Robot dogs could be taught to mimic behaviours of real canines to make them more lovable 

A ‘virtual Labrador’ called Dave has shed fresh light on the growing threat of dog attacks on children.

Scientists have harnessed the power of the immersive technology to simulate bites to help people recognise aggressive behaviours in pooches.

Named DAVE – Dog Assisted Virtual Environment – the simulation could hold the key to reducing the tens of millions of injuries suffered each year.

Lead author James Oxley, a PhD student at Liverpool University, said: ‘To prevent dog bites and reduce the impact for potential victims, owners, dogs and local services we must first understand two contributing factors.

‘Firstly, the ability of people to recognise and interpret dog behaviour signals and, secondly, the behaviour of people directly before dog bites occur.

‘This study highlights the promising results for the potential future use of virtual reality in behavioural research, education and psychological treatment.’

The study, published in PLoS ONE, investigated human behaviour towards DAVE and interpretation of its non-reactive and aggressive behaviours during an exploration task.

In experiments, 16 students were randomly allocated to an aggressive followed by a non-reactive model (group AN) or vice versa (group NA).

The objective was to test the recognition of dog behaviour and associated human approach and avoidance behaviour.

When participants were asked if they noticed anything about the behaviour of the dog, they most often referred to the movement of its body as a whole or part of the body.

They also frequently used adjectives to describe the emotion or motivation of behaviours of the dog rather than describing actual behavioural signals.

In the non-reactive scenario, five noted the tail compared to one in the aggressive scenario.

Regarding individuals that were ‘bitten’, all three stated seeing the dog showing its teeth and that it indicated a threat or warning, and two noticed it licking its lips.

All participants stated they heard some form of dog vocalisation, like growling or barking, during the aggressive exploration scenario.  

Mr Oxley said: ‘Participants who moved more slowly towards the aggressive dog tended also to stop earlier and at a greater distance from the dog.

‘This could potentially indicate that either certain individuals are more cautious or can recognise relevant earlier signals more readily and therefore approach at a slower speed.

‘Participants moved significantly closer to the non-reactive dog model compared to the aggressive dog model, indicating they perceived it as less of a threat to them, as supported by their reported interpretations.’