Some time ago, during a time when a man was breaking into women’s houses in my town, I ordered one of those barking dog security devices to put on my lanai. The police caught the man but I’ve kept the barking dog device because it’s a good warning system. The thing is activated by motion, and it sounds exactly like a large dog ready to attack an intruder. It’s called “Rex” and in no time at all I was thinking of it as an actual dog. I found myself thinking, “Good dog!” when Rex alerted me that a squirrel was moving by. Once when some dogs on the next street were barking, I thought, “I hope they don’t get Rex riled up.” It’s embarrassing, but he sounds so real that I still can’t think of that box that barks as an “it.” The odd thing is that guests react as if he’s a real dog too. If he barks, they look out to the lanai where there is clearly not a dog and say, “Is that your dog barking?”
Rex can’t distinguish between a serial killer lurking outside the door and a waving palm frond, so I’ve set his controls so he only barks at movement around fifteen feet from him. Otherwise, he’d be barking all the time. It’s windy today and every time a gust of wind sets off the wind chimes on the lanai, Rex barks. Not a long vicious tirade, just a gentle “Woof!” Sometimes he sounds as if he knows darn well it’s only a breeze making the leaves on the shrubs outside the lanai flutter, but he feels obligated to do his job.
I read recently about a study done about how people react to robot animals. The animals were cuddly and cute and moved or made noises like real animals, and the scientists were amazed to find that people in the study almost immediately reacted to them as if they were real. One woman ignored her grandchild to coo at a robot puppy. I thought about Rex when I read that. I don’t think I would ignore one of my grandchildren to play with Rex, but humans must be wired to respond to pretend animals the same way we respond to real animals. There’s something both weird and wonderful about that.