Robotic Pets - Study Overview

Why robotic pets?

Between 2013 and 2019 the National College Health Assessment found significant increases in the proportion of Canadian post-secondary students seeking help and self-reporting stress, psychological distress, and diagnosed mental illnesses. Despite increased efforts to provide supports, Canadian post-secondary institutions report demands for mental health treatment services continue to significantly outpace resources (Linden, Boyes, & Stuart, 2021; Ng & Padjen, 2019). Poor mental health outcomes are associated with increased dropout rates, absenteeism, decreasing academic performance, and suicide (Monaghan, Linden, & Stuart, 2020). Given that research also indicates that engineering students are more reluctant to seek help than students in other disciplines (Lipson, Zhou, Wagner, Beck, & Eisenberg, 2016), it is vitally important to find innovative wellness solutions to support students within the FoE.

Live Therapy Dog Interventions:

  • Have been found to be a cost-effective, time efficient, accessible, and wide-reaching strategy, while not being associated with the same stigma as other forms of help seeking (Peel, Nguyen, & Tannous, 2023; Spruin, Dempster, Islam, & Raybould, 2021).
  • Benefits of therapy dogs including decreases in self-reported anxiety, stress, and loneliness and improved mood among postsecondary students (Moores, Button, Fawcett, & Whelan, 2022; Peel et al., 2023; Spruin et al., 2021).
  • A dog therapy session has been shown to be as effective as a 30-minute mindfulness session for reducing anxiety and improving mood (Spruin et al., 2021, p. 597).
  • Live therapy dog sessions held within the FoE continue to be a student favorite (POETS, MME, ECE, School of Architecture).
  • There is currently a shortage of therapy dogs in Waterloo Region, as a result, the number of campus visits are limited.
  • Live therapy dog interventions may not be suitable for students with allergies or a fear of dogs (Ali & Watson, 2016; Melson, Kahn, Beck, & Friedman, 2009).

Robotic Pet Interventions:

  • Robotic pets have been found to improve psychological outcomes including reduction in loneliness, stress, and anxiety in older adults with and without cognitive disorders (Banks, Willoughby, & Banks, 2008; Horstmann, 2023; Petersen, Houston, Qin, Tague, & Studley, 2017; Shoesmith, Surr, & Ratschen, 2023).
  • Social robotic interventions have been used in educational settings for children with neurodevelopmental disorders including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) for developing and enhancing social and communication skills and improving engagement in learning activities (Azizi et al., 2022; Breazeal, Dautenhahn, & Kanda, 2016; Pivetti et al., 2020).
  • Preliminary studies in post-secondary settings have been promising (Edwards, et al., 2020; Geva, Uzefovsky& Levy-Tzedek, 2020).

Given FoE students’ affinity for technology, AI, and social robotics, it is logical to explore how robotic pets could be incorporated into FoE wellness initiatives.

Golden Retriever Pup

robotic pet - golden retriever pup

Gray Cat

robotic pet - gray cat

Pervious Robotic Pet Studies

Interested in knowing more about the impacts of robotic pets on well-being? Below are some previously completed studies.

  1. Barber, O., Somogyi, E., McBride, A.E. et al. Children’s Evaluations of a Therapy Dog and Biomimetic Robot: Influences of Animistic Beliefs and Social Interaction. Int J of Soc Robotics 13, 1411–1425 (2021).
  2. Edwards, A. P., Edwards, C., Abendschein, B., Espinosa, J., Scherger, J., and Vander Meer, P. F., Using Robot Animal Companions in the Academic Library to Mitigate Student Stress (2020). University Libraries Faculty & Staff Publications. 52. 10.1108/LHT-07-2020-0148
  3. Geva, N., Uzefovsky, F. & Levy-Tzedek, S. Touching the social robot PARO reduces pain perception and salivary oxytocin levels. Sci Rep 10, 9814 (2020).
  4. Takayanagi, K., Kirita, T., Shibata, T. Comparison of Verbal and Emotional Responses of Elderly People with Mild/Moderate Dementia and Those with Severe Dementia in Responses to Seal Robot, PARO. Front Aging Neurosci. 2014 Sep 26;6:257. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2014.00257. PMID: 25309434; PMCID: PMC4176084.

Step 1. Gathering general impressions

This initiative seeks to understand students' perceptions of robotic pets and the potential impacts of these pets on student well-being.

Title of Project: Faculty of Engineering Students Initial Impression of Robotic Pets

Principle Investigator: Dr. Carolyn MacGregor, University of Waterloo, System Designs Engineering, Associate Dean, Teaching and Student Experience

Researcher: Renate Donnovan, PhD (Candidate), University of Waterloo, Faculty of Engineering Dean’s Office.

Who can Participate in this Study?: Any currently enrolled (full or part-time) in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo.

What Is This Study About?: Current FoE students are invited to participate in a research study to explore Faculty of Engineering students’ impressions of robotic pets. This study is being undertaken as part of the process to design an ongoing robotic pet program to support Faculty of Engineering student well-being.

What You Will Be Asked to Do?: If you decide to volunteer, you will be asked to complete a brief paper-based survey.  The survey will take 3-5 minutes to complete and consists of a consent form and 7 questions about your familiarity with, and impressions of the robotic pets. At the end of the survey, you will be asked to indicate your interest in participating in a focus group to design the ongoing robotic pet program for Engineering students. The data from the survey will be linked to a unique participant ID and only used to contact you with information for future portions of the study.

Participation and Remuneration: Participation in this study is voluntary. You may decline to answer any questions that you do not wish to answer by leaving them blank and you can withdraw your participation at any time without penalty or loss of remuneration. In appreciation of your time and contribution, you will receive a coupon for a free coffee or tea from either the Engineering C&D (Engineering students) or Melville Café (Architecture students)

Personal Benefits of the Study: There are no direct personal benefits to participation in this study.

 What Are the Possible Benefits of This Study?: This study may provide greater understanding of the impact of robotic pets on student well-being and provide insights into how a robotic pet program might be designed and implemented.

What Are the Risks Associated with This Study?: There are no anticipated risks.

Will My Identity Be Known to Others?: Participants will be assigned a participant number. Only your participant number will appear on the survey responses. A participant key will be created with your participant number, name, and contact information and stored separately from your survey answers. Your contact information will only be known to the researcher, and only used to invite interested participants to attend the focus group, as well as to share the results from the study.

Data Storage: The participant key will be password protected and stored for up to one year on a secure University of Waterloo server. Consent forms and participant surveys will be stored separately in locked filing cabinets, inside locked offices on the University of Waterloo campus until data is analyzed. Upon completion of the project (one year or less) all paper copies will be destroyed.

Withdrawal from the Study: You can withdraw from this study at any point prior to the destruction of the participant key and completed surveys. Once documentation is destroyed it will be impossible to identify individual responses.

Questions and Research Ethics Clearance: If after receiving this letter, you have any questions about this study, or would like additional information to assist you in reaching a decision about participation, please feel free to ask Renate Donnovan or Dr. Carolyn MacGregor. This study has been reviewed and received ethics clearance through the University of Waterloo Research Ethics Board (REB #46029). If you have questions for the Board, contact the Office of Research Ethics, toll-free at 1-833-643-2379 (Canada and USA), 1-519-888-4440, or

Participant Consent: Agreeing to participate does not waive your legal rights or release the investigator(s) or involved institution(s) from their legal and professional responsibilities. The first portion of the survey will ask you to indicate your consent to participating in the study, as well as to confirm that:

  • You have read the information presented in the study information letter.              
  • Your participation in the study is voluntary.         
  • You are currently enrolled as a Faculty of Engineering student (full or part-time) at the University of Waterloo.                
  • You have had the opportunity to ask questions related to the study and have received satisfactory answers to your questions.                
  • You are aware that you may choose to terminate your participation at any time for any reason.

Step 2. Designing the Robotic Pet Program

Step 2. will consist of a series of focus groups with FoE students. During the focus groups participants will collaborate to create a design for an ongoing robotic pet program.

Anticipated start date is Fall 2024. Watch for study details.

Step 3. Assessing the impact of Robotic Pets on student well-being

In Step 3. we will implement the robotic pet program as designed by students who participated in the focus groups, and explore the impacts of robotic pets on student well-being.

Anticipated start date: Winter 2025. Watch for details


Ali, P. A., & Watson, R. (2016). Peer review and the publication process. Nurs Open, 3(4), 193-202. doi:10.1002/nop2.51

Azizi, N., Chandra, S., Gray, M., Fane, J., Sager, M., & Dautenhahn, K. (2022, 2022//). User Evaluation of Social Robots as a Tool in One-to-One Instructional Settings for Students with Learning Disabilities. Paper presented at the Social Robotics, Cham.

Banks, M. R., Willoughby, L. M., & Banks, W. A. (2008). Animal-Assisted Therapy and Loneliness in Nursing Homes: Use of Robotic versus Living Dogs. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 9(3), 173-177. doi:10.1016/j.jamda.2007.11.007

Barber, O., Somogyi, E., McBride, A. E., & Proops, L. (2021). Children’s Evaluations of a Therapy Dog and Biomimetic Robot: Influences of Animistic Beliefs and Social Interaction. International Journal of Social Robotics, 13(6), 1411-1425. doi:10.1007/s12369-020-00722-0

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77-101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Breazeal, C., Dautenhahn, K., & Kanda, T. (2016). Social Robotics. In B. Siciliano & O. Khatib (Eds.), Springer Handbook of Robotics (pp. 1935-1972). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Coffey, A., & Atkinson, P. (1996). Concepts and coding: Complementary research strategies. In Making sense of qualitative data (pp. 26-53). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Edwards, A., Edwards, C., Abendschein, B., Espinosa, J., Scherger, J., & Vander Meer, P. (2022). Using robot animal companions in the academic library to mitigate student stress. Library Hi Tech, 40(4), 878-893. doi:10.1108/LHT-07-2020-0148

Garrido, S., Millington, C., Cheers, D., Boydell, K., Schubert, E., Meade, T., & Nguyen, Q. V. (2019). What Works and What Doesn’t Work? A Systematic Review of Digital Mental Health Interventions for Depression and Anxiety in Young People. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00759

Horstmann, A. C. (2023). Hey Robot, Can You Help Me Feel Less Lonely? An Explorative Study to Examine the Potential of Using Social Robots to Alleviate Loneliness in Young Adults. Paper presented at the Companion of the 2023 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, Stockholm, Sweden. https://doi-

Lattie, E. G., Adkins, E. C., Winquist, N., Stiles-Shields, C., Wafford, Q. E., & Graham, A. K. (2019). Digital Mental Health Interventions for Depression, Anxiety, and Enhancement of Psychological Well- Being Among College Students: Systematic Review. J Med Internet Res, 21(7), e12869. doi:10.2196/12869

Linden, B., Boyes, R., & Stuart, H. (2021). Cross-sectional trend analysis of the NCHA II survey data on Canadian post-secondary student mental health and wellbeing from 2013 to 2019. BMC Public Health, 21(1), 590. doi:10.1186/s12889-021-10622-1

Lipson, S. K., Zhou, S., Wagner, B., Beck, K., & Eisenberg, D. (2016). Major Differences: Variations in Undergraduate and Graduate Student Mental Health and Treatment Utilization Across Academic Disciplines. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 30(1), 23-41. doi:10.1080/87568225.2016.1105657

Mahmoudi Asl, A., Molinari Ulate, M., Franco Martin, M., & van der Roest, H. (2022). Methodologies Used to Study the Feasibility, Usability, Efficacy, and Effectiveness of Social Robots For Elderly Adults: Scoping Review. J Med Internet Res, 24(8), e37434. doi:10.2196/37434

Melson, G. F., Kahn, J. P. H., Beck, A., & Friedman, B. (2009). Robotic Pets in Human Lives: Implications for the Human–Animal Bond and for Human Relationships with Personified Technologies. Journal of Social Issues, 65(3), 545-567. doi: Monaghan, C., Linden, B., & Stuart, H. (2020). Postsecondary Mental Health Policy in Canada: A

Scoping Review of the Grey Literature: Politique de santé mentale post-secondaire au Canada: un examen de la portée de la littérature grise. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 66(7), 603- 615. doi:10.1177/0706743720961733

Moores, L., Button, P., Fawcett, E., & Whelan, B. (2022). Puppies, Plants, Painting, and Popcorn: Evaluation of an Integrated Outreach Program. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 36(4), 410-425. doi:10.1080/87568225.2021.1881860

Ng, P., & Padjen, M. (2019). An Overview of Post-Secondary Mental Health on Campuses in Ontario: Challenges and Successes. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 17(3), 531-541. doi:10.1007/s11469-018-0015-5

Peel, N., Nguyen, K., & Tannous, C. (2023). The Impact of Campus-Based Therapy Dogs on the Mood and Affect of University Students. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 20(6). doi:10.3390/ijerph20064759

Petersen, S., Houston, S., Qin, H., Tague, C., & Studley, J. (2017). The Utilization of Robotic Pets in Dementia Care. J Alzheimers Dis, 55(2), 569-574. doi:10.3233/jad-160703

Pivetti, M., Di Battista, S., Agatolio, F., Simaku, B., Moro, M., & Menegatti, E. (2020). Educational Robotics for children with neurodevelopmental disorders: A systematic review. Heliyon, 6(10), e05160. doi:

Rasouli, S., Gupta, G., Nilsen, E., & Dautenhahn, K. (2022). Potential Applications of Social Robots in Robot-Assisted Interventions for Social Anxiety. International Journal of Social Robotics, 14(5), 1-32. doi:10.1007/s12369-021-00851-0

Shoesmith, E., Surr, C., & Ratschen, E. (2023). Animal-assisted and robotic animal-assisted interventions within dementia care: A systematic review. Dementia, 22(3), 664-693. doi:10.1177/14713012231155985

Spruin, E., Dempster, T., Islam, S., & Raybould, I. (2021). The effects of a therapy dog vs mindfulness vs a student advisor on student anxiety and well-being. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 45(5), 588-600. doi:10.1080/0309877X.2020.1804535