WELLINGTON - A pair of highly trained canines guided a modified car along a New Zealand race track Monday, passing their doggie driving tests with flying collars on live television, despite the odd off-road detour.
In a heartwarming project aimed at increasing pet adoptions from animal shelters, a group of cross-breed rescue dogs from Auckland were taught to drive a car -- steering, pedals and all -- to show the potential of unwanted canines.
Footage of the motorized mutts learning their skills has proved an Internet sensation but their ultimate test came on Monday, when the two best performers, Monty and Porter, were put through their paces on national television.
Monty the giant schnauzer cross was first up, driving the modified Mini down the straight by himself, in what is claimed to be a world first.
"It's all the dog doing it," trainer Mark Vette said as Monty cruised along the track looking relaxed with one paw resting on the steering wheel before coming safely to a halt.
"He's started the key, put the paw on the brake to allow it to go into gear, put it into drive, paw on the steering wheel, accelerator on, and off he goes down the track."
Vette, who has worked with animals on numerous film sets, admitted he had his doubts when the project was first mooted.
"I must say, this has been the toughest assignment we've had," he said after two months of intensive training.
"We've done 'Lord of the Rings', '(The Last) Samurai', many of the big movies but to actually get a dog in a car with no trainer and it does the whole gig itself, I tell you what, it's been a real challenge.
"No one's in the car, no tricks, it's all Monty driving -- he loves it."
He said the car, which has handles fitted on the steering wheel and dashboard-height brake and accelerator pedals, also came with a speed limiter to restrict it to walking pace, although there was a mishap Monday morning.
"The knob came off this morning and he was off down the road at about 30 kilometres an hour (19mph) and we had to chase after him."
Porter, a bearded collie-cross, then tried the trickier manoeuvre of steering the car around one of the racetrack's bends while a television reporter sat in the passenger seat.
He was largely successful, but ran off the track onto a grass verge at one point as the reporter nervously asked Vette "can we stop now?"
Clips of the motorized mutts undergoing training have attracted more than 700,000 hits on video-sharing website YouTube and featured on news bulletins worldwide.
U.S. talk show host David Letterman introduced a segment on the dogs last week saying "I love this more than life itself", going on to list 10 signs your dog is a bad driver, including "insists on driving with head out the window".
Hollywood actress Denise Richards, who has a brood of rescue dogs in her Los Angeles home, tweeted "this is hysterical!!!"
Auckland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) chief executive Christine Kalin said she was stunned at the global response and thrilled the shelter's message had reached such a wide audience.
"Some people think that by getting a shelter dog they're somehow getting a second class citizen, we're with these dogs every day, we know how wonderful they are," she said.
"This was an opportunity to show New Zealand, and as it's turned out the world, how amazing these animals are."
The driving dogs were the brainchild of Auckland advertising agency DraftFCB, which was commissioned by Mini, which has worked with the SPCA previously, to come up with a campaign that would challenge preconceptions about shelter dogs.