Wellington - Rather than chasing cars, dogs in New Zealand are being taught to drive them – steering, pedals and all – in a heartwarming project aimed at increasing pet adoptions from animal shelters.

Animal trainer Mark Vette has spent two months training three cross-breed rescue dogs from the Auckland SPCA to drive a modified Mini as a way of proving that even unwanted canines can be taught to perform complex tasks.

The motorised mutts – Porter, Monty and Ginny – sit in the driver’s seat, belted in with a safety harness, using their paws to operate specially designed dashboard-height pedals for the accelerator and brakes at Vette’s command.

The car’s steering wheel has been fitted with handles, allowing the dogs to turn it, while the “starter key” is a dashboard-mounted button that the dogs press to get the motor running.

“There are about 10 different behaviours involved, so we had to break them down into each behaviour – using the accelerator, feet on the wheel, turn the key on, feet on the brake, the gear and so on,” Vette said.

The dogs began their driving lessons on a mock-up rig, learning basic commands through clicker training, before graduating to the Mini.

So far, their experience in the modified car has been limited but they will undergo a “doggie driving test” live on New Zealand television on Monday.

Footage of the old dogs being taught new tricks has attracted more than 300 000 views on YouTube and also proved a trending hit on Twitter.

Vette said training a dog to drive a car on its own initially seemed unbelievable but his canine charges had risen to the challenge.

“[They’ve] taken to training really well, it really does prove that intelligent creatures adapt to the situation they’re in,” he said. “It’s really remarkable,” Vette said.

The dogs all had difficult backgrounds – Ginny was neglected, Monty dumped at the shelter because he was “a handful” and Porter a nervous stray, according to the Auckland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The idea was the brainchild of Auckland-based advertising agency DraftFCB, which was commissioned by Mini, which has worked with the SPCA previously, to come up with a campaign that would challenge pre-conceptions about shelter dogs. – Sapa-AFP