Acadia Hospital Finds Success with Robotic Seals


The benefits of pet therapy are well-documented, but some environments such as hospitals and extended care facilities pose a challenge for the use of live animals. Acadia Hospital is finding success with advanced interactive robots that look like baby harp seals and play a major role in youth therapy sessions. By interacting with people, the seals respond as if they are alive, moving their heads and legs, making sounds like an actual harp seal, and showing you preferred behavior.

The seals have five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, auditory temperature, and posture, with which they can perceive people and their environment. With the light sensors, they can recognize light and dark. They feel being stroked or struck by tactile sensors, or being held by the posture sensors. The seals can also recognize the direction of voice and words such as their names, greetings, and praise with its audio sensors.

The robot’s names are Gato and Paro, a play off of the Spanish words for cat (gato) and dog (perro). Acadia’s pediatric services use them for both inpatient and outpatient youth almost daily with multiple youth over the course of the day. Acadia’s Pediatric Day Treatment Program has Gato, while the child and adolescent inpatient units use Paro, as a tool for therapeutic intervention.

“Clinical staff at Acadia frequently comment on how effective Paro and Gato are at easing anxiety and improving their patients’ ability to process through feelings of sadness, loss, grief, and trauma,” said Chris McLaughlin, LCSW, administrator of Pediatric Services at Acadia Hospital. “By integrating the seals into treatment sessions, we find that our kids are able to calm quicker and engage in the therapy session with better outcomes.”

Besides reducing stress for patients, as well as caregivers, some of the other notable outcomes from the use of the seals include improved socialization of patients with each other and with caregivers. The seals also help encourage prosocial and safe interactions with live animals. Overall, these robots have been shown to have a positive psychological effect on patients, improving their relaxation and motivation.

Gato and Paro are also featured in a new coloring/activity book to help young inpatients better adjust and become comfortable as an Acadia patient. They can also be used therapeutically by children in the pediatric outpatient services. The coloring book was collaboratively developed by key staff members, along with a professional graphic designer, and a volunteer artist. The cost for producing the book was funded in part by the Acadia Hospital Foundation.


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