Virtual dog could help researchers tackle 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 in the UK. 

As part of a new pilot study published in PLOS ONE, veterinary researchers at the University of Liverpool have tested a virtual reality labrador known as DAVE (Dog Assisted Virtual Environment) to explore if and/or how humans recognise and interpret signs of dog aggression.

“Studying human behaviour around a dog performing aggressive behaviours is ethically difficult, for the sake of the risk to the person but also, we don’t want to be deliberately making dogs unhappy,” Dr Carri Westgarth said.

“A virtual dog solves these problems.”

The researchers recruited 16 adults for a practical 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-favourite labrador breed.

The team asked participants if they recognised and understood the signs of aggressive behaviours displayed by the virtual dog, including licking its lips, yawning, front paw lifting, backing away, barking, growling, and showing of teeth. 

The researchers also assessed participant proximity to the dog using VR head and hand tracking. Participants behaved and interacted with the model in a manner that might be expected with a live dog. However, three participants got close enough to the aggressive virtual dog to get bitten. 

“This is a novel pilot study which overcomes the challenges associated with assessing human behaviour around real dogs displaying aggressive behaviour,” James Oxley said.

“Our findings highlight the potential that the virtual reality model has to help us better understand human behaviour in the presence of dogs and our interpretation of dog behaviour.”

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