WELLINGTON - Rather than chasing cars, dogs in New Zealand are being taught to drive them -- steering, pedals and all -- in a heartwarming project aimed at increasing pet adoptions from animal shelters.
Animal trainer Mark Vette has spent two months training three cross-breed rescue dogs from the Auckland SPCA to drive a modified Mini as a way of proving that even unwanted canines can be taught to perform complex tasks.
The motorized mutts -- Porter, Monty and Ginny -- sit in the driver's seat, belted in with a safety harness, using their paws to operate specially designed dashboard-height pedals for the accelerator and brakes at Vette's command.
The car's steering wheel has been fitted with handles, allowing the dogs to turn it, while the "starter key" is a dashboard-mounted button that the dogs press to get the motor running.
"There's about 10 different behaviors involved, so we had to break them down into each behaviour -- using the accelerator, feet on the wheel, turn the key on, feet on the brake, the gear(stick) and so on," Vette said.
"So every time you get a new element you've got to train them for it and then link it all together, what we call chaining, then getting in the car and doing it."
The dogs began their driving lessons on a mock-up rig, learning basic commands through clicker training, before graduating to the Mini.
So far, their experience in the modified car has been limited but they will undergo a "doggie driving test" live on New Zealand television on Monday.
Footage of the old dogs being taught new tricks has attracted more than 300,000 views on YouTube and also proved a trending hit on Twitter.
Responses on social media sites were overwhelmingly positive, although some dismissed the stunt as a shaggy dog story.
"This is the single most awesome thing I have ever seen," Christopher Dyson wrote on YouTube. Another commentator asked: "Does that car have a woof rack?"
Others said the dogs appeared to drive better than some humans and U.S. website the Huffington Post tweeted: "They're really putting the fur in chauffeur."
Vette said training a dog to drive a car on its own initially seemed unbelievable but his canine charges had risen to the challenge.
"(They've) taken to training really well, it really does prove that intelligent creatures adapt to the situation they're in," he said. "It's really remarkable."
The dogs all had difficult backgrounds -- Ginny was neglected, Monty dumped at the shelter because he was "a handful" and Porter a nervous stray, according to the Auckland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"Animals this smart deserve a home," its chief executive Christine Kalin said.
"The dogs have achieved amazing things in eight short weeks of training, which really shows with the right environment just how much potential all dogs from the SPCA have as family pets," she said.
The idea was the brainchild of Auckland-based advertising agency DraftFCB, which was commissioned by Mini, which has worked with the SPCA previously, to come up with a campaign that would challenge preconceptions about shelter dogs.
"It's just taken off, the interest has been enormous," DraftFCB spokeswoman Eloise Hay said. "The good thing is, it really seems to be getting the message across too."