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Chaser the Border Collie—known by many as the smartest dog in the world—passed away on July 23rd, 2019 surrounded by loved ones in her hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Can Dogs Understand Nouns?
At 15 years old, Chaser had a long and wonderful life, but her story began long before she was even born. After losing his beloved dog Yasha, Dr. John Pilley had decided he would never have another dog again. But after retiring from his position as Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wofford College in South Carolina, he became obsessed with Border Collie trials. In his work with Yasha, a Border Collie mix, Dr. Pilley found that dogs were not able to learn the independent meaning of words, so he was surprised to see that these Border Collies seemed to be problem-solving.
According to Dr. Pilley’s daughter, Pilley Bianchi, one night he was sitting around the fire with some of these farmers and told them, “you know science shows us that your dogs don’t really even know their name? Dogs cannot learn proper nouns.”
Bianchi said the farmers responded: “Is that what science shows us? Then tell me why I can call out my dog Jeb out of four dogs and ask him to go get Millie and Tillie, two sheep out of a hundred, and he can do it every time?” In that moment, Dr. Pilley realized that his methods were flawed. “He understood that he needed to go back to the drawing board and find words that had value to the dog. This was the impetus for him to begin doing research with Chaser,” Bianchi said.
And so on the Christmas before Dr. Pilley’s 76th birthday, his wife Sally told him, “you’re getting a new dog. You’re getting a border collie from Wayne West.”
Teaching Chaser Words
Chaser came into their lives on April 28, 2004, and earned her name because “anything that moves, she wants to Chase,” said Dr. Pilley, who passed away on June 17, 2018. His goals with Chaser were to teach her human language and explore what the canine brain was capable of.
“Prior to my father, no one had been working with dogs,” said Bianchi. “They worked with dolphins and primates and had incredible findings, but we don’t share that unique inner species relationship with those animals. Dogs have that social relationship that’s been evolving for thousands of years and not to tap into that, he believed, was a huge mistake. The greatest leaps in animal cognition are when we work one-on-one with animals, not groups of animals, because you can’t develop or strengthen a bond quickly when you’re working with a group of dogs. He really believed it would be meaningful to work with one dog, and that dog was Chaser.”
When she was two months old, Dr. Pilley started teaching Chaser proper nouns, beginning with a blue ball. He used a strategy called “errorless learning,” which means setting up an environment in which the subject cannot fail. “He would name it, show it to her, say ‘catch blue’ and throw it to her,” explained Bianchi. “He’d put it in front of her and say ‘find blue.’ On the third day, when she could retrieve the ball from another room, he knew it was time to move on to another object. At the end of the fifth month, she had learned 40 words and kept them in her long-term memory.”
The World’s Smartest Dog
In total, Chaser learned to identify more than 1,000 proper nouns throughout her lifetime. But perhaps even more impressive was her a-ha moment: Chaser realized that when Dr. Pilley said “this is,” he was going to name something. “She began learning names in one trial,” said Bianchi. “Teaching her concepts was infinitely greater than teaching her 100 rote behaviors because once she learned a concept, she was able to use her brain and start to learn by inference, which is the way children learn.”
“After learning a common noun, she learned groups of categories,” Bianchi continued. “She had 30 balls and she knew all of them by a proper noun and also by category. You could ask her to find another ball, and she knew adjectives like bigger, smaller, faster, and slower.”
Together, Dr. Pilley and Chaser changed the field of dog intelligence using the power of play and positive reinforcement. Bianchi shared that her father “strongly believed in positive reinforcement… He would never force Chaser to do anything. In reality, Chaser wasn’t an obedient dog. She knew commands, but those were just for her safety. He wanted to make sure she could express herself and have joy in whatever she did.”
Whether it was proving her skills to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson or winning over Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes,” Chaser wowed the world with her intelligence time and time again. She was even asked to be on a TV show “Scorpion” and was featured in a number of major publications. Brian Hare, co-author of The Genius of Dogs once said, “Chaser is the most scientifically important dog in over a century. Her fascinating story reveals just how sophisticated a dog’s mind can be.”
Language is Communication
Bianchi said the family gets hundreds of letters from people that are having success in teaching their dog language, while “some people ask, ‘what’s the point of teaching a dog language?’ Well, language is communication. It’s a gateway to greater understanding and is a way for us to communicate with them and for them to understand us. It greatly enriched Chaser’s life.”
Chaser may be gone, but her legacy will live on. Spartanburg nonprofit Hub City Animal Project is putting up a bronze statue of Chaser in front of The Children’s Museum in spring of 2020. There is already one book out on the famous pair entitled Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, and Bianchi is compiling a second book that includes step-by-step directions on teaching your dog language. She hopes it will be released around the same time the statue is complete.