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Tag: virtual

“Oh, you are so good:” Virtual dog offers “unconditional love” to elderly

Meet GeriJoy. He’s a virtual dog. He’s a talking dog. He’s even described as “a compassionate” dog.

He was developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be an interactive companion for older people with dementia or memory problems, serving to provide what his makers call “continual stimulation.”

We’d be the first to recite all the wondrous things contact with a dog can do for the old, lonely, troubled and institutionalized and, using my own father as an example, we have, repeatedly.

But there’s something about GeriJoy, noble as the idea may be, that I find a little bit patronizing, a little bit insulting, and highly phony. His creation also seems an awfully circuitous and robotic route to take to provide a virtual experience with an animated creature when the real thing is so abundantly available.

Clearly, I’m cynical, or at least wary, when it comes to technology — and perhaps more. It was only yesterday, after all,  that I cruelly bashed soft and fuzzy stuffed animals.

gerijoy-300x170My point, then and now, is that, unlike with sugar, there is no substitute for the real thing when it comes to dogs.

Despite that, techno-wizards keep trying, intent, it seems, on trying to capture a no-shed, no-drool, no bark, no worries version of dog — be it stuffed, virtual, or mechanical — and then convince you that their inanimate, or animated, object will love you unconditionally forever.

The truth is, close as they might come — and cloning probably comes closest — they never will. Ha ha. Take that.

If GeriJoy, the virtual dog, is making some old person happy, even if it’s a delusional kind of happy, we’re all for it. If it’s being used as a substitute for human attention, we’re not. With all the growth in and demands on senior services and facilities for the elderly, there’s a tendency to look for quick and easy shortcuts, when the keys to doing job right are already obvious — caring staff, ample staff, staff with hearts.

And maybe some dogs — real dogs.

What I’d rather see is not a nursing home where dozens of residents are lined up in wheelchairs, stroking animated images on their hand held devices, but one that’s taking advantage of programs — or even creating some — in which dog ownership among residents is encouraged, and assistance with those dogs is provided; ones where dogs live under communal ownership, or short of that, therapy dogs visit regularly; one that’s investing in building a qualified and caring staff, as opposed to investing in devices that substitute for real human, or dog, contact.

Here’s how the GeriJoy website touts the product: “Have an older loved one who is lonely and suffers from dementia or geriatric depression? GeriJoy can help. We provide talking pets that are intelligent, compassionate, and available 24/7 to talk about anything, including photos and updates from family.”

The virtual dog can be displayed on a computer or other Internet-connected device. The virtual dog, the website claims, ”provides all the availability and unconditional love of an adorable pet, combined with the ability to talk with true intelligence and compassion … It’s as if it lives inside a picture frame, so you get the benefits of pet therapy without any smells, allergies, cleaning up, bites, or food and veterinary bills.”

The virtual dog can provide around the clock stimulation, his developers say, and, in the video snippet above, GeriJoy certainly sounds stimulating, or stimulated, almost orgasmically so. “Oh, you’re so good,” GeriJoy coos as an elderly man strokes the image on the screen.

We’re not sure if that’s what GeriJoy told the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s Healthy Aging Forum this month when he appeared before it. He’ll also be on exhibit at the AARP Health Innovation@50+ Tech Expo on May 31 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, according to the AARP blog.

To get GeriJoy, one must subscribe, and pay from $99 to $129 a month. The hardware costs up to $349 for the most sophisticated, Internet-connected version.

GeriJoy was co-founded by Victor Wang, a former Canadian Army officer who did research on human-machine interaction for NASA while at MIT. He says he was inspired to develop the virtual dog by his grandmother in Taiwan, who became depressed while she was living alone.

Wang says GeriJoy can even serve as a watchdog. In one case, a user’s human caregiver was being verbally abusive, and GeriJoy “contacted the user’s daughter to let her know about it.”

“Whatever your loved one wants to know, the companion can find out and report back,” the website says. “It can send and receive messages and photos between you and your loved one, also via the Internet. All this is done through the intuitive metaphor of a talking dog. Your loved one doesn’t even need to know what a computer is.”

We don’t care if the day comes when a virtual dog can cook dinner, push a wheelchair, administer medications or help you understand your health insurance.

A real dog is better — even with his shedding and drooling. Real dogs bring one into, and keep one in, the moment. Real dogs can help you keep a grip on reality, as opposed to pulling you into fantasy land. And real dogs offer a true form of love and validation — even if they can’t say, at least with words, “Oh, you are so good.”

There’s more than one way to skin a frog

frog dissection

Holy Formaldehyde! Times are changing. As of this fall, thousands of Catholic school students in the Philadelphia area can opt out of that once mandatory, highly stinky rite of passage — dissecting a frog in biology class.

The  Archdiocese of Philadelphia has established a policy under which students in its 20 high schools who have concerns about traditional animal dissection are allowed to use alternatives to frogs, cats and other actual animals.

As an increasing number of high schools and universities are realizing, there are plenty of options to cutting up an animal, and students can learn just as much about biology through models and computer graphics.

“As the 21st century evolves, greater use of virtual dissection experiences will be encouraged and eventually replace the use of scientifically preserved animals,” said Mary E. Rochford, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “With the availability of virtual lab experiences and other Internet instructional tools, students can arrive at the same learning.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s policy is modeled after the Pennsylvania Students Rights Option, a law established in 1992, which enables public and non-public students from grades K-12 who do not want to harm animals as part of their coursework to use an alternative instead.

You can learn more about the Pennsylvania law here.

“The Archdiocese’s student choice policy can serve as a model for other schools in the state of Pennsylvania, in addition to other dioceses across the U.S,” said Laura Ducceschi, Director of Animalearn, a project of the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

Tens of thousands of cats, frogs, and other animals are killed annually, specifically for dissection and other educational purposes, despite available alternatives and studies showing that students learn as well or better by using virtual dissection and other humane alternatives, according to Animalearn.

Animalearn’s website offers a searchable database of over 450 alternatives to dissection, downloadable software, and other humane science tools. A free resource to students and teachers nationwide, The Science Bank offers interactive models, videos, and virtual dissection CD-ROMs and DVDs.

Doggie obituaries? Absolutely! Pawsitively!

To the growing list of once uniquely human phenomena that have made the transition to the dog world — anti-depressants, day care, therapists, diet pills, legal representation, designer clothing and gourmet meals, to name but a few — we can now add newspaper obituaries.

One appeared Friday on bostonherald.com, under the header “Obituary for a canine,” right between the death notices for two recently departed humans, Bridget Connolly and Stephen M. Loud Sr.

The obit announced the death of Kross Monsta Giles, 9, of Saugus, who ”passed on February 3, 2009, with his loving family by his side.” It listed his survivors, including his human sister and his canine siblings. (He came from a litter of 10.)

The nine-year-old German shepherd, who succumbed to cancer, the obituary reported, was best known as the face of A Better Companion, a canine recreation center in Melrose, where he served as official greeter. The obit concluded with an announcement of the services, to be held today at the Gately Funeral Home, 79 W. Foster St., Melrose from 10 a.m. to noon.

Gately Funeral Home owner John Gately, a dog lover himself, donated the space for the service. He will bring an urn with Kross’ ashes, and those who knew Kross can offer condolences. An obituary for Kross also appears on the funeral home’s website.

The Boston Herald, in a story about the obit, called the funeral home services “a Massachusetts first.”

“From my heart,” said Gately, “it was just me helping a family grieving over the loss of a companion and a great friend to them. How could I turn them away?” Gately said no one has complained about the obituary and service.

The dog’s owner, Kris Giles, said she was turned down by one funeral home owner worried about “public backlash.” She thinks the wake will help bring closure to her, her husband and 7-year-old daughter. “It just felt so good having something for him,” she said. “It’s making me feel better. It’s making the loss a little bit easier.”

We’re liking the idea. Opening obituaries and funeral services up to dogs could give both industries — newspapers and funeral homes, which kind of share the same ambience right now – a much needed boost.

It’s not exactly a new idea. There are numerous websites that allow pet owners to memorialize, eulogize and wax nostalgic about lost pets (see, for instance, rainbowbridge.com, rainbowbridge.org, petloss.com, critters.com, youns.com or peternity.com). Some of them, apparently figuring it’s high time Rainbow Bridge started collecting tolls, charge a fee.

There’s no reason newspapers couldn’t, crass as it may sound, cash in on pet death as well, allowing canine death notices to appear right along with the humans.

As for the funeral services, we have only one problem with them — or at least the one today in honor of Kross Monsta: Dogs are not allowed.

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