A VR Labrador can help you overcome your fear of dogs

A VR Labrador can help you overcome your fear of dogs

Picture in your head what a friendly dog ​​looks like – head held high, tail wagging, or turning around and showing its belly could all come to mind. Now imagine an aggressive dog – you might think of growling, biting or growling. It might seem easy to tell a friendly dog ​​from a naughty dog, but we’re actually not very good at judging some of the early signs of canine aggression, as evidenced by the more than 300,000 emergency room visits each year for bites. . These traumatic experiences can lead to the development of cynophobia or fear of dogs.

But scientists can’t just put people in rooms with aggressive dogs to see how they interpret animals’ body language or help them overcome a phobia. British researchers have created the next best thing: a virtual reality model of aggressive and non-aggressive dog interactions they call DAVE, short for Dog-Assisted Virtual Environment. They published preliminary results of the users’ experience in their VR dog on Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE.

James Oxley, study co-author and animal researcher at the University of Liverpool, told The Daily Beast in an email that current virtual reality dog ​​models often fail to depict realistic behaviors. . Rather than exhibiting behaviors of varying intensity (pulling the ears back before growling, for example), the basic models only showed dogs performing tasks like walking, sitting, barking, and jumping.

The main menu of the DAVE application.

Oxley et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Oxley and his colleagues created DAVE to track the Canine Aggression Scale, a set of escalating-intensity behaviors that can ultimately lead to a bite. They rendered Labradors that could be customized in size and color (so yes, you could create Clifford the Big Red Dog in their model). Although this can lead to strange looks for dogs, the researchers chose a high level of personalization because phobia treatments often need to be tailored to an individual’s specific experience.

“The great thing about virtual reality is that it can be highly controlled. If an individual has dog phobia, it can be slowly introduced and adapted to suit the individual, including the particular behaviors of the dog. dog that scares the person,” Oxley said. “It can even start with an unrealistic size, color, or behavior as a starting point. It can help reduce negative VR dog experiences.”

As a preliminary test, the researchers recruited 16 University of Liverpool students to try out DAVE and spend time in environments with a non-aggressive and aggressive virtual dog. For five minutes each, they were tasked with exploring a living room in virtual reality with a dog in one of the corners. On average, participants ventured closer to the non-aggressive dog than the aggressive one; three people were “bitten” by the aggressive dog, which they felt as a vibration in their handset. Afterwards, participants described what they noticed about each dog’s behavior to the researchers: the non-aggressive dog was described as “looking around”, “relaxed”, “calm” or “happy” and ” going from a standing position to a sitting position”; the aggressive dog, on the other hand, was described as “backward”, “nervous”, “frightened” or “uncertain” and “growling”.

A handful of canine behaviors simulated by the DAVE program. The top row corresponds to non-reactive and non-aggressive behaviors, while the bottom row corresponds to aggressive behaviors.

Oxley et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

For Oxley, that means the virtual environment has given the takeaway it was intended.

“The participants were very immersed in the environment and used the equipment with ease,” he said. “When interacting with the unresponsive and aggressive dog models, participants frequently talked to the dog and attempted to pet the unresponsive model. Some were also ‘bitten’ by the dog and reacted in surprise.”

At this point, Oxley and his team are still studying how people react on the lower rungs of the aggression scale, in order to more accurately detect signs of reactivity and prevent dog bites. With further testing, the model could be used to alleviate dogs’ fear of dogs and even make them see Fido in a new light.

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