Could a DOG fly a plane?

Ab­surd? Be­lieve it or not, a team of re­spected Bri­tish documentary mak­ers are try­ing to prove just that

Daily Mail - - Front Page - by David Der­byshire

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.

Pic­ture: ALAMY

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