It sounds like the plot of an animated cartoon: an abandoned dog named Shadow was just hours from being euthanized when he was rescued and taught how to pilot his own plane, Snoopy style. The reality is even better. Shadow was just 22 hours from being put down when he was rescued by a team from “Dogs Might Fly” which is a UK show that teaches stray dogs extraordinary skills.
The show sought out to demonstrate that dogs might even be able to pilot an airplane. In assessing these pooch pilots, the show was looking for dogs who were “willing to go the extra mile, to problem-solve and to investigate how to work something out for themselves. That’s the kind of dog you want flying a plane,” trainer Victoria Stilwell told The Guardian.
Expert dog trainers were sent throughout the UK, where they selected dogs meeting the criteria, then putting them through a series of rigorous tests to assess their communication skills, empathy, and tolerance for speed and heights. Twelve dogs made the cut and their stories were featured on the six, hour-long episodes.
Shadow and two other dogs made it to the final round. His competitors (or co-pilots) were Reggie, a formerly stray German shepherd/Labrador mix, and Alfie, a collie-lurcher. Shadow is a Staffordshire Bull terrier/collie mix.
These three daring dogs were put inside of a PC-grade flight simulator, with their front paws placed on the control yoke. They were trained using lights and tones which cued them about when they needed to go left or right, or level out the airplane. A trainer offered treats for correct behavior. Ten weeks of training later, the dogs got a chance to test their skills in the air, courtesy of a Cessna 182.
Shadow, Alfie and Reggie all successfully completed a figure-8 with no problem. Of course a human co-pilot was on hand for the ride, just in case. The success of canine pilots doesn’t mean that humans will be replaced any time soon. Researchers point out that with proper positive reinforcement, many species could learn techniques allowing them to follow commands. It’s not really clear that the dogs know they’re flying.
Dogs have a long aviation history. Laika the dog was a Moscow stray who became part of the Soviet space program, eventually becoming the first living creature to orbit the earth. Shadow is believed to have been the first dog to ever actually pilot a plane. Shadow completed his figure-8 at an altitude of 3,000 feet.
The lesson for dog owners may just be that if you give a dog a treat, he can learn to do anything! In seriousness, this is yet another example of dogs’ incredible capacity to live and work alongside humans. There are already many well known stories of dogs saving their owners from disaster. Shadow now takes his place among the very special dogs who have been able to do amazing things.
Producers worked alongside the Civil Aviation Authority to meet strict safety guidelines while filming the series. The people behind Sky’s “Dogs Can Fly” just hope that the experiences teach people about the wonder of rescue dogs. They say they hope that the show inspired more people to adopt dogs from shelters.