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Alzheimer’s Test of Robot Dogs: Real-Life Stories of How Robot Dogs Helped Seniors


Robot dogs are growing in popularity amongst seniors in nursing homes, patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and people with dementia as they are able to provide companionship that is comparable to real dogs who underwent pet therapy training. Coincidentally, the most common pet therapy animal is the dog as it is also a popular companion pet of choice for many.

Although robot dogs cannot provide the same experience as real dogs, they are increasingly acknowledged as alternatives to therapy dogs for older adults in nursing homes and elderly patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and related health conditions. Ted Fishcher, the co-founder and CEO of Ageless Innovation, even shares how they came to develop the robotic dog through extensive input from older adults and specially designed it to be a fuss-free and low-maintenance robotic pet for elderly people who want a realistic interactive two-way companionship.

Having that as a purpose, it can be understood why a robot dog is finding a permanent home in the arms of older adults. Although not to be seen as a complete replacement for therapy dogs, it would be good to first differentiate the types of pet therapy to further understand and appreciate how robot dogs are helping elderly people, patients in mental health nursing homes, people with dementia, and those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

What are the Different Types of Pet Therapy?

The National Institute of Mental Health has recognized pet therapy as a type of psychotherapy for treating mood disorders. Although robot dogs or robotic pets do not technically fall under any of these therapies as real dogs and real animals are meticulously trained to even get certified. However, a robotic dog can exhibit select qualities and provide the same benefit to patients from that of a real dog in some cases, which we will expound on later after going through the 3 basic types of therapy.

Animal-assisted Therapy

Also known as animal therapy is the science of using the human-animal bond in helping people cope with specific mental or physical health conditions through animal-assisted therapy. This is not to be confused with animal-assisted activities, which mainly focus on training real pets and real animals to provide comfort and joy. Pets that underwent animal-assisted therapy differ by focusing on diagnosed health problems.

Facility Therapy

These are therapy pets that reside within a facility, such as a nursing home, mental health nursing facilities, and centers dedicated to care for dementia patients, patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, or psychiatric disorders. These therapy pets, most often therapy dogs, are trained to care for and engage with the residents while keeping them safe by learning their boundaries.

Therapeutic Visitation

Personal pets of third-party owners visit facilities and care centers, most commonly hospitals, to provide support, comfort, and joy to patients. Patients who may be missing their own real pets at home or are lonely can receive joy and motivation to recover through non-committal pet companionship.

How are Robot Dogs Helping People?

Originally created for pure entertainment in 1998 by Sony Corporation, robot dogs have evolved to become robotic pets that provide plenty of benefits, including emotional support, physical activity, and mental stimulation as companion pets, most especially for the elderly.

Designed to mimic real dogs as closely as possible and considering today’s needs, robot dogs are now able to offer social interactions with their senior owners that can build a most beneficial emotional relationship. Let’s see the other specific merits of how a man’s robotic pet best friend can help others, particularly seniors.

Elderly Care in Nursing Home Facilities

It has been a popular and common practice for therapy dogs to regularly visit a nursing home for seniors in order to provide emotional support and entertainment. This kind of therapy is what we explained as therapeutic visitation and studies have shown that this is effective in improving mood and well-being of the eldery living in a nursing home.

One of the main pros of therapeutic visitation is that it allows elders to experience the joy and love of real pets without the responsibility of looking after them 24/7. Similarly, a robotic pet, like a robot dog, offers the same benefit.

In 2018, The Office for the Aging ran a 12-county pilot program wherein they distributed robotic pets to isolated seniors. The elderly who received the robot dogs were administered a social-and-emotional-isolation scale assessment every 3, 6, and 12 months after the “adoption”. Greg Olsen, the director of the New York State Office for the Aging, says they “found that 70% of (robotic) pet adoptees indicated a reduction or significant reduction in feeling isolated after one year.”

Greg Olsen further exclaims that through this program they conducted, he saw how many of the elderly cried when they received the robotic pet as they loved and treated them as a real animal, “… and their families and caregivers have said they see a huge difference in their loved one’s mood.”.

As in most cases with elderly people who are living in a nursing home, they often feel isolated and lonely, but this was further heightened when Covid-19 hit since most of them were placed in strict isolation for their protection. Olsen notes how there was a response to an increased need for robot dogs in nursing home facilities in New York. “When the pandemic hit, we purchased an additional 1,100 pets and distributed them statewide to help isolated older adults. We have also helped other New York state agencies like the Office of Mental Health and the Division of Veterans’ Services.” shares Olsen.

Although therapy dogs are also able to interact with the elderly in nursing home facilities, they still have to go home to their real owners at the end of the day. What robot dogs offer is a more ‘permanent’ companionship by their side without the responsibilities of a real-pet owner. Their much sought-out day-to-day warmth, love, and interaction are met by these robot dogs, which helps in improving their overall quality of life. Aside from robot dogs, there are other robot pets for the elderly already available on the market.

Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease in Care Facilities

“Did you feed the dog?” is one of the questions dog owners have heard at least once in their lives. It’s a simple but important job that is included in the many responsibilities of being a pet owner but could be an often overlooked task for a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that affects cognitive abilities such as thinking, reading, learning, reasoning, and paying attention. The most common cognitive ability greatly affected is remembering. Contrary to popular belief, Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging, but increasing age is the greatest known risk factor, which is why the majority of those diagnosed with it are 65 and older.

It can be extremely difficult for the elderly diagnosed with this disease to properly take care of pets. Aside from mobility being a possible issue, memory loss is a huge risk factor. Simple day-to-day tasks such as feeding them and making sure they aren’t thirsty could be neglected. With this painful reality, patients of Alzheimer’s who used to be pet owners would need to find their companion pets another home.

Tombot founder and CEO, Tom Stevens, found it incredibly heartbreaking when he had to do this to his mom who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “Of all the bad days, by far the worst was the day I had to take away her dog,” he shares. Fortunately, with his background in technology and driven by the love he has for his mother, Tom Stevens partnered with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create Tombot, a robot dog designed to be a companion pet for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias, seniors, and any person who simply cannot live or have a pet.

Tom Stevens explains how the Tombot is the world’s most realistic robot dog with lifelike expressions and behavior, the ability to respond to the owner’s voice commands, and even soft “fur” for petting all while being more affordable than most robot dogs in the market. Aside from being driven to create the Tombot for his mother, his empathy for those who may share the same heartbreak of giving up a pet is also a motivator.

Another viable option is Joy for All’s Companion Pets. The Florida Department of Elder Affairs initially purchased 375 robot dogs from Joy For All Companion Pets but after positive feedback from caregivers and “adoptees”, they have ordered a total of 1,800.

The positive feedback of robot pets used as companion pets for patients with Alzheimer’s is also scientifically founded by research from Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. Knowing how individuals diagnosed with the said disease often have behavioral and psychological symptoms i.e. depression, aggression, and anxiety, researchers tested how robot pets can be effective in improving the mood, behavior, and cognition of elderly clients with mild to moderate dementia.

To begin this non-pharmacological intervention conducted by Florida Atlantic University, the chosen participants were assessed in a series of tests. The Mini Mental State Examination was first used to evaluate cognition; the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias Mood Scale was used to assess mood; and the Observed Emotion Rating Scale and the Cornell Scale for Depression in Dementia were used to test depression in dementia.

Over the course of 12 visits, the researchers from Florida Atlantic University reported that the companionship of the given robotic cat improved all mood scores, with significant improvements in the Observed Emotion Rating Scale, Cornell Scale of Depression in Dementia, Related Dementias Mood Scale, and the Mini Mental State Examination results from when they first took it. Although a robotic cat was used in this program, it is no different from a robot dog as both are robotic pets fit for patients with Alzheimer’s.

Dementia Patients in Full-time Residential Care

Robots made to look, feel, and even act like actual animals appear to be useful in also treating dementia patients and those with mental illness.

According to The Utilization of Robotic Pets in Dementia Care, the treatment of dementia patients with the PARO robot decreased stress, reduced tension, and lowered anxiety in the treatment group. In measuring these levels, tools such as Rating for Anxiety in Dementia (RAID), Cornell Scale for Depression in Dementia (CSDD), Global Deterioration Scale (GDS), pulse rate, pulse oximetry, and GSR were used.

Through this systematic review and study, 61 patients were randomly assigned to a control group or treatment group with the latter receiving assistive social robots of their own. The treatment group improved in behavioral symptoms. After 20 minutes of exposure to the PARO robotic pet, the pulse rate and pulse oximetry of the participants would be measured to check their levels of stress and anxiety. Results show pulse oximetry readings improve as stress decreases while the pulse rate decreases as stress or anxiety decreases.

Through this study, the treatment group also showed attachment to the PARO robot. However, it is worth noting that the decrease in psychoactive medication and the use of pain medications may have an effect on this. Regardless, this can be seen as a positive as it can help in decreasing reliance on psychoactive medications and pharmacological treatments that can be costly as the Alzheimer’s Disease International states that the worldwide costs of dementia will rise to $131.5 million by 2050.

Another company that has also been proven to improve the well-being and quality of life of dementia patients and those diagnosed with other forms of cognitive decline is again, Joy for All Companion Pets. Its ability and purpose to socially interact and form an emotional bond through support and comfort with its “owner” have helped dementia patients with mild to moderate dementia soothe some of their behavioral and psychological symptoms.

In addition to all the findings above, no adverse effects of having robot dogs as alternative companion pets for people with dementia have yet been found by researchers. At the moment of writing, one can say with much confidence that a robot dog can also be a man’s best friend. Aside from these robot canines, you can check out other robot pets for dementia patients here.

Real-Life Testimonies and Experiences on Robot Dogs ‘Therapy’

Emma Davis, the Director of Programming and Counseling at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, shares her real-life testimonies and experience on how using robot dogs and robot pets in an assisted living care and memory care facility became a good and effective alternative in providing seniors, dementia patients, and individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease. To protect the privacy of the residents, Davis undisclosed their names.

A Medium for Expression

A resident with signs of aphasia has lost the ability to understand or express speech. Finding it difficult to express themselves, the said resident tends to shut down and keep quiet. This changed upon the arrival of her own robot dog.

“One day, I came into her room to visit one on one and found Resident B singing ‘I love you’ in an operative voice to the (robot) dog”, shares Davis. While Resident B sings to the robot pet, Davis took this as an opportunity to say hello and compliment her singing, which resulted in Resident B smiling and responding back by singing “Hello darling, how are you?”.

With increasing evidence that music is potentially preserved even in the late stages of dementia when cognitive abilities such as verbal communication may have ceased, music may have played a huge role in this resident’s memories. The robot canine companion may have triggered this area of her brain and allowed her to express herself, even if only temporarily.

A Sense of Purpose

One resident who is showing signs of ‘sundowning’, which refers to increased confusion, anxiety, agitation, pacing, and disorientation was able to calm down when in the presence of her robot companion.

Resident A, who is usually restless and agitated, was given her robot companion as a way to have her energy be refocused on it. Davis shares that the response of Resident A was truly remarkable, “Resident A often responds to the robotic animal as if it were a child. When given the robotic animal, she will hold it in a cradle position and rock it back and forth.”. She adds, “It is my belief that a major part of Resident A’s identity has been being a mother – when she holds the robotic animal, it is reminiscent of her role as a mother and serves to redirect some of her restless energy.”.

A Source of Comfort

Another resident uses the robot animal as a security object she seeks comfort in, especially when placed in social interactions that she is not comfortable in.

Resident D brings the robot companion everywhere and stays by her side at all times. It’s used as a conversation starter and closer for the resident; a defense mechanism for her; and a way to engage and disengage with people around her.

Although there were seldom cases wherein a negative reaction and feelings of indifference were met, the majority of the response has been positive.

Final Note

As seniors, patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and people with dementia are often isolated from the outside world, pets are often seen as a link to the walls beyond their facilities. However, the painful reality of their diagnosed diseases and mobility limitations restrict them from owning a real one that can stay beside them at all times, which is why a robot pet is seen as a viable option for a pet companion.

Based on current studies and research, robot dogs show results of giving significant improvements and benefits to the quality of life of the elderly by simply providing social interaction and comfort through companionship. As seen from the results of the mentioned programs above, these socially assistive robots are able to address symptoms naturally even without the use of pharmacological treatments. With all these facts, and future research on this in the field of health sciences may be worth exploring.

On that note, seeking professional care and help are still needed and highly recommended when caring for the elderly and patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, it may be a good idea to give them a robot dog of their own as they go through this phase in their lives and while being treated. After all, a robot dog may move thanks to its batteries and programmed artificial intelligence, but one cannot deny the warmth, love, and joyous interaction it can give, especially to those who need it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can dogs detect Alzheimer’s?

According to Kare Plus, dogs have been discovered to have the ability to “sniff out” Alzheimer’s by smelling changes in the odor of urine samples. Research on the disease state that the early stages of Alzheimer’s cause the urine odor of a person to change.

Are robot pets realistic?

Some robot pets are more realistic than others depending on their manufacturer, model, and features. For example, there are robot cats that are quite realistic due to their lifelike mannerisms and design. Take note though that robot pets are not to be seen as a replacement for real pets, they are a good alternative for those who cannot own a real one.

How much does a Tombot robot dog cost?

As of writing, the Tombot dog’s first “litter” is already sold out. The company is currently working on creating more models and is accepting orders on the waitlist. If you would like to have a robot canine companion of your own already, you can check out this guide on the best robot dogs.

Linda Takahashi

American-born New Yorker Linda Johnson has been fascinated with robotic machines since she was a teenager, when her father, a surgeon, would introduce to her the machines that he used to perform keyhole surgeries. This interest led her to pursue a tech degree at the University of Washington, where she met Sota Takahashi. They married and now have two children. Linda’s father developed dementia later on and was given a robot pet as a companion. She saw how much having a robot pet friend helped her father, which is what led her to create this website and advocate to spread word about robot pets and how they can help both children and the elderly.

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