Dear Car Talk Pet Experts:
I just saw this video and have decided that my dog has what it takes to be a driving dog viral video sensation. I can retrofit my son's old go-kart, but I was wondering: How would I actually train a dog to drive? Thanks for any advice!
Dr. Sip: In our professions, every pet video crosses our computers…. but I hadn’t seen this one and I’m SO glad you sent it our way.
Melissa: Of course, the main message here is adopt a dog that needs a home. Second message: dogs are smart. Third message: Mini Coopers are super-cute. Full disclosure: I'm on my second Mini. Don’t you have one, too, Dr. Sip?
Dr. Sip: We used to and we loved it! Okay, now that we have established that we’re both extremely biased about everything in this video, let's get down to your questions, Annie.
Melissa: The trainer in this video used the same science-based techniques I would use to teach a dog agility or to stop jumping on visitors. The trainer is using a mock up of the car to acclimate the dog to being strapped in, touching the stick shift, and getting used to the car parts before hitting the road. Then, she has the dog focus on shifting, and only shifting. She’s not having the dog learn how to start the car AND shift AND steer at the same time. One behavior, one lesson. This likely took a month or more of breaking things down to foundational skills, and that is before the dog ever gets into a real car.
Dr. Sip: These techniques are used even just to teach “sit," “down," “stay," and “LEAVE IT!!!” That last one is for when my dogs find a dead squirrel...very handy. (Note: "Leave It!" works better on some dogs than small children.)
Melissa: You might also notice that she is using a tool called a clicker. Clickers are used to teach very specific behaviors. If you want your dog to sit, you might not need a clicker, but if you want your dog to sit at precisely a 90-degree angle to you, and exactly two inches from your left knee, a clicker makes this much easier. A clicker essentially marks precise behaviors and indicates a reward (typically food) is coming as a result of that very precise behavior.
Dr. Sip: Mr. Cutie-Patootie in this video is using a technique called “Target!” I recognize this from our training with my dogs, Daisy and Frieda!
Beginning Target Behavior - Also called “TOUCH”
Melissa: Dogs can learn to target things with their nose, left paw, right paw, front paws, back paws, etc. Target is the behavior that assistance dogs use to turn off light switches with their feet, or dial 911 with their noses. I use it to teach dogs to weave through my legs for disc dogs, or for fearful dogs who need to build confidence around hands. Target is such a fantastic behavior, and critical if you are going to teach your dog to drive a car.
Dr. Sip: If you think that using a clicker is “weird” you might be right, but if it’s good enough to teach a chicken complex agility behaviors, then it’s probably exactly the tool to mold complex behaviors necessary to drive a Mini.
Dr. Sip and Melissa would like Car Talk to send them to Chicken Camp...
Dr. Sip: So now that we have the tools and the science, what’s next?
Melissa: The bottom line is this: IF you have the tools to adapt your son’s go-kart AND if you can train your dog to target with each paw AND you are comfortable with a clicker AND you have a safe flat place to practice AND the go-kart can’t go more than 5 miles an hour AND you have certified safety equipment for your dog AND you can build a mock version of this for training inside before going out on the kart...then, YEAH. Your dog can be an internet viral sensation too. But you’ll notice all the IFs and ANDs. (Here's one more: IF you succeed AND there are no injuries, send us the video.)
Dr. Sip: The point of the original video was actually to demonstrate how smart rescue dogs can be with the right training.
Dr. Sip: Especially if you have clicker trained a gecko to play basketball.
If you have a question for Dr. Sip and Melissa, write them at Car Talk Plaza. The weirder, the better. More about Melissa (who wrote ‘Considerations for the City Dog’) and Dr. Sip (who is a practicing veterinarian in Berkeley, CA) can be found here.