In a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Recreation Therapy, University of Utah researcher Rhonda Nelson and graduate student Rebecca Westenskow developed a protocol for using robotic pets with older adults with dementia. The protocol uses a low-cost robotic pet, establishes ideal session lengths and identifies common participant responses to the pets to aid in future research.
“Our protocol had questions like: Would you like to scratch the dog behind his ears? Would you like to pet him? Would you like to brush him?” says Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies. “And then we were evaluating how people responded to those different cues so that we could then provide some guidelines to people on how to have the most beneficial actions with these animals.”
Throughout the session, the researchers asked questions, both about the participants’ experiences with past pets and about interacting with the current robotic pet. “Did they have dogs or cats?” Nelson says, giving examples of typical questions. “What were their names? Did they keep them indoors or outdoors? What types of food did they eat?”
The researchers carefully observed the responses of the participants to the pets. The robotic pets moved and made sounds, which Nelson says helped the participants engage with them. Nelson is often asked if the participants with cognitive decline understand that the robotic pets are not alive. In this study, she says, they all seemed aware that it was not a live animal.
A common, yet unprompted behavior, the researchers’ report, was communication with the pet. “Several participants used comments, sounds, specific inflections and facial expressions spontaneously with the pets,” the researchers wrote. “Some participants imitated the animal sounds made by the [pet] and repositioned the pet to look at its face or make eye contact.”
The study found that the most meaningful interactions and the most enjoyable experiences came when the participant self-directed the session.
“In recreational therapy, we always talk about providing person-centered care,” Nelson says. “So it’s not really about what I think about an activity. If somebody enjoys it and it brings happiness to them, then it’s really about what they think about it.”