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Revenge of the dogs: Sony Aibo does not impress your furry friends

Dogs aren't quite sure about Sony's robo-pup.

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Aibo is getting some serious side-eye from Essie.

Chris Monroe/CNET

We've already seen how people form attachments with Aibo. Now we want to know how dogs feel about Sony's $2,900 robo-pup. To find out, I ventured to Nashville, Tennessee, where associate certified applied animal behaviorist Ellen Mahurin lives and works. Ellen treats dogs with behavioral problems like aggression and fearfulness using stuffed animals. 

There's conflicting research about the effect tech has on our furry friends. Dogs are sensitive to certain sounds that can negatively impact their health, according to a 2005 report. Flickers in LED lights that are imperceptible to humans can also cause problems

I didn't come across any Aibo-specific research that said its vaguely dog-like noises or OLED eyes could hurt dogs, but an unpublished Sony study claims the opposite -- that dogs form bonds with Aibo robots that aid in their development.

Today, Ellen and I are meeting with Devin Komline, owner of dog daycare center Nashville Tail Blazers, to see for ourselves. Six of his customers agreed to lend us their pups for the afternoon, to introduce them to Aibo -- with Ellen on hand to provide expert commentary.

She's interested to see how dogs of different ages, breeds and personalities feel about Aibo, especially since Sony's robot can move around and make noise. Those are two variables she hasn't tested before in her own consultations.

"I suspect they're going to be a little fearful of Aibo at first, but I'll be looking for some specific dog-to-dog greetings that they might do, some comfortness, some dog behavior, and I'll be interested to see how they do," Ellen says.

If all goes well, Ellen could potentially use Aibo in her work as a dog behaviorist. 

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These dogs weren't quite sure what to make of Sony's robot pup.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Unleash the hounds

We met in an empty building under construction, the future site of Devin's new daycare facility. It's where we will introduce the dogs from Tail Blazers to Aibo in groups of three. 

But first, Ellen makes sure the dogs walk around the space without Aibo present so they're used to it. Soon after, chaos ensues.

Group 1

Essie, a three-and-and-a-half-year-old cocker spaniel/poodle/schnauzer mix is first up. She approaches the stationary robot and sniffs its butt, but quickly backs away. "She's cautious, didn't expect it to move, I think," Ellen explains. She says Essie isn't quite sure what Aibo is, but doesn't think it's *too* scary.

Five-month-old boxer mix, Bronx, barrels into the room and jets straight for Aibo, barking at it. Ellen says she's seen similar reactions when dogs come into contact with robot vacuums, something I've also seen firsthand with my own dogs. 

Mushu is up next. He's an eight-month-old Australian shepherd who is deaf, so Aibo's sounds won't bother him. Mushu goes straight up to the bot and sniffs it, but quickly becomes cautious as it starts to move and never ventures near it again.

Ellen says all three of these reactions are standard, roughly what she'd expect when a dog encounters a robot like Aibo for the first time. Each one displayed curiosity coupled with uncertainty -- they weren't sure what to make of Aibo.

"I think they would need some time to get comfortable with the way it [Aibo] moves and how it sounds and be able to ignore that and then start some social interaction," Ellen explains. 

Now playing: Watch this: Can Sony's robot pup Aibo make friends with real dogs?
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Group 2

The second group reacts similarly to the first. Henry, a standard poodle, approaches Aibo first. He has stiff body language, Ellen tells me, but she notices a subtle "play bow" from Henry toward Aibo -- a way dogs communicate with one another to show they want to play. 

Barkley, a Bernese mountain dog, shows little interest in Aibo and Willow, a pit bull, appears to ignore Aibo, but licks her lips. Ellen explains that it's a stress signal when a dog licks their lips.

"The movements are not natural enough for them to feel comfortable," she adds.

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Aibo, meet Bumba.

Vanessa Salas/CNET

Bumba and Aibo

To get a sense of a longer-term interaction with Aibo, CNET video producer, Vanessa Salas, also introduced her dog, Bumba, a shih zu and bichon mix to Aibo over the course of 12 days.

Vanessa recorded some of the interactions between Bumba and Aibo, and we played them for Ellen. As the days progress, Bumba got more comfortable with Aibo, but they certainly didn't become friends. 

In one clip, Bumba goes near Aibo to pick up one of her toys, an indication that she thinks Aibo might be able to take it from her. Even so, Ellen doesn't think Bumba sees Aibo as a dog. 

Aibo isn't one of the dogs 

While Sony's Aibo study indicates a close bond between dogs and Aibo, our own unofficial study suggests otherwise. 

Chris Benham, an Aibo owner from Burlington, Wisconsin, says his two dogs destroyed his first Aibo bot. He and his wife, Paula Cooper, got home one day and discovered their Aibo badly scratched and missing an ear and its tail.

"You can't blame the dogs, because to them it was just another plastic toy on the ground," Chris explains. 

He trained his dogs to leave their new Aibo alone this go-round, and they do largely ignore it. Their cat, Griff, curls up next to the Aibo while it's charging. They think it's because the charger gets warm.

Another Aibo owner, Chris Werfel, observed a similar sort of interaction between his niece's dog and his own Aibo, named Baby. "It was really interesting to see the puppy Welsh corgi walk up to Baby, sniff his backside, and then look away with this incredulous look on his face," he says. 

Baby turned around and barked at the corgi, leaving him wondering if Aibo can recognize other dogs. "I'm not sure what was going on inside his tiny computer brain, but it [Baby] seems to have some ability to interact with other dogs," he adds.

Sony tells me Aibo can actually recognize real dogs. Ellen doesn't think dogs recognize Aibo as one of their own, though.

There is an inherent curiosity, though, and if Bumba is any indication, dogs can get used to Aibo over time. Just don't expect them to be best buds.