Could a DOG fly a plane?
Absurd? Believe it or not, a team of respected British documentary makers are trying to prove just that
DOGS may be man’s best friend, but we don’t half make them work for the privilege. When we’re not getting them to round up sheep, chase robbers or fetch pheasants, we’re sending mutts into space, using them to sniff out explosives or rescue climbers.
And soon, if the makers of a bizarre new documentary get their way, we will also be making them fly planes.
In an extraordinary — and frankly barking — experiment, animal behaviour experts are attempting to teach dogs from rescue homes how to master the controls of a light aircraft.
While they’re unlikely ever to handle a complex take- off and landing, the researchers involved say some dogs are smart enough to learn the basics of keeping a plane in the air.
Until now, the most famous flying hound was the serial fantasist Snoopy from the Peanuts cartoon, who imagined himself as a World War I flying ace atop his doghouse battling the Red Baron.
For those raised in the Seventies, Muttley — faithful companion to Dick Dastardly — was another keen canine flier who proved himself handy in a cockpit.
But outside of cartoons does a dog really have the intelligence to learn how to fly a plane? Won’t they just get distracted the first time they fly past a pigeon?
The flying dogs experiment is being carried out by the award-winning Oxford Scientific Films for a documentary, Dogs Might Fly, due to be broadcast in the New Year on Sky.
So can canines really be trained to handle the throttle and rudder controls of a plane? Last month, a film crew recorded a Labrador strapped to a flat-bed truck at a London airfield, being taught how to use aircraft-style controls.
In the experiment, watched by startled passers-by, the dog appeared to succeed in driving the truck in circles.
‘We certainly know that dogs are hugely bright and trainable — often more capable than we think,’ creative director Caroline Hawkins said.
‘The series looks to find an answer to this question in a safe and controlled way. As training progresses, we’re looking forward to seeing if it might be possible for a dog to take control of an aircraft.’
THE film-makers undertook a nationwide search for dogs from rescue centres, and are working with a team of animal welfare specialists and dog cognition experts to prepare the animals for the experience of flying. The dogs which were selected will undergo tasks designed to assess their empathy, memory and ability to communicate.
The experiment follows a New Zealand exercise in 2012 in which researchers trained a team of rescue home dogs to operate specially adapted Minis. Three dogs took turns to drive a Mini Countryman solo down a race track in Auckland after being trained to start the car, put it in gear and then travel 70 metres before bringing it to a stop.
The dogs, who were strapped into the driver’s seat and sat on their haunches with front paws on the wheel and back legs on specially adapted pedals, were fine on the straight and could steer, brake and accelerate.
However, they were hopeless at corners, a failure that doesn’t bode well for the plane experiment.
But while dogs are certainly intelligent, their past record with technology isn’t great.
In the run-up to the World War II, the Soviet Union tried to create an army of anti-tank dogs with mines strapped to their backs.
The plan was for the dogs to run under enemy tanks, pull a lever with their teeth to release the bomb and then run away.
But after six months’ training, the dogs still couldn’t master the release mechanism. Often they returned to their handler with the bomb still on their back.
Depressingly, the USSR decided their bomb dogs needed to make the ultimate sacrifice and changed the mines so that they exploded on contact with an enemy target, killing the dogs. even then, many refused to run under moving tanks on the battlefield. Others got scared and ran back to the Soviet trenches, where the mines killed their handlers.
The Soviet Union used dogs in the first space missions of the Fifties and Sixties to test whether human space flight was possible. In these tests they didn’t have to do anything other than survive. Some did, but many died in space from heat and stress, including Laika, the first dog to go into orbit.
One of the world’s leading authorities on dog intelligence, Dr Stanley Coren, of the British Columbia University in Vancouver, is sceptical that they are bright enough to handle a plane. There are many ways to judge an animal’s intelligence and many different types of intelligence.
But judged on how well they learn words or signals, and how good they are at solving problems, dogs are about as bright as human toddlers. There are exceptional dogs, of course. One of the brightest is Chaser, a ten-year-old border collie who understands 1,000 words. At home she has around 800 cloth animals, 116 different balls and more than 100 plastic toys and knows the name of each.
Ask her for the toy chicken and she will find it in the huge pile.
She also understands dozens of verbs — from take, chase, paw it to the more common sit and lie-down. But she is a genius — the canine equivalent of Shakespeare — who was taught up to five hours a day, five days a week her whole life.
‘The average dog can learn about 160 words, signs and signals, which is roughly equivalent to a human aged two to two-and-a-half,’ says Dr Coren. ‘The most intelligent breeds — such as border collies, poodles, German shepherds and retrievers — can learn upwards of 250 words. But even they are not much brighter than a child aged two-and-a-half to three.’
And that doesn’t bode well for the plane experiment.
But if all they had to do was use their mouth and a specially adapted joystick to keep a plane flying straight in the air, could they manage it? Perhaps what this experiment will prove is not that dogs are especially clever, but that flying a modern aircraft isn’t quite as tricky as we thought. ‘If a dog flies a plane, they are going to do it with the mind of a two or threeyear-old child,’ says Dr Coren.
‘Are you going to walk onto a plane knowing it is being piloted by a three-year- old? They might be able to go in a straight line, but I wouldn’t trust a dog to go up or down.’
Of course, communication skill is just one measure of intelligence.
When it comes to social intelligence, dogs are far smarter than a toddler.
‘They are probably somewhat like human adolescents,’ says Dr Coren, who has written more than a dozen books on dog behaviour.
‘They are much more interested in who is sleeping with whom, and who is moving up the pack.’
Dogs are one of a handful of animals with the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. Psychologists call it ‘theory of mind’. It means dogs may be able to experience empathy and predict their owner’s behaviour.
It also means they have the ability to cheat.
In one experiment, researchers at Portsmouth University left dogs in a room with a person and a bowl of food. The dogs were told that the food was out of bounds.
The animals turned out to be four times more likely to disobey the instruction when the lights were off than in a brightly lit room.
They had worked out that humans rely on vision to see what they were up to, and that without light they might get away with breaking the rules. It seems obvious to us, but it’s a major leap of reasoning and imagination for an animal.
OF COURSE, dogs don’t just use their brains to get away with crimes. Their strong social intelligence means they can be unflinchingly loyal to their owners — who they see as their pack leaders — and brave.
Scientific studies have shown that dogs can watch TV, read human facial expressions and display empathy.
If an owner looks at an object in the room, a dog can follow their gaze. They yawn more in response to their owner’s yawn than a stranger’s.
But social intelligence, bravery and loyalty — all qualities that evolved to help dogs live in complex social groups — won’t get you far behind the controls of a plane.
We won’t know until next year whether they have enough brains to handle the controls of a plane in the air — or even to understand that they are in a plane high above the ground.
The programme-makers have reassured us that no dogs will be in danger — and that safeguards and human handlers will be close by at all times to take over if a canine loses control of a plane.
In the meantime, those people fascinated with the idea of dogs in planes will have to make do with Snoopy, his imaginary Sopwith Camel and all those hair-raising dog fights.