Robot Animal Interaction

Pets and Other Animals Interacting
With Robotic Virtual Pets and Other Robots

As robotic pets become more popular, it is only natural for "real" pets, most notably dogs and cats, to encounter them more frequently. Emotions displayed by pets during encounters with robots range from fear, to aggression. Curiosity is often displayed as "real" pets are bewildered by this new object in their surroundings.

This review of pets and other animals interacting with virtual pets and robots is by by Gary Polson of Polson Enterprises.

These encounters were brought to the general public's attention in a June 11, 2008 article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. We begin by discussing that article, then move on to more closely examine the interaction between pets and robots, as well as the concept of virtual pets being companions for "real" pets.


When Dogs and Robots Collide, Somebody Needs a Talking To
by Andrew LaVallee
Wall Street Journal
June 11, 2008. Page A1.

The article points out several YouTube videos of these interactions including "Puppy v.s. Robot! Epic Battle for Territorial Domination!" showing a small dog interacting with a Roboquad from WowWee. Mr. LaVallee also points out PETA has stepped in to encourage those introducing a robot to a pet household to do so with care.

Sometimes its the robot that gets attacked. A lady in Larime Wyoming reports her two cats were biting the tail of her Aibo (robotic dog no longer produced by Sony). In order to stop them, she painted a paste made from cayenne pepper and Cholula Hot Sauce on her Aibo's tail. The cats still sniff his "backside" but they don't bite him anymore.

Puppy vs. Roboquad

Pleo, the new lifelike robotic dinosaur from UGobe was designed with with "real" pet encounters in mind. John Sosoka, Chief Technology Officer of UGobe, manufacturer of Pleo, reports they did not want Pleo to be so lifelike that it would spark an aggressive reaction from pets. They had considered giving Pleo an animal scent (make it smell like an animal), but rejected that concept due to problems it might create with "real" pets.

Ugobe's efforts to make Pleo less threating to "real" pets apparently were not enough for Candie, a Yorkshire Terrier in Staten Island NY. Candie's owner reports "She's terrified of it. She bites it.... That dog really believeds it's another animal and apparently, a frightening animal." Candie's owner finally sent Pleo home with his fiancee's mother, who loves it and treats it like a real pet.

Amy Weltman, WowWee vice president of marketing, is aware their robots "can be a little freaky to a dog", but points out their robotic pets are designed for interaction with humans, not for any experience a pet might have with one of them.

Roomba vacuum cleaners, perhaps the most popular home robot of all, probably have the most interactions with pets. The WSJ article mentions those encounters as well. Interestingly, Candie, the Yorkshire Terrier mentioned earlier that felt threatened by Pleo, ignored a Roomba in her home.

The article also mentions several birds of prey, including hawks, are attacking WoWee's FlyTech Dragonflys (a radio controlled flying robotic insect). WowWee reports it has no plans to make the robot "less tempting" to birds of prey. Ms. Weltman said, "It's unlikely that we are going to redesign a product that works so well." She also points out, WowWee really likes the product "because it looks so real."

Full Text of the Wall Street Journal article can be viewed at 
Dogs & Robots Collide.

Our Response to the WSJ article above:

We are always happy to see mainstream publications bring up virtual pets.

Among our thoughts after reading the article, do we need to form PETRA? (People for the Ethical Treatment of Robotic Animals). It sounds to us like robots are coming up with the short end of the stick more than real pets.

We forecast many of these encounters several years ago in a 1997 article title, Future of the Virtual Pet Industry. We even discussed how groups might come forward to defend the treatment of robotic pets back then.

On the surface, the fact that "real" pets are interacting with virtual pets is a bit humorous, as virtual pets were once (and sometimes still are) seen as replacements for "real" pets. Why would someone have a "real" pet AND an virtual pet? The reason is many virtual pets (and especially robotic pets) have moved from being seen as a replacement for a "real" pet to just being a form of entertainment, like an iPod or a Nintendo Wii.

Pet Interactions With Robots

Pets are drawn to robots, just like we were back in the 1930's when Electro, a Westinghouse robot looking like kin to Gort from "The Day the Earth Stood Still", packed the audience in the Westinghouse exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Scientist talk about the Uncanny Valley, introduced by Mashahiro Mori of Japan in 1970. He theorized that as robots become more lifelike, more positive and empathetic emotion will exhibited by humans toward them, up to a point. As robots get closer to lifelike and we can just barely distinguish they are a robot, we are repelled by them. Then, as they get even more lifelike, we begin to accept them as humans and interact freely with them. This "valley" in our emotional acceptance of robots is called the uncanny valley. Today, a few human robots are about to, or have crossed the valley.

It seems to us, that our pets also a experience an uncanny valley when dealing with robots. The ones that they cannot quite discern if are really animals or not may make them the most nervous. Pets are attracted to robots by curiosity just as we were to Electro back in 1939. Others that move radically (like Roboquad) may be in the uncanny valley to some pets and ilicite attacks from them. While some that seem even more lifelike (like Pleo) may generate animal to animal responses. This is certainly true of hawks responding to WowWee's FlyTech Dragonflys.

All the mechanical / robotic noises are probably a "giveaway" to "real" pets that this thing is not a real animal. "Real" pets have fantastic hearing and smelling capabilities. They know animals do not smell and sound like today's robotic pets. While humans rely more on visual cues, designers wishing to fool "real" pets will probably have to ramp up their efforts in those arenas.

Having been around a lot of dogs, I am a bit surprised we are not seeing one familiar action. Dogs are constantly "marking" their territory by peeing their scent on posts, fire hydrants, fences, automobile tires, and other objects. If dogs do not think cars are alive, know they are likely to move, and still pee on their tires, why do we not see dogs peeing on robotic pets, especially when the robot is still? Perhaps because most of these interactions occur inside and the dogs have been housebroken?

Another common tendency "real" dog owners observe is male dogs trying to "mount" other dogs. We are not seeing videos of this, which is another sign "real" dogs are not thinking robotic dogs are alive.

Many videos showing "real" dogs barking at robot dogs are of puppies or young dogs. Young dogs tend to be more curious and active. Older dogs are probably more accepting of robot dogs or just don't care as long as the robot does not bother them or eat their food.

Full Size Dog Fighting Aibo
Robot Dog Over Food

Will "Real" Pets Actually Play With Robotic Pets?

We came across this video showing some interaction between a cat and a Sony Aibo robotic dog. They seem to be playing together with a ball.

But the cat might be just looking for anything to kick the ball around, like the dog below entertaining himself with a robotic ball launcher.

"Real" Dog Plays With Robotic Ball Launcher
"Real" Cat Plays Chase The Ball With Aibo

Pet to Robot Pet Interactions Are Not New

Back in 1985, Axlon released Petster, a life size to slightly larger than lifesize, furry, robotic cat that could be driven by remote controls, turned loose and steered to hand claps, or put in an autonomous mode of operation. Many Petster owners delighted in confronting their own cat with this wheeled robocat.

Flickr Photo of Jake the Cat and a Petster

Research in Pet to Robotic Pet Interactions

Little scientific research appears to have been done in this field, especially with robotic pets. We would anticipate a flurry of activity in the future. The topic in general is a great fit for today's interactive, masters and phd candidates that grew up on electronic devices. The current explosion of YouTube videos on the subject has to have caught their attention, especially of those studying electro-mechanical, robotic interactions with humans.

An annotated bibliography of research in this are is below.



    • A Robot in a Cage: Exploring Interactions Between Animals and Robots. Marc Bohlen. Computational Intelligence in Robotics and Automation, 1999. CIRA '99 Proceedings. 1999 IEEE International Symposium on. 8-9 NOv. 1999. Pgs. 214-219.

      Explores reaction of chickens to a mechanical robot in their cage. The robot did not look like a chicken. Researcher were just trying to see how chickens would react to various actions by a mobile robot.


    • Can a Dog Tell the Difference by Sony Computer Science Laboratory Paris. April 2000.

      It asks the question, "Do dogs see Aibo, Sony's four-legged robot, as conspecific? Conspecific is a bilogical term meaning two specimens belong to the same species. Or as used in their question, do dogs see Aibo as being a dog? Note - a scientific paper was published on this research in 2004 in Behavioural Processes.

    • A Rat's Best Friend - animal-robot Interaction Research. Fenella Saunders. Discover. April 2000.

      Atsuo Takanishi and his fellow researchers at Waseda University in Japan put a ratbot in an enclosure with a rat. The rat quickly began racing the ratbot to food. (see the related 2006 technical paper)


    • Quand Les Robots: Imitent la Nature. La Recherche. November 2002. Pgs. 56-62. (in French).

      Shows robots coordinating together to accomplish tasks similar to insects.

    • LEURRE project: Artificial Life Control in Mixed Societies. 2002-2005.

      This project investigated building and controlling mixed societies of animals and robots. It was funded by the Future and Emerging Technologies program of the European Community (IST-2001-35506). Several of their projects involved interacting with cockroaches and other insects. Note - the project has since moved to MOBOTS (see their chicken project in this bibliography).


    • Social Behaviour of Dogs Encountering AIBO, an Animal-like Robot in a Neutral and in a Feeding Situation. Enik Kubinyl, Adam Miklosi, Frederic Kaplan, Marta Gacsi, Jozsef Topal, and Vilmos Csanyl. Behavioural Processes. Vol.65. No.3. 31 March 2004. Pgs. 231-239. An Elsevier Publication.

      Instead of a virtual pet being a companion for a person in place of a "real" pet, their research explored the possibility of robotic pets being companions for "real" pets. When you are away at the office, you pet has someone to play with back at home.

      They observed the interactions of 24 adult dogs and 16 puppies four to five months old with (1) remote controlled car, (2) an Aibo, (3) Aibo covered with puppy scented fur, (4) a two month old "real" puppy. Interactions were observed in a neutral situation with the 'real" dog's owner present, and in a feeding situation.

      In general, they found adult dogs approached the robots somewhat sooner, spent less time oriententing toward them and sniffing at them, but growled at them more frequently than the juvenile dogs.

    • Social Responses Without Early Experience: Australian Brush-Turkey Chicks Us Visual Cues to Aggregate With Conspecifics. Ann Goth and Christopher Evans. The Journal of Experimental Biology. Vol.2007. Pgs.2199-2208. (2004).

      Australian Brush-Turkeys normally hatch on their own without adult care. They just imprint on one another (other chicks of similar age). Researchers used robots looking like the chicks that had different behaviors and studied which ones were most effective in integrating with the chicks.



    • Design and Development of a Legged Rat Robot for Studying Animal-Robot Interaction. C. Laschi, B. Mazzolai, F. Patane, V. Mattoli, P. Dario, H. Ishii, M. Ogura, S Kurisu, A Komura, and A. Takanishi. Biomedical Robotics and Biomechanics., 2006. BioRob 2006. The First IEEE/RAS-EMBS International Conference on. Pgs. 631-636. Available from IEEE.

      Legged rat robot used to study social interaction between rats and robots. They will attempt to use to robot to teach the "real" rat some tasks.

    • A Dynamic Method to Study the Transmission of Social Foraging Information in Flocks Using Robots. Esteban Fernandez-Juricic, Nima Gilak, J. Chase McDonald, Pritesh Pithia, and Anna Valcarcel. Cal. State Univ. Long Beach. Animal Behavior. Vol.71. No.4. April 2006. Pgs. 901-911. An Elsevier publication.

      Assessed the flock foraging behavior of finches by using robots mimiking finch behavior.


    • Undercover Robots Lift Lid on Animal Body Language. Emma Young. New Scientist. 6 Jan. 2007. Pgs. 22-23.

      Discusses use of robots made up to look like animals to get close to animals in the wild and study their social behaviors. Work with several species are briefly discussed, including jacky dragon lizards, sage grouse, brush turkey chicks, northern swordtails, and wolf spiders.


    • A Human-Animal-Robot Cooperative System for Anti-Personal Mine Detection. Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Tharindu Dissanayake, Prasanna Mahipala, and K.A. Gayan Sanjaya of the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka. Humanitarian Demining: Innovative Solutions and Challenges of Technology. Feb. 2008.

      A human provides some basic directional information to a robot which then guides a mine sniffing mongoose in the search for land mines.

    Ongoing Research

    • Animal-Robot Interaction. Alexey Gribovskiy and Francesco Mondada.

      Project in the Miniature Mobile Robots Group (MOBOTS) at Laboratoire des Systemes Robotiques (LSRO). They are developing a mixed society of chickens and robots. It is a continuation of the earlier LEURRE project in France.

    Related Research

    • Dogs or Robots: Why Do Children See Them as Robotic Pets Rather Than As Canine Machines. ACM International Conference Proceedings Series; Vol.53. Proceedings of the Fifth Conference on Australian User Interface - Volume 28. Pages 7-14. (2004)

      This paper found that children perceive robotic dogs (particularly Aibo) and being closer to "real" dogs than to other devices, while adults associate robotic dogs with robots and other mechanical devices. Even after robots were defined to children, they still found Aibo to be closer to a dog. We wonder if this same youthful association carries over to puppies? While adult dogs have a greater set of experiences that allows them to classify a robotic dog as a non living object.?

Wild Animals Reacting to Robotic Pets

Per the Wall Street Journal article discussed earlier, about WowWee has about 45 reports in its customer service database of hawks and other birds of prey attacking their FlyTech Dragonfly. The basis for their statements in is a WowWee Dragbot article posted by Engadget.

Animals are well known to react to human attempts to fool them with decoys (ducks and geese), fishing lures (fish), artificial worms (fish), breeding dummies for collecting semen for artificial insemination (stallions/horses), dog cut outs (frighten off geese), garden scarecrows (birds), and many more.

In The Belly of the Beast NGC Dangerous Encounters Blog 29 December 2009, Dr. Brady Barr with National Geographic approaches live crocodiles while crawling around under an alligator shaped cover (fits over him somewhat like an upside down canoe.

We also recently saw a program showing Gail Patricelli of UC Davis using a remote controlled robot sage grouse to investigate interactions during courtship.

An article in New Scientists, Undercover Robots Lift Lid on Animal Body Language, by Emma Young 6 Jan 2007, Page 22, discusses some of these approaches.

We would similarly anticipate more research in this area in the future.

WowWee FlyTech Dragonfly

Search Terms

Those looking for further media coverage and research in the field of animal interaction with robots may find these search terms helpful.

    animal robot interactions / interacting
    flocking and robot
    robot animal social interactions
    names of researchers in the bibliography section
    laboratories listed in the bibliography section


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