it touches some, that’s what’s important.”
William Banks’ bread-and-butter research tracks how peptides cross the blood-brain barrier, so animal therapy is “a bit of a different topic,” he says. But with his wife Marian, a nursing researcher at St. Louis University, Banks has developed an interest in using science to pin down how animals benefit people who are ill or lonely. `
Marian’s goal is to “combine the best of nursing with animal-assisted therapy.” She explains that “animals bring about a very nonjudgmental way of dealing with residents. They don’t have any inkling as to what a person is really like. They just sit there and just wag their tail, and it seems to give them a lot of gratifying feelings.”
When the Bankses originally started examining the benefits of animal companionship, William says, “We were struck by the tremendous enthusiasm for animal-assisted therapy, but really a paucity of data.” In their first study, they tested whether real dogs do reduce loneliness in nursing homes, and they found an effect.
But pet ownership isn’t a realistic choice for everybody. Aware of the limitations of nursing home life, the researchers came up with the idea of trying out Sony’s Aibo robotic dog. “In a nursing home, where people are at the end of their lives, and they’ve lived and seen many things, and now they’re sort of by themselves, they’re in danger of withdrawing into themselves,” William Banks explains. The robotic dog has its obvious virtues (“It doesn’t need to be taken out to do its business,” Banks says) but whether or not it offered companionship required research.
As the researchers found out, when given the opportunity to interact with Aibo, the residents became animated, sharing stories and memories with the robotic dog. “Ironically, these nonhuman creatures remind us of our humanness,” says Banks.
Nursing homes looking to purchase an Aibo can’t turn to Sony, since it discontinued the robotic dog in 2006. Used robot dogs are available online, but for now, NHC Healthcare is robot-free. William Banks says he can’t spare the Aibo used in the study because “he was bought with research funds, so technically, he’s a research employee.”
Of course, Aibo’s no typical worker. Marian Banks explains, “If you pet him on the head, he will wag his tail and will light up his eyes.”
Turns out that when you’re feeling lonesome, even this robotic version of man’s best friend can make a doggone good companion.
This research by Marian Banks, Lisa Willoughby, and William Banks was published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, March 2008 with no outside funding.
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