I have been a pet behaviorist for over 25 years and have He also worked for the movie industry, helping animals “perform” on camera. I’ve trained a 400-pound boar to simulate attacking an actor, a cat to dive shoulder-deep into the water as if catching a fish, and a cockatoo to lift a bucket, pull out a coin and drop it into a piggy bank. But when a TV company asked me if I could teach a dog to fly a plane, I faced the most difficult challenge of my career.
He was initially hesitant about the project, which involved putting 12 carefully selected rescue dogs through a training regimen that would ultimately allow three of them to take over the controls of a Cessna plane. I wondered if the idea was what was best for the animals, but I was convinced by the show’s goal: to show that an abandoned dog, given enough love and attention, is capable of much more than people might expect.
Four trainers were each assigned three of the candidates. My all-male team was Alfie, an athletic lurcher cross; Blondie, a labrador retriever with a sweet character; and a boisterous bull terrier mix named Shadow. We started with fun tasks that tested the dogs’ memory, cognitive ability, and emotional stability, training them to perform sophisticated movements in a short film, puppet production, and music video.
I wrote a book, What Dogs Want, that teaches dog owners how to understand and train their pets, and for this task I used the same basic techniques that I would recommend to anyone. By breaking down a complex maneuver into simpler, more trainable parts, I was able to get my guys to put together polished performances. I used a clicker every time they completed a part, so they would know exactly when they had done it.
The tasks gave us a good feeling that three dogs might be best suited for flight school. By barking on cue and pressing buttons with their paws, they gave us an indication of their memory and dexterity. I was delighted when two of my protégés, Alfie and Shadow, made it through, along with another trainer’s dog, Reggie. I was sorry Blondie left but like all the dogs that participated, he went to an amazing new home.
We only had six weeks to turn the three finalists into drivers. The Civil Aviation Authority had issued guidelines: the dogs had to be secured during the flight and we could not modify the aircraft. I had a simple kit built to mimic the airplane seat and controls. After making sure the dogs could sit comfortably, we used a broom handle and a piece of cut-out plywood to represent the airplane’s steering yoke.
I focused on Alfie and another trainer, Charlotte, took care of Shadow. One of the most difficult challenges, given the dogs’ enthusiasm, was encouraging them to use very subtle paw movements when driving.
During the flight, they would be sitting in the pilot’s seat, facing forward with their trainers behind them, so we had to figure out a way to give them direction instructions. I designed a second kit, which could be placed in front of the dogs and included an arrangement of lights: red to turn right, blue to turn left, and white to go straight. Each light also made a distinctive sound. We operate this system from the back seat via a controller.
After six weeks, he was delighted with how far the dogs had come. His final test was performing a figure eight in an airborne Cessna, doing banked turns while controlling their altitude. We needed a human co-pilot to get them to 3,000 feet before giving the dogs control (as diligent as our students had been, they were unable to take off and land safely).
All three performed admirably, flying the plane for minutes at a time, but it was Shadow who finally got the bite between his teeth and successfully completed the final figure eight.
In the five years since I did the show, I have visited Alfie, who now lives in Rochdale, excelling in sporting dog trials with his tutor, Cath. I also visited London and saw Shadow. He lives with Charlotte, who is making him a Hollywood star. Before the show, Shadow was only a few hours away. to be put to sleep. It’s a situation tens of thousands of dogs find themselves in every year. All of them have the potential to achieve amazing things if given the chance.
As he told Chris Broughton
This article was modified on November 12, 2021. The plane flew at 3,000 feet, not 30,000 feet as stated in a previous version.
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