New Zealand Goes to the Dogs with Doggie Driving School

Yes, these dogs are learning how to drive. And, as it turns out, they’re learning how to do it pretty well.

A charity in Auckland, New Zealand is teaching rescued dogs how to drive, in an effort to show off their intelligence and convince more people to adopt. It’s no joke, either – these dogs are actually, paws to the wheel, driving cars. They’re doing so with plenty of supervision, though it’s no more than what the average teen sees during those initial driving lessons.

Teaching a dog to drive is (believe it or not) a little trickier than teaching a teen. That said, there’s plenty of hard behavioral psychology at work here, although this might be one of the most impressive applications ever. Operant conditioning is at the heart of it – a carefully designed schedule of rewards for the completion of simple tasks. The dogs are rewarded when successfully executing the basic motor skills of driving – using a stick, turning the wheel, and pressing down on a pedal. Over time, those rewards lead to the dogs learning those behaviors when prompted – by a tongue click, or a word. It’s no different than teaching your dog “roll over” or “shake.”

Then, it’s time to chain those behaviors together – withholding rewards until the dog successfully learns that pushing on the accelerator when prompted (with a human saying the letter “A”) comes after putting the car into drive. Over time, the dog’s behavior is shaped using rewards until they can successfully drive the car a short distance.

These dogs won’t be taking to the streets of New Zealand anytime soon, but the charity behind the dog driving school is planning a televised event to show off what the dogs can do on an open field, and, most likely, try to drum up support for pet adoption. Stunningly, all of that training took only seven weeks, which really is a testament to canine intelligence and behavioral psychology. It’s enough to make you rethink animal intelligence – or maybe realize our own human intelligence isn’t quite as special as we usually suppose it to be.