Why a Robotic ‘Dog Nanny’ Might Not Be Worth the Risk

Mindy A. Cohan, VMD
Published: June 30, 2017
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As a veterinarian, I have been blessed with the luxury of bringing my dog to work. Dog owners in other professions are faced with the challenge of accommodating their furry family members while spending long days both at the office and commuting to and from work. To ease the burden of canine care, a Ford designer in Mexico City devised the concept of a robot “dog nanny.”

The proposed nanny would primarily serve to take dogs for walks. The robot would be aided by a smart collar with the capability of monitoring a dog’s pulse, temperature, and respiration rate. The design would also include a vacuum system to clean up feces. The pet parent would be able to program multiple walking routes.

Other proposed features include a communication network that would enable pet parents to talk to their dogs and a water and treat dispensing system. In the instance of encounters with other dogs, the robot could emit an alarm to deter the approach of unfriendly canines. Sound like the next best technological advance? My initial excitement was soon tempered as I realized all of the shortcomings and potential risks.

One of the first hurdles that came to mind was securing a home after the robot and dog departed for a walk. How would the robot enter and subsequently leave the home, particularly if an alarm system is involved? In the instance of a dangerous household situation, such as a flood, fire, or gas leak, a robot could not replace the acuity of a person.

Besides household emergencies, a pet’s medical issues would be better addressed by a perceptive and intuitive person. Despite the incorporation of a smart collar to monitor a dog’s vitals, the robot would lack the ability to perceive lethargy or detect puddles of urine or piles of feces and vomit within the house. Problems such as lacerations, hotspots, allergic reactions, or limping would also go undetected. The robot would also lack the ability to assess the dog’s appetite and water consumption. The visual impairment of a robot would put it at a disadvantage when it comes to detecting medical issues, such as blood in a dog’s urine or stool, as well as straining to urinate or defecate.

I can recall numerous instances when a pet parent called the veterinary office to notify the staff that the pet sitter or dog walker noticed a problem and was bringing the dog in for evaluation. Although a robot might be aided by a collar that monitors vital signs, the automated nanny would not be able to take immediate action in emergent situations such as gastric dilatation volvulus (bloat), bleeding, seizures, or vehicular accidents.

Beyond the myriad of medical and logistical problems posed by a robot nanny, artificial intelligence cannot replace the warmth and attention of a living human being. Dogs are pack animals and are more content with companionship than being left alone. A human dog walker is much more likely to meet the social needs of a dog in terms of camaraderie and TLC. Although a robot nanny sounds like an enticing idea to replace dog walkers, when all factors are taken into consideration, nothing can replace the common sense, instinct, and loving care of a person.

Mindy Cohan, VMD, is a small animal veterinarian in the Philadelphia area. Mindy has a strong interest in bereavement counseling and she is passionate about teaching families how to care for their pets. She enjoys disseminating pet health information as the monthly guest veterinarian on WXPN-FM's Kids Corner.