Evaluating Dogs and Zoomorphic Robots as Potential Adjuncts for Therapeutic Interactions with Children

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


From an early age, humans can discriminate between living and non-living entities (Carey & Spelke, 1996), and seem to have an innate attraction to and derive benefits from interacting with living and lifelike processes (Biophilia hypothesis; Wilson, 1984). These mechanisms might underpin the reported beneficial outcomes for children of interacting with pet dogs and with therapy dogs in Animal Assisted Interventions (Beetz, 2017). It might also mean that children could benefit from interacting with zoomorphic social robots as an alternative to using living dogs in therapeutic encounters where it is not appropriate to use a dog. To assess the feasibility of using dogs and zoomorphic social robots in interactions with children and to explore the underlying mechanisms by which they may have any effects, we conducted four studies in which we explored participant perceptions of dogs and robots with a specific focus on exploring the role of animism and biophilia. In the online survey Study 1, we found that the public anticipated a number of benefits of using therapy dogs for children, such as inducement of positive mood and reduction of negative emotional states, and they proposed reasons why these benefits might occur. Survey respondents also thought that zoomorphic social robots could potentially be used in the place of therapy dogs, although they mentioned a number of concerns about their use compared to a living dog. Comparisons of behavioural interactions and evaluations made by children interacting with dogs and a zoomorphic social robot were explored in Studies 2 and 3, in which children engaged in a free play interaction with the entities. In both these studies, participants preferred the living dog and behaved differently towards the dog and robots, but reported high enjoyment and positive emotions associated with interactions with the robot. Together, these two experimental studies indicated that the children did not view the dog and robots as having the same living status, and that the “aliveness” or animism of the dog was an important factor towards their preference of this entity. In Study 4, further exploration of the importance of animacy towards participant evaluations indicated that the more children aged 5-11 years old attributed animistic properties to an entity, the more they wanted to affiliate with them. Overall, this thesis extended the current understanding of children’s attribution of animism towards dogs and zoomorphic social robots, and demonstrated the importance of animism attributions on children’s evaluations of these entities that potentially could be used advantageously in therapeutic interventions.
Date of Award20 Feb 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorLeanne Proops (Supervisor), Eszter Somogyi (Supervisor) & Anne E. McBride (Supervisor)

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