tim   .


newpad.gif (50 bytes)

.   hunkin




Rentadog poster available from
(once in Lulu, click customise to select full size image) 

Rent-a-dog lives in my ‘The Under the Pier Show’ on Southwold pier. Simply stand on the treadmill, hold the dog’s lead, and go for a walk, watching the route on the TV in front of you. The dog has his own TV and obviously has his own perspective of the walk.
Now I look at the finished machine, it seems quite a straightforward, almost logical, idea. In fact the design went through all sorts of changes, and took about 4 months to build.

It started when I was given one of the pier’s gym treadmill running machines that had gone wrong.  I stripped it down and I spent a few days playing with it. I reduced the gearing to slow it down and experimented with a walking leg mechanism. The leg is freely hinged at the top, and has a motor to move it up and down so it touches the treadmill half the time. When the treadmill is moving, it pulls the leg back when in contact. When the leg lifts off, it swings back, giving a surprisingly convincing but entertainingly chaotic ‘walking’ effect. 

Cam simply lifts leg off treadmill
Moving treadmill drags leg back when in contact.
Pleased with this, I tried a  four leg version, which worked even better. I then stopped, not sure what to do next but confident that the rest of the idea would soon fall into place.


(Incidentally a few year later I made another version of this mechanism for a friend who wanted a dog to walk along a track). 


Back to Rent-a-dog. Six months after building the walking mechanism, I’d got no further. At the time I felt that a straightforward dog walk wasn’t enough – I wanted it to have more bite - to be about some daft aspect of the modern world. I spent ages trying to make it something to do with political correctness gone mad – political correctness for dogs. For a while it was going to be a dog driving test – pass and you’re fit to be a dog walker. Still no further with the idea, I had a few weeks free in February and got involved making the fibreglass dog – called Dotty and modelled on Princess Anne’s bull terrier that kept biting the servants. Making the dog was fun – though not entirely straightforward. Everything had to be particularly strongly made as the dog was going to be open for the public to touch and maul about. I also made it far too narrow at first – not having a real bull terrier to look at, just working from photos.

Encouraged by having a finished dog walking on the treadmill, Graham Norgate and I built the wooden frame to hold the TV monitors and the electrical control system. Trying it out, it quickly became obvious that it was impossible to walk and watch both your screen and the dog’s screen at once. So I bought a tiny screen for the dog – and placed it out of sight of the person on the treadmill.

I now had a machine that looked nearly finished – but I was still just as stuck on what the video was going to be and what the machine should look like. I wondered if the dog should go on an adventure, discovering a bomb or something – I even tried to design a mechanism so the dog could hold a bomb in its mouth. At the beginning of May I was still stuck.

Fortunately, one of my fellow judges at the Alternative Weathervane competition was Guy Browning. He writes really funny stuff for the Guardian and is a hero of mine, so I persuaded him to come and look at the dog. His reaction was why did the dog have such a tiny screen that the person on the treadmill couldn’t even see! Surely the basic entertainment was the contrast between the person’s view of the walk and the dog’s. It made me realise that I’d lost the plot - the double view had been my original idea but had somehow got completely lost along the way.                

At this point I was also influenced by an automata collecting box I’d recently made for Guy’s hospital. I’d had similar concerns, wanting the idea to have more bite, to be about current NHS politics, but had eventually just made a nurse feeding a coin to a patient. This had been a great success with the public, and persuaded me that simple ideas, done well, can often work better than intellectually more complex ones.

So I changed direction with the dog and went back to my first idea of the two views of the walk. I realised that the treadmill should stop whenever the dog found something interesting – and then you watch it on his screen. I bought a scarily expensive large LCD TV for the dog’s view, and rebuilt the frame so the screen was visible from the treadmill.


I then spent even more, buying a large format computer printer, as I had an idea of the dog walking round a surreal version of Southwold. This was exciting. I found that I could take digital photos of buildings, print them out about 300mm high, and then cut them out and ‘fold’ them into 3D models. On a miniature scale, I was rediscovering the tricks of the film lot – what needs to be 3D, and what looks good enough just as flat photos. Looking down a street for example, the nearest houses on each side needed to be 3D, but the rest looked fine as a single photo. Playing with this technique, the story for the video animation evolved quite rapidly. The walk progresses down the high street, through the churchyard, onto the common and down the seafront. The story was assisted by my neighbour’s ginger cat Percy, who spent a lot of time in my workshop. He loved both performing for a camera, and also chasing dogs. It became obvious that the walk had to turn into a cat chase.

I was still not sure what the machine should look like. I wondered about aping the style of the London tourist buses – ‘The official sightseeing tour of Southwold’, decorated with union jacks etc. While it would have been fun that the dog’s idea of the sights would include steaming piles of poo and discarded chips etc, the exterior of the machine seemed to look just too like the real nostalgic Southwold for comfort. By chance, my partner Meg had just been charged twice for hiring a car in Ireland so the kitchen table was full of car hire documents – the fine print is really scary! Suddenly it all seemed to fit and the machine turned into Rent-a-dog.

Alongside all the artistic decisions, there are always lots of technical problems. In this case, I was doing all the videos as DVDs (the previous rides have all had lower quality video CDs), so there was a lot to learn about DVD authoring. For a while I couldn’t get the videos to change track reliably. Then I had to ensure it was completely safe. The main hazard with a treadmill is that people might trip – particularly small children. I obviously have an emergency stop button, but having watched a few kids using it in my workshop I decided a height restriction was also important – to stop parents dumping toddlers on it. I added a handrail along the front both as something extra to grab, and to stop spectators jumping on in the middle of the ride. I was also concerned there was a remote possibility that kids might try to snuggle up with the dog and get caught up on the moving treadmill – so there’s now a beam sensor to cut the power if anyone gets too close.

Graham and I finally installed the machine in the arcade in 2004. At first, all I could see were the things I’d got wrong. The worst thing was that the video was just too slow – I had thought people would need a bit of time to get used to walking on the treadmill before anything too interesting happened  in the video. I was totally wrong – people started looking round the arcade, bored by the opening video, and once bored, never fully regained interest. Then the DVDs were still behaving unreliably and people were often walking along watching a blank screen (I was amazed how little they seemed to mind). When it did work, most people spent the whole time watching the dog’s screen – I think because it had better contrast and was a more comfortable distance from the eyes. A week later, with a re edited video – shortened and with the dogs view reduced to the bottom half of the picture, it seemed infinitely better, but the next day the PLC computer which controls everything, went completely dead and had to be replaced.

There will probably be more teething problems, but as I write, the machine is finally running smoothly. Its a relief for me finally watching people enjoying using it – blissfully unaware of its tortuous birth. 

Download rental agreement

This is the japanese version. You walk on a treadmill and pull the dog's lead to guide it through the video game. I was sent this photo three years after I'd made Rent-a-dog, but I think the machine pre-dates mine.




about the site


links to
other sites

where to see stuff

contact me