Smart stuffed dog helps PTSD treatment

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Smart stuffed dog helps PTSD treatment
Image credit: Social Therapeutic and Robotic Systems Lab, Mississippi State University

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and abuse victims often need additional help to overcome the issues. Therabot is a new smart stuffed dog that can help.

Therabot is a robotic beagle which is currently under development by the Mississippi State University’s Social, Therapeutic, & Robotic Systems (STaRS) Lab, under the guidance of director Dr. Cindy Bethel, Wired reports. The goal is to bridge the gap between the two popular types of therapy – real animals and plush animals.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. “The problem with animal assisted therapy is that a lot of people have allergies, and they don’t want to take care of a pet,” says Bethel. “Or they’re afraid of them.” Or they simply can’t take good care of a pet, yet.

Stuffed animals on the other hand are very helpful for in-the-moment treatment. For example to cuddle them when experiencing a tough moment or memory. But in the long run, they don’t offer the engagement of a real animal.

Therabot is meant to be able to respond to the physical cues of the user. It can make sounds, move and mimic real dog without the need for special caring or risk of allergic reactions. The main goal is to provide the person with positive emotions and make them feel better.

The robotic dog can mimic tail waving, it can react differently depending on how soft or hard it is touched. Therabot can also know whether it is facing up or down, if it is turned over or not. All of this will trigger different reactions from the pooch.

“Therabot will pat somebody, have the ability to nuzzle against you. It has the ability to make sounds like a dog,” says Bethel. “I expect the results to be very similar to what you would see with animal-assisted therapy with an actual dog. We’re just extending it by having it be more affordable, something you can hold in your lap easily, that you can take with you to go home.”

The beagle was chosen for a reason. There were 10 possible shapes, a few other dog breeds and other animals including a cat, a bear, a frog and more. Then a survey of 1045 people, a third of whom have PTSD, chose the beagle.

Therabot’s effectiveness is all still theoretical, of course. The first prototype is complete, but Bethel says it’s prone to overheating due to the confluence of circuitry and stuffing. A fix is forthcoming, but even there’s a significant timeline before it hits clinical trials, much less everyday use.

The current goal is to make a basic user study this fall. Next summer there would be real clinical tests. The final step is to commercialize Therabot and make it more affordable. When that may happen is still unknown.