My girlfriend is always bugging me about getting a dog. She picks out names and breeds and plans adventures we'll go on. When I say that the only way we can get a dog is if one knocks on our door and asks to be let in, she gets a dreamy look in her eyes.
It's not that we can't have dogs; I just don't want one. We live in a one-bedroom with barely enough space for our shoes, much less another resident. Plus, if we got a dog, I would be forced to carry its feces around in plastic bags. While my colleague Sean Nelson tells me that they warm the hand nicely on cold winter days, really, I'd rather wear gloves.
I grew up in a dog family. And while we loved all the dogs we had, we treated them more like plants than companions; we feed, watered, and sheltered them, but that was pretty much it. Two decades ago, this was normal, at least where we lived in the rural Southeast. No one I knew actually walked their dog. You just opened the front door and hoped they didn't get hit by a car.
Those days are over. Dogs now are treated better than the elderly. People say they need their dogs with them at all times, because they ease anxiety or depression or irritable bowels. You see dogs on airplanes and buses, taking up seats designed for human asses. You see dogs in grocery stores and bars. There are more than 300 dog-friendly restaurants in Seattle, according to BringFido.com. It's egregious, this centering of dogs over people who'd rather eat lunch without shih tzu fur wafting onto our plates.
But I am not the boss of my household, and among my girlfriend-boss's many fine qualities is rigid determination. So I recently went ahead and got us a dog. It requires no feeding, watering, walking, or shit-holding, because the dog is a robot.
In 2015, toy giant Hasbro released Joy for All Companion Pets—cute, fuzzy robots that resemble dogs and cats and act almost like the real thing. Hasbro's pets haven't yet been programmed to walk, but they do bark, snuffle, whine, wag their tails, nuzzle against your hand, and turn their heads if you shout loud enough. Their hearts even beat (it's a motor), sputtering to life when you run your hand down their backs.
Hasbro wasn't the first robotic pet manufacturer. The most famous of these animatronic pets is AIBO, an artificially intelligent dog made by Sony that has been programmed to "learn"—the more you interact with it, the more it can do. There's also Paro, a fluffy baby harp seal first developed in the 1990s in Japan. Like Hasbro's Companion Pets, Paro was designed for the elderly, in particular those suffering from loneliness or dementia. They're supposed to bring joy to people who might not experience it that often.
I would have preferred a baby seal to a dog (who wouldn't?), but with a price tag of nearly $6,000 for Paro (and $1,800 for AIBO), the Japanese models were a bit out of my budget. Hasbro's Joy for All Companion dog is only $130. I splurged on two-day delivery.
Peter Kahn, a professor in the University of Washington's Department of Psychology, has studied the impact of robotic pets on different populations, including children and the elderly, and the results were... mixed. "If you take all these studies together, our sense is that you sometimes get benefits. If you compare the robot dog to nothing, you see benefits. But if you compare it to an actual dog, then you usually don't."
Still, I was optimistic. The day the dog arrived, I had a plan. I would text my girlfriend at work and tell her that her dream had finally come true: We had a dog. I ran the idea by Sean Nelson.
"Do you want to keep your girlfriend?" he asked. "Don't do that."
Good point. Instead of setting my girlfriend up for a wave of disappointment, I went with plan B: I'd let her discover our new pet organically.
The dog, which came with batteries and a red handkerchief tied around its neck, was waiting in our bedroom when my girlfriend got home from work, barking and yipping loudly enough to be heard with the door shut. My girlfriend's eyes grew wide. Is that a puppy? Did you get us a PUPPY? She nearly screamed and ran into the bedroom. I waited for the howl of pain when she discovered our new puppy was made of plastic. But the wail didn't come, and when I followed her into the bedroom, she was cuddling our new dog in her arms.
"Let's call her Trixie," she said, beaming. "Short for Triscuit."
Trixie quickly became our most prized possession. My girlfriend took off the generic red handkerchief and replaced it with a white silk handkerchief with black polka dots, as if Trixie were headed to Paris. We slept with her at the foot of the bed, her weight a comfortable approximation of the real thing. When we left home in the morning, my girlfriend set Trixie up by the window so she could watch the neighborhood while we worked. I drew the line at leaving NPR on for her.
Gradually, however, our interest began to wane. I complained about the motor's whirring noise. "What's wrong with Triscuit?" I'd gripe. "She's starting to sound like a weed whacker. Are we sure her eyes aren't cameras?"
And why didn't Hasbro design her to walk? Sure, we didn't have to take her to the park to play fetch, but she'd be a lot more fun if we could. "Who is this dog made for?" I'd whine. "Old people?"
More and more, we kept Trixie on mute. Her bark stolen, she would whir away on our bed, wagging and nodding and turning her head. Eventually, annoyed at her inexplicably loud motor (note to Hasbro: work on this), I'd pick her up, open the flap by her butt, and turn the dog off. The guilt lasted only a few seconds.
After a few weeks, Trixie got moved from the bedroom to the closet. "Oh," my girlfriend said one day, glancing at Trixie on the shelf. "I've been missing that." She untied the polka-dot scarf. It was not our dog she'd been missing but the scarf. Though we still pulled Trixie out when guests came over—insisting, with straight faces, that she was just like a regular dog—we stopped thinking about her. She's still in the closet, turned off, a friendly reminder that I spent $130 on a pet for people who don't know what year it is.
Still, the experiment was not a total waste. After some discussion, we decided to do what's best for the dog: We're going to give her to my girlfriend's grandmother, who lives in a home for people with dementia. Maybe Trixie will remind Grandma of another time, when she had dogs and a husband and kids. Or maybe Trixie will just sit by her chair and look cute.
Either way, my girlfriend made me promise that the next dog we get will be made of flesh, bone, and fur. This time, I had to agree. The dog I'm not exactly sure about. But the girl? This one's worth keeping.