Motor mutts learn to drive in New Zealand

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Updated 08 December 2012
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Motor mutts learn to drive in New Zealand

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 motorized 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’s about 10 different behaviors involved, so we had to break them down into each behavior — using the accelerator, feet on the wheel, turn the key on, feet on the brake, the gear(stick) and so on,” Vette said.
“So every time you get a new element you’ve got to train them for it and then link it all together, what we call chaining, then getting in the car and doing it.” 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.
Responses on social media sites were overwhelmingly positive, although some dismissed the stunt as a shaggy dog story.
“This is the single most awesome thing I have ever seen,” Christopher Dyson wrote on YouTube. Another commentator asked: “Does that car have a woof rack?“


Others said the dogs appeared to drive better than some humans and US website the Huffington Post tweeted: “They’re really putting the fur in chauffeur.”
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.”
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.
“Animals this smart deserve a home,” its chief executive Christine Kalin said.
“The dogs have achieved amazing things in eight short weeks of training, which really shows with the right environment just how much potential all dogs from the SPCA have as family pets,” she said.
The idea was the brainchild of Auckland-based advertizing 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.
“It’s just taken off, the interest has been enormous,” DraftFCB spokeswoman Eloise Hay said. “The good thing is, it really seems to be getting the message across too.”


Koreas discuss reunions for war-separated families

Updated 12 min 16 sec ago
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Koreas discuss reunions for war-separated families

SEOUL: North and South Korea on Friday held Red Cross talks to discuss resuming reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, the latest step in the diplomatic thaw on the peninsula.
Millions of people were separated during the conflict that sealed the division between the two Koreas nearly 70 years ago.
Most died without having a chance to see or hear from their relatives on the other side of the border, across which all civilian communication is banned.
The resumption of the family reunions — last held in 2015 — was one of the agreements reached between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s president Moon Jae-in at their landmark summit in April.
Only about 57,000 people registered with the South Korean Red Cross to meet their separated relatives remain alive, most of them aged over 70.
Even if reunions are arranged, only 100 participants from each side will be selected.
For the lucky few chosen to take part, the experience is often hugely emotional, as they are given only three days to make up for decades of time apart, followed by another separation at the end, in all likelihood permanent.
“Let’s make the meeting a success by conducting it from a humanitarian perspective,” said the South’s chief delegate Park Kyung-seo, as he began discussions at North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang resort.
Pak Yong Il, Pyongyang’s chief delegate, responded: “The fact that the North and South are holding the first Red Cross talks in our famous Mount Kumgang is meaningful in itself.”
The reunion program began in earnest after a historic inter-Korean summit in 2000 and they were initially held annually, but strained cross-border relations have made them rare.
Pyongyang has a lengthy track record of manipulating the divided families’ issue for political purposes, refusing proposals for regular reunions and canceling scheduled events at the last minute.
North Korea has previously demanded it will not agree to family reunions unless Seoul returns several of its citizens, including a group of waitresses who defected from a restaurant in China.