Santa Clarita-based Robotic Support Dogs Launch

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

By Tammy Murga

Signal Staff Writer

Doña Uhrig

Sunday Signal Editor

“Out of Tragedy Comes Inspiration”

In 2011, Tom Stevens’ mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her journey through the disease ultimately ended up with having to rehome her Goldendoodle. “I’ve faced a number of tough choices in my life, but taking away my mother’s dog was among the most difficult,” he says.

After watching the impact of that action on his mother, Stevens knew he wanted to do something and that lead to the creation of a robotic emotional support animal. The animal could provide the comfort she needed without all the necessary caregiving of a real pet.

The result was Tombot, which was founded in October 2017 in collaboration with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop — the visual effects company behind The Muppets.

“Jennie,” the first prototype, is a robotic puppy with the hyper-realistic appearance and feel of a real dog. It was originally created for individuals facing health adversities such as dementia and autism.

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, according to an Alzheimer’s Society study.

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

“She had fallen and broken her leg … 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.’”

Like live animals or anything that’s an emotional attachment object, Bob had 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.

Today, Tombot has sold out of its first litter and its waitlist is currently full. The puppies are now being prepared for their new homes.

The preorders were “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 reasons other than to treat behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, according to a survey Tombot conducted for a pre-order launch Kickstarter.

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 dog, which can be recharged such as you would a smartphone, is covered in sensors.

“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, Tombot COO.

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.

Besides aiding individuals with their health needs, the company also aims to help those with fixed incomes as the Tombot is currently retailing for under $500.

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.

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