“Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words,” by John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
Just when I was beginning to think Maggie, our 2-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi, was pretty smart and building her vocabulary into double digits, along comes Chaser.
But, after realizing this now 7-year-old border collie that responds to 1,022 words isn’t your typical companion animal, I am still in awe (Chaser may know that word by now, too).
In addition to your basic common nouns like ball, house, car or tree, she knows and retrieves her boatload of toys numbering in the hundreds.
Pilley, an emeritus professor of psychology at Wofford College (Spartanburg, S.C.), whose mascot is a terrier, began this ambitious training project upon retirement and after getting Chaser (she was given this name after chasing a Jeep on a nearby street while still a puppy) as a Christmas present from his wife Sally, although the litter was not born until the following spring and it was almost six months post Christmas until Chaser joined the family.
From schools to network television shows, Chaser and Pilley wow audiences with their teamwork and rapid-fire response. “I see Chaser as a co-investigator and research assistant rather than an experimental subject. Just as she’s part of our family, she’s also the other half of my research team,” he explains.
The work is a window into how Pilley’s training and Chaser’s quick recognition of words over a three-year span has drawn acclaim from both dog owners and the scientific community worldwide. In the process of grasping common nouns, Chaser learns to understand and distinguish the separate meanings of proper noun names and commands and has learned at least three common nouns or words that represent whole categories of things.
Recognizing that the stewards of border collie intelligence for generations were farmers, breeders and trainers, Pilley steps outside academia for training advice and follow-up assistance and insight. One of his guidelines comes from a saying of Arthur Allen: “Try to make it a 50-50 proposition of you trying to understand your dog while your dog is trying to understand you.”
Pilley writes: “There was no road map in the scientific literature for teaching words and their meanings to a dog or any other animal. I began trying to teach Chaser words on the assumption that unless the words had strong positive value in her mind, she would not be motivated to focus on them and remember them. The best way I could think of to give particular words positive value was to associate them with play that mimicked herding behaviors and satisfied her strongest instinctual drives.”
For Pilley and Chaser, vocabulary (i.e. word identity) began early. At age 7½ months, Chaser knew over 200 words and from that point on the procedure was a “word” in progress. By age 3 (spring 2007), she knew over a thousand objects by their proper noun names – 800 stuffed animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and over a hundred plastic and rubber items.
While satisfied with the dog’s incredible learning power, Pilley found himself frustrated by his inability to get a peer-review paper published by a scientific publication of the dog’s exploits . . . until December 2010 when Behavioural Processes ( a British publisher of high-quality original research on animal behavior) released an e-publication, which quickly went viral, resulting in worldwide media attention.
Written with a fresh first-person perspective, “Chaser” lets the reader know what’s possible when you incorporate a playful learning pattern into everyday life with that special dog in your life. Empowering and inspiring, it takes the human-animal bond to a whole new level.