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Driving while canine

New Zealand shelter dogs raise their profile by taking the wheel

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2013

To get behind the wheel, drivers have to have decent eyesight—but apparently, opposable thumbs aren’t required.

When three dogs from SPCA Auckland in New Zealand learned to drive last year, they also drove home a point: Shelter dogs are smart, and they deserve good homes. The challenge for the project’s organizers, says CEO Christine Kalin, was to make sure the novelty didn’t overwhelm the promotion’s message.

The proposal came from a longtime SPCA Auckland supporter, MINI New Zealand, and the carmaker’s advertising agency, DraftFCB. Kalin, sensing a way to help the public make an emotional connection to shelter dogs, says it took her about three seconds to agree to it—provided that renowned trainer Mark Vette and his team from Animals on Q prepped the dogs.

Three SPCA dogs—Monty (a giant schnauzer mix), Porter (a bearded collie mix), and Ginny (a bearded collie/whippet mix, shown above)—went through eight weeks of training, moving from a rig that resembled a go-cart to a MINI Countryman modified with extensions on the pedals. In December, Monty and Porter displayed their prowess on a live television show in New Zealand, driving the MINI around a track at a walking pace.

Monty, using his front paws to work the steering wheel and controls, maneuvered the car without a hitch. Porter, who had a TV reporter on board, didn’t take the turn as well, and the car briefly veered off the track onto a grassy area. The riskiest part of the promotion, Kalin notes, was seeing how the dogs would fare on live TV.

The dogs had the time of their lives learning to drive, Kalin says, recalling how they’d race each other to the training rig, tails wagging in anticipation of rewards. Meanwhile, the promotion gave the SPCA a chance to showcase the dogs’ “beautiful essence”—their concentration and yearning for approval. “They took it so seriously,” Kalin says.

The campaign, which generated media coverage and social media chatter throughout the world (including a “Top Ten Signs Your Dog Is A Bad Driver” list on the Late Show with David Letterman), surpassed the organizers’ expectations. The project’s initial aim was simply to make SPCA dogs the first choice of New Zealanders looking to adopt.

While the promotion didn’t immediately prompt a record increase in shelter traffic, it greatly raised the profile of shelter dogs, and YouTube videos of Monty, Porter, and Ginny in action spread the word to a younger audience, Kalin says. The three dogs have all found new homes.

New Zealand’s driving dogs are believed to be the world’s first. “It is such a wacky idea, but it’s an obvious idea, too,” Kalin says. “… When you break it down, we train dogs to do all sorts of things.”


See videos of the driving dogs. Follow them on Twitter at @drivingdogs.

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.