Stanford program matches young patients with robot puppies to relieve anxiety

Denise Dador Image
Tuesday, May 7, 2024
Robo-dogs spark joy at hospital thanks to Stanford students
One California hospital is putting a smile on children's faces in an innovative way - through the power of robotic puppies.

STANFORD, Calif. (KABC) -- One California hospital is putting a smile on children's faces in an innovative way - through the power of robotic puppies.

Stanford University's robotics students are helping young patients by providing them with a makeshift pet to brighten their stay at the hospital.

These canines aren't the typical pets you'd find in homes - instead, the four-legged robots can dance, wiggle and twirl through mechanical joints. They can even play makeshift soccer and be walked on a leash.

Seven-year-old patient Josh Summitt misses walking his dogs during his time at the hospital, but was able to meet one of these special pups at Stanford.

"I kind of felt a little bit nervous to meet the dogs. But after I met them, they were very, very friendly," Josh remarked.

The robotic dogs known as Max, Otis and Stride are Stanford's way of curbing the anxiety felt by their young patients.

The computerized canines are a collaboration between the university's robotic students and the hospital's Chariot program which seeks out innovations to help the hospital.

"A lot of robotics technologies get developed in a lab and never have any real impact on the world. But we can see immediately the impact, cheering these kids up," Stanford University engineering student Gabriel Levine said.

Stanford Children's Health is just past the robots' pilot phase, but the popular response signals a promising future for them. Students are now developing a new version of the robot dog that promises to be more agile than before.

"I think that having these robotic puppies be a part of our team has allowed us to engage them in a way that was not possible before," said Dr. Ellen Wang, co-director of Stanford's Chariot Program.

A recent study finds children who spend time with therapy dogs can lower their stress even more than relaxation exercises.

While therapy animals have long been known to help reduce pain, anxiety and depression, doctors are hopeful that the robot dogs are already showing some of the same benefits.

"We've had experiences in the past where a patient enjoyed hanging out with the robot so much he almost forgot he was going to surgery, and that's really powerful," said Dr. Teresa Nguyen, an anesthesiologist at Stanford Children's Health.

Josh's mom Amelia Summitt has also seen a difference in her son's enthusiasm while staying at the hospital.

"It really sparked his curiosity. He can still be seven and be excited and play," Summitt said.