Santa Clarita-based Tombot creates robot service dog

A Tombot proof-of-concept robotic dog named Jennie, developed for dementia patients, reacts to the sound of the camera. Cory Rubin/The Signal

It’s hard not to look at Labrador puppy Jennie and resist petting her.

She has large floppy ears, fluffy golden fur and a tail that can’t stop wagging. Without a doubt, the canine has all the ingredients to become your new best friend.

But she’s not a real dog. “Jennie” is the first prototype for Tombot, a robotic puppy with the hyper-realistic appearance and feel, created by a Santa Clarita-based company that goes by the same name, for individuals facing health adversities such as dementia and autism.

From left: Tombot COO Jesse Schorz, President and CEO Thomas Stevens and CTO Hank Schorz sit behind a proof-of-concept robotic dog named Jennie tha was developed for dementia patients. Cory Rubin/The Signal

“Jennie is a robotic emotional support animal,” said Tom Stevens, CEO and creator of the Tombot Inc., which was founded in October 2017 in collaboration with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop — the visual effects company behind The Muppets. “She was designed originally to meet the specific needs of seniors with dementia.” 

Older people often struggle with loneliness and isolation, a feeling nobody likes to experience, but for folks with dementia, the problem is especially painful. In fact, 35% of people with dementia say they feel lonely and have lost friends, based on a report by the Alzheimer’s Society.

For years, research has shown that using animal-assisted therapy on older adults with dementia has significantly decreased agitated behaviors and significantly increased social interaction, according to a UCLA Health report.

That was the case for Stevens’ mother, Nancy, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, he said.

“My mother had a 2-year-old Goldendoodle named Golden Bear that she managed to train to be aggressive toward her caregiver,” said Stevens. “She was very unhappy about having a caregiver move in with her. The caregiver would enter the room, the dog would growl. My mom laughed and petted the dog, reinforcing the behavior — and pretty soon, we had a problem on our hands.”

Fortunately, he was able to find a new home for the dog, but Nancy was very upset. Stevens then started looking for substitutes for live animals, but did not find something that his mother liked or responded to at the time.

“So, I started wondering if technology might play a role,” said Stevens. After Stevens earned his master’s degree from Stanford and engaged in a multiyear research exploration and, he launched Tombot.

Tombot president and CEO Thomas Stevens (left) pets a proof-of-concept robotic dog named Jennie developed for dementia patients. Cory Rubin/The Signal

One prototype given to his mother, which she named Bob, was just what she needed.

“She had fallen and broken her leg about 18 months ago, and she was in the hospital for about four weeks,” he said. “Whenever a medical professional would enter the room, she would scream in terror, convinced they were there to put her in more pain. We ran and got her dog from the house and gave it to her. She clutched it very tight to her chest and said, ‘Bob is helping me relax.’”

Nancy, although still in pain and under stress, was medically compliant and had stopped screaming. Like live animals or anything that’s an emotional attachment object, Bob became very important to Nancy — a tool for coping.

Similar results have also taken place at a nursing home in Thousand Oaks, where a test version of the robot dog was presented.

Tombot will soon begin to manufacture puppies, but people can already pre-order their Labrador, which Stevens said will come in different shades.

The robotic animal has already “been preordered by parents or grandparents on behalf of children with autism and other special needs, adults with major depressive disorder, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and anxiety, as well as hospitals,” said Stevens.

About 30% of interested buyers have indicated use for other reasons other than to treat behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, according to a survey Tombot conducted for a preorder launch Kickstarter.

A Tombot proof-of-concept robotic dog named Jennie, developed for dementia patients, tilts her head. Cory Rubin/The Signal

How it works

Jennie is designed to accurately emulate not only the appearance and texture but also the behaviors of a real dog — without the feature to bite and without any hypoallergenic and antimicrobial materials.

The 20-inch long and five-pound prototype, which can be recharged such as you would a smartphone, is covered in sensors, consisting of 16 motors, seven of which are placed in the neck area to help the robot move realistically.

“She can feel where and how she’s being touched,” said Stevens. “She can tell the difference between a simple touch, a slow caress, a vigorous pet and being held. She responds to voice commands, but only with her name. She can feel herself being moved if we change her position. We have her programmed to go to sleep.”

Much like a smart mobile device, the robot dogs have the ability to download new software whenever a system update is available, according to Jesse Schorz, COO at Tombot.

The robot puppies are currently designed as lap dogs, rather than ones that walk because they could become a tripping hazard for people with dementia, said Stevens.

Tombot is fully designed and engineered in the U.S., and its supply chain would most likely be based somewhere in Asia, he added.

Besides aiding individuals with their health needs, the company also aims to help those with fixed incomes as the Tombot will retail for $450, a significantly lower price from its competitor PARO, a therapeutic seal pup used in nursing homes for more than 15 years, which is priced at $6,400.

As the company progresses, different breeds and even cats could be introduced. The Tombot team also sees potential in target market growth for their products.

“People that are afraid of dogs, families with small children where it’s not yet safe to have a live animal. We’re focused on people with health adversities but we’re happy to provide one of our robots to anyone,” said Stevens.

Tombots are expected to go through final safety and regulatory certifications by January 2020, and be ready for first customer shipments by May 2020.

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