September 29, 2022
A new project is using a virtual Labrador to figure out how to tackle the growing problem of dog bites.
A virtual reality dog could one day be used as an educational tool to help prevent dog bites, thanks to an innovative project led by researchers at the University of Liverpool.
In a new pilot study, veterinary researchers tested a virtual reality Labrador known as DAVE (Dog Assisted Virtual Environment) to explore whether and/or how humans recognize and interpret signs of aggression from dogs.
Dog bites are a growing public health problem, with previous research from the University of Liverpool finding that adult hospitalization rates for dog bites tripled in England between 1998 and 2018.
A better understanding of human-dog behavioral interactions could help researchers solve this growing problem, but research using real dogs is fraught with pitfalls, and that’s where DAVE comes in.
Dr Carri Westgarth, Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Liverpool, explains: “Dog bites are a common public health problem affecting human-dog relationships.
“Studying human behavior around a dog engaging in aggressive behaviors is ethically difficult, for the risk to the person, but also, we don’t want to deliberately make dogs unhappy. A virtual dog solves these problems.
The researchers recruited sixteen adults for a hands-on pilot study to explore a virtual indoor living room with the virtual reality dog model allocated in the opposite corner of the room. The dog model was based on the popular family favorite Labrador breed.
The team asked participants if they recognized and understood the signs of aggressive behavior displayed by the virtual dog, including licking their lips, yawning, raising their front paw, backing up, barking, growling and showing their teeth. These behaviors are referenced from the “Canine Aggression Scale” which shows how a dog can behave when it is uncomfortable and does not want to be approached.
The researchers also assessed the participants’ proximity to the dog using virtual reality head and hand tracking. The participants behaved and interacted with the model in a way one would expect with a live dog. However, three participants got close enough to the aggressive virtual dog to be bitten. The study found little evidence of simulator sickness and indicated that participants perceived the dog as realistic.
PhD student James Oxley said: “This is a new pilot study that overcomes the challenges associated with assessing human behavior around real dogs displaying aggressive behavior. Our results highlight the potential of the virtual reality model to help us better understand human behavior in the presence of dogs and our interpretation of canine behavior.
The researchers also suggest that the virtual reality dog could be developed for use in other areas of behavioral research, such as dog safety education courses and the treatment of canine phobias.
The model was developed in conjunction with the University’s Virtual Engineering Center (VEC) and supported and funded by Dogs Trust.
Dr Andy Levers, Executive Director of the Virtual Engineering Center and the Institute of Digital Engineering and Autonomous Systems (IDEAS), said: “The Virtual Engineering Center was delighted to have been approached to support this exciting project which, according to us, can really make a difference. This digital tool allows the user to interact and learn with a realistic virtual dog in a safe and controlled sandbox environment. »
Paula Boyden, Veterinary Director of Dogs Trust, said: “We were delighted to fund the DAVE pilot project at the University of Liverpool, its potential to provide fascinating insight into human-canine interactions is clear. We hope DAVE will become an educational tool to teach people how to be safe with dogs.
“Before a bite occurs, a dog will often display subtle behaviors to indicate that they are uncomfortable and do not want to be approached. By educating people about these behaviors, we hope the incidence of dog bites can be significantly reduced.
The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.
For advice on safe behavior with dogs, please visit the Merseyside Dog Safety Partnership website.