I interviewed the trainers from Dogs Might Fly, a TV show that aims to show how lovely rescue dogs can be with the right care and attention while, yeah, also teaching them TO FLY A PLANE, for the Guardian. Read it here or unedited version below.
Can a dog fly a plane? And, if it could, would you go as far as to, say, get in a plane that a dog was piloting? Probably not. However, Victoria Stilwell, one of eight dog experts on new six-part SKY 1 show Dogs Might Fly, would. Despite being a nervous flyer she can “confidently, 100% say yes.”
The show, presented by Jamie Theakston, will see 12 rescue dogs, handpicked from shelters across the country put through their paces in a series of challenges designed to highlight their extraordinary abilities before three luckily finalists graduate to doggy flight school.
So how in the name of dog do you attempt to train a canine for aviation? “A dog is a ground-based quadruped, so they’re not designed for flying – as humans aren’t,” understated Mark Vette, an animal psychologist on the show. Dogs “don’t have arms and hands – they’ve got four legs – so there were some issues with dexterity: how would they manipulate the yoke and the controls, and how they would sit up comfortably?”
“We went through some pretty challenging experimentation… The [Civil Aviation Authority] were adamant that we minimise changes to the plane. A big challenge was set, and that’s what the series is about.”
Although tight-lipped about the details of the process, the trainers did reveal the key attributes they looked for – confidence, a strong ability to read human signals and a dog who is, as Stilwell puts it in language more normally associated with City headhunters, “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.” The muttley crew include Shadow, a Staffordshire bull terrier who was just hours away from being put down by the council when the team discovered him. He was, according to Stilwell, “really good at unlocking [doors] and then pretending he hadn’t done anything wrong.” He was such a top notch Houndini that during his audition he escaped twice before auditionbombing the other hopefuls.
“The crew were chanting ‘who let the dogs out’,” said Charlotte Wilde, a trainer who has supplied animals for Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean. “Shadow also found love at the airfield – hopefully you’ll see in episode six – and has already taken a small part in a shoot… Hollywood here he comes!”
Then there’s Wilf, a 22-month old collie cross, who Stilwell, star of dog behavioural show It’s Me or The Dog, said: “Loved eating water”. “He loved his paddling pool and would dive in trying to eat the water instead of drinking it.” Spike, a terrier-mix, was “brilliant at not doing any of the challenges set for him and instead was really intent on licking everybody’s faces, all the crew. You’re trying to get the shot and he’s just in your face having a fabulous time.” And, when working with dogs, there’s always one that “takes a dump somewhere right in the middle of the beautiful set.”
Challenges include an aviation-themed theatrical show with puppets (yes, really, really, really) – the dogs operated puppets through a series of specially designed platforms. We can also look forward to the “rock performance of a lifetime”.
“You’ve got to make sure that the dogs don’t mind sound,” said Stilwell. “You do these tests to see if the dog can be around a drum kit.” The dogs are rewarded for touching markers with their paws and noses before moving onto important things such as drum pedals. Not every dog, however, has the skills to be the next Ginger Barker or a Phil Collie. One of Stilwell’s favourites, Spot, a “wonderful” Beagle-mix, is “the funniest dog you’ll ever meet.” “She wasn’t that adept at playing the instruments so she was a backing vocalist. You teach the dog to sway, one paw to the other. It’s so cute.”
The dogs also had time to chill out in their luxury Sussex countryside pad, The Dog House, where it was no dog’s life. “As well as their very own Dog Studio,” said Wilde, “there were sofas and comfy dog beds. Although the dogs didn’t learn how to operate the Aga unfortunately. Or the bathroom.”
“They were treated like royalty,” added Stilwell. “They had the highest quality food, delicious treats, their own groomer and 24 hour vet care.” Bar the odd scuffle, the housemates got on too, which is refreshing for reality TV.
We’ve seen a pooch in space and now, just 59 years later, are we about to see the world’s first dog pilot? “I can’t tell you because I think it might be quite surprising,” said Stilwell. “Watch the show and you’ll see and you’ll go ‘wow’.”
– Dogs Might Fly goes out on Sky 1 at 19:00 on Sunday 28th February
– All of the dogs featured on the show have since found permanent loving homes.