Pet Week: In 2012, a couple of pound pooches captured the world’s attention by driving a car on Campbell Live. But that was just the beginning of the story.
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Porter the dog puts the car into gear beautifully as his human passenger, Tristram Clayton, watches in awe. “Oh my god, we are off,” Clayton whispers, his body unusually stiff in his seat as the Mini begins to career down the Avondale racetrack. Porter holds both paws at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, gazed fixed on the road ahead – there is a corner fast approaching. As the track begins to bend and the car veers off on the grass, Porter scratches frantically at the wheel to turn it back on track. “Oh my god,” says Clayton breathlessly, “he’s corrected it”.
2012 was a pivotal year for driving in Aotearoa. As Toby Manhire reported last week, the year saw a historic change made to the give way rule, a decision that caused moral panic and headline chaos but turned out to be pretty much fine. Secondly, it was also the first time, anywhere in the world, that a dog drove a car on live television. “This is a story that has travelled as far and wide as any other New Zealand story we can remember this year,” John Campbell said at the beginning of the Campbell Live broadcast. “It’s been everywhere.”
But before Driving Dogs became a global, viral success, it was just an off the cuff thrown out during a meeting at advertising agency Draft FCB. Creative Peter Vegas remembers they had a brief from their client, Mini, who were doing some work with the SPCA. “We needed a cool idea that linked the two and I’d been sitting around and said ‘I reckon it would be really funny if we got a dog to drive a Mini’.” He didn’t think anyone would actually take it seriously. But the room warmed to the idea, rationalising that the gag would also show that SPCA dogs are really smart. They just needed the right trainer to say yes.
Animal psychologist and trainer Mark Vette remembers his first meeting with FCB. “When they said ‘can you get a dog to drive a car?’, being an animal trainer, my first thought was ‘no problem, we can cheat that easily’.” In the past, Vette had worked on a commercial that featured a sheep “driving” a truck and he knew exactly what was needed to make the illusion work. But as it dawned on him that they actually wanted the dog itself driving, Vette needed a moment to think. “Their question was ‘can you do it?’ and my answer was ‘who knows, it’s never been done before’.”
Vette took the idea to his small team, the same people he had worked with on the likes of The Last Samurai, Lord of the Rings and countless other New Zealand productions. They decided that they could do it and began developing a training programme with the support of the SPCA, with which they had a close working relationship already. “From the SPCA’s point of view and from our point of view, the gag was really that rescue dogs are smart dogs, and of course the exercise was to drive home the rehoming of rescue dogs. From there, we just got stuck in.”
The first step was to head out to the SPCA’s Māngere shelter and choose who would be best suited to driving from what Vette calls a “motley crew” of about 150 rescue pooches. “We were after a dog who was around 18 months old, they needed to be big enough to reach the steering wheel – so the jack russells were out,” he laughs. “We got it down to a shortlist of 10 and from there we chose the best. We were looking at how quickly they picked up the clicker training in particular, because that is what we use for shaping sophisticated behaviour.”
Monty, Porter and Ginny made the cut. Chosen for their size, trainability and confidence, they were well on their way to becoming Aotearoa’s next pooch petrolheads. The dogs were brought to their new home in Coatesville, northwest of Auckland, where Vette’s team – himself, daughter Jasmin, Maureen Manderson and Rosie Miles, began developing the training programme. “This was the hardest job we’d seen by far,” says Vette. “On Narnia we had taught mice to chew through ropes and taught hawks to attack minotaur, but none of that had the complexity of this.”
Vette’s team worked out that the dogs had to learn about 80 new behaviors before they would be able to get their paws on the wheel of an actual car. “It was all these little things that you probably wouldn’t even think about, like desensitising them to seatbelts and getting them used to commands like ‘push left’ and ‘push right’. They perhaps had underestimated how long it would take. Vegas remembers his first visit to Vette’s house and having one clear thought on the ride home – “oh well, I’m going to get fired, this shit is never going to work.”
Across the city, Campbell Live reporter Tristram Clayton had received a rather curious press release. The 7pm current affairs show would seldom pick up stories that came from PR as they were “rarely relevant”, Clayton explains, but this one was different. Campbell Live was known for striking a balance between meaningful, in-depth campaigns around the likes of Pike River and the Christchurch earthquakes, as well as finding time to have a bit of fun. “We were pretty proud of how well we found that mix of the hard and the soft,” Clayton remembers.
Dogs learning to drive certainly seemed like a bit of fun. “When we first saw this one, it wasn’t that we thought it was too commercial, it was that we just thought it was too ridiculous,” he says. Nonetheless, Clayton convinced producers to let him travel out to Coatesville with a camera to “get a vibe” for the dogs and see if it was worth revisiting as they progressed through training. “It was obviously going to be a bit of a longer one,” he says. “A longitudinal study.”
Back in Coatesville, Vette and his team had built a series of rigs, increasing in complexity, to help the dogs adapt to everything from pressing a gear stick to sitting upright in a harness. “There were different rigs, starting easy, becoming difficult,” recalls Vette. The more serious rigs were attached to wheels, so the dogs could be gently pulled along and get a better understanding of the motion of driving. Using a steering wheel without fingers was an initial challenge, so a series of metal lugs were attached to give the dogs something to grab onto.
Over time, Vette began to notice that the dogs were beginning to realise what they were actually doing. “Initially they are just doing what you are asking them to do, one thing at a time, and then you chain the behaviours together into a sequence that has meaning.” For humans, Vette explains, we understand instinctively that we have to not go over the line on the road, but a dog is just thinking about what it is doing to get its next treat. That is, until they weren’t.
“That was the interesting thing – as you do it more and more, they start to build a picture of what they are doing and you see them start to make decisions that you didn’t think they’d be able to make.” One of the big things Vette noticed is that the dogs began anticipating corners, knowing when to start turning the wheel and later straightening up. “It’s something I didn’t think would happen that did happen. We started to see them get in the groove of it, so to speak.”
Clayton returned several weeks later to check on how the dogs were tracking. “I remember the dogs were making serious progress on those little fake car things with the fake levers and everything,” he remembers. “The dogs were getting used to all the manoeuvres and from then on I knew: this is going to be good.” His colleague Lachlan Forsyth remembers hearing Clayton return to the office and “knocking on for ages about these driving dogs”, to which he simply said, “what on Earth are you on about?”
Soon, the world would know what he was on about. A few weeks later, the dogs had graduated to practising in a real Mini, specially kitted out with dog-friendly controls by a company that works with amputees to make driving more accessible. Crucially, there was an auto-controller on the speed, so the car could not go over 30km/h even if the dog was flooring it. The Campbell Live team returned once more, and Clayton remembers being blown away by what they captured. “I saw them sitting upright in a car seat, turning the wheel, pressing on the accelerator and I thought ‘OK, they are making progress’.”
They now had what they needed for the story, and got together putting together a package for Campbell Live that included sequences of Monty and Porter cruising to the likes of ‘Who Am I (What’s My Name?)’ by Snoop Dogg. “I remember those amazing shots with rap music of this really gangster dog sitting there, resting one arm on the car window sill and the other on the steering wheel, just looking totally gangster,” says Clayton.
The first Campbell Live story went “ballistic” as soon as it aired. “I was getting calls from people around the world,” says Clayton. “It went absolutely mad. Millions of hits. But it was fun seeing all the American, Australian and British networks picking it up. It’s always good to see a story like that, that you’ve been crafting for a few months, take over the world.” But the fun wasn’t over yet – the year was nearing its end and Campbell Live wanted to do something even better to farewell 2012.
“That’s when we started putting together a plan for a global first: a dog drives a car live on TV, and I’m in there with him,” laughs Clayton.
For Vette, doing it live was initially a “horrifying” idea. “Animal trainers normally have the ability to manipulate lots of variables behind the scenes, to effectively semi-cheat the situation if they need to. We didn’t have that opportunity with this.” There were also some last minute curveballs – the location changed from a straight residential road to a curved race track. “That added another problem because they are angled in, which adds a complex factor to the dogs because you have to compensate for the angle of the road.”
They rehearsed at the Avondale track for a week before the live broadcast to get the dogs used to the terrain. “We settled on having a trainer on the walkie-talkie outside the car saying the commands, and someone at the end of the track with the emergency stop if need be. But, at the end of the day, the dog would be doing all the work by itself.”
On the day of the broadcast, more curveballs were thrown into the mix. Marie, one of the trainers who had been working closely with the dogs, became violently ill. Luckily Jasmin, Vette’s daughter, had been training alongside them and stepped into her place. “That’s just normal last minute drama you get with these types of things.” says Vette. “There’s nothing like a live scene and a world first to keep you somewhat focused and frightened.”
Forsyth, who was roped in to be the “straight” reporter and do the live links back to the studio, remembers there “was a weird air of trepidation and excitement and absurdity” on the day. “There was a lot of the boring serious stuff happening, like needing to check all the comms was working, but then every once in a while you’d remember what we were planning this around. It’s just a guy being driven around a race track by a dog, what’s the worst that could happen?”
First up was Monty, who would be driving without a passenger. In the footage available on NZ On Screen, he can be seen yawning as Clayton announces that “in just a few moments, Monty is going to be the first dog ever to attempt to drive around a race track”. When he’s given the go ahead, Monty puts the car into gear and accelerates. “Basically he’s now in driving mode,” Vette explains. “He’s got his right foot on the accelerator, he’s steering with his left hand.” A mere 70 metres later, he comes to a stop after the finish line, met with a chorus of “good boy” coos.
“I don’t know why this makes me so happy,” says a beaming Campbell, back in the studio. “The paw position is just beautiful.”
Next up, it was Clayton’s turn to be hanging out the passenger side of his doggy friend’s new ride. In the footage he appears tense, sometimes even white-knuckled, as his driver Porter starts up the car. “It was really quite bizarre sitting there, looking out the front windscreen as a normal passenger in a car and then you glance across and there’s a dog in the driver’s seat, sitting vertical,” he recalls.
Throughout the journey, Clayton attempts to commentate in a breathless whisper, muttering “oh my god he’s in gear” and “oh my god we are off”. At one point, Porter takes his eyes off the road and stares into Clayton’s soul. For a moment, they both look terrified. “I didn’t want to give him a fright and I didn’t want to put him off,” says Clayton. “But at the same time it’s a live cross and you’ve got to sort of be describing what was going on, without distracting the dog from this vital task of getting me around the corner.”
Alas, the corner posed somewhat of a problem for Porter and he needed a little assistance from Vette to get back on track. At the finish line the car lurched to a stop, Clayton momentarily rising out of his seat due to the momentum. “He’s good on a stop,” he laughs, a little too loudly.
Whether they nailed the corners or not, the live driving dogs quickly became an even bigger sensation than the first story. It was the top-rating episode for Campbell Live that month and one the five top-rating Campbell Live episodes of the year, reaching 513,718 people. Vette remembers there were about 100 million tweets on the topic the day following, and they became inundated with international media requests that took three months to get through. “Ireland, China, Letterman, Norton, you name it, they were there.”
Clayton remembers travelling to Australia soon after the story aired – he was auditioning for the Wiggles for another story – and walking through Sydney airport arrivals to hundreds of TV screens playing the driving dogs story.
For Vette, driving dogs changed his life. Not only did he fall in love with Monty and adopt him for himself, it also opened up a whole new avenue for promoting the potential of rescue dogs. It inspired the local series Pound Pups to Dog Stars, where rescues were trained with a new skill, but the stage was set for even greater heights.
One day, he got a call from the UK from some Sky TV executives. They were at a “boozy lunch” and had an even more outlandish proposal – flying dogs. “They told me they had just lost a huge sports gig and had £8 million to spend on a new show, and then asked me if I could get a dog to fly a plane,” Vette recalls.
His first thought was “not again” – but he decided to play along as they were “tiddly”, ending the conversation with the casual offer “well, if you’ve got the budget, I probably could do it”. For the next 18 months he worked on the six-part series, which trained rescue dogs to do weird and wonderful things each week – play in a band, complete a maze – with the best contestants making it through to flight school. “You can imagine going into civil aviation authorities in the UK and saying ‘would you mind giving us permission for a dog to fly an aeroplane?’” Vette laughs.
They were laughed out of the office “the first half dozen times” but, after securing permission in both France and Morocco, managed to convince the UK authorities to let Dogs Might Fly take flight. The six-part one-hour series showed in 100 countries – never in New Zealand – and culminated in the thrilling finale of rescue dog Reggie doing elegant figure eights over the British Isles. Vette ended up taking Reggie home with him too, so now he has a private pilot and driver.
Nearly 10 years on, those who were involved in the driving dogs saga on both sides of the camera still think of it fondly. “What really jumps out to me is that is shows the absurdity and cheekiness of Campbell Live,” says Forsyth. “We would do these hard-hitting, important, agenda-setting stories, but at the same time we could absolutely have fun and partake in joyous nonsense when the situation called for it.” Clayton agrees. “It was such a joy to be a part of and a joy to create, but also just so lovely to be able to bring joy into other people’s lives.”
Vette has gone on to many other impressive training feats, including teaching an octopus how to take photographs and powering a bike entirely with rats. Monty and Reggie are both still alive and thriving, both sleeping at his feet as we talk. Over the years, they’ve both done their fair share of stunt work in local film and television, and have become stars in their own right. Monty continued to drive until about a year ago, but was still very “cool” behind the wheel. “He started hanging his bicep out the window, he’s a bit of a dude.”
Driving dogs was a huge milestone in Vette’s career, one that sent him and his trainers across the world and raised awareness of rescue dogs internationally. Although he is proud of these achievements, he says the best part about the driving dogs legacy is that he got two new best friends out of it. “We’ve been involved in a lot of amazing situations since it, but at the end of the day, what we ended up with are these beautiful loving dogs,” he says.
“I always encourage people to take on rescue dogs, you get that beautiful bond with them, plus you’ve saved a dog from a life of great difficulty,” says Vette. “If there’s one thing I hope people take away from this, it is that you can actually teach an old rescue dog new tricks, and get yourself a very special family member while doing it.” And who knows, you might even be able to teach them how to drive you home from the pub.
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