New Book About Chaser, the Border Collie Who Knows a Thousand Words

Chaser
© Robin Pilley

More Than Vocabulary Lists

How Chaser learns also goes far beyond memorizing a list. She can infer that a new word is the name of a new object without being explicitly taught.

"We put familiar objects out on the floor for which she had learned a proper noun name," Pilley says. "Then we took a novel object that she'd never seen before, and she'd never heard the name of it."

To make sure Chaser didn't go for the new object just because new things are interesting, first she was asked to fetch a couple of familiar toys. Then he told her to get "Darwin," a word she'd never heard before — and that's exactly what she did.

"She made an inference like a child would," Pilley says, the inferred logic being that if Pilley had wanted a familiar object, he would've used the familiar object's name. Since he used a name Chaser did not know, and there was just one object there without a familiar name, she made the connection that the new word corresponded to the unknown object.

Perhaps most impressive, Chaser has learned some elements of sentence structure, as shown in experiments where she is asked to move her toys around. She can tell the difference when she's asked to take a Frisbee to a ball or the opposite, take a ball to a Frisbee, without being explicitly taught each sentence.

Try This at Home?

If you're still insisting that your dog knows words, too, you may be right. Although the book's title refers to Chaser's "genius," Pilley says he believes that other dogs can learn words with proper training.

If you're inspired to try, one important lesson is that while Pilley is doing a lot of heavy scientific thinking behind the scenes, for Chaser, it's just a huge amount of fun. To motivate a dog to learn, you have to make it matter to her.

"Dog owners need to be aware that words don't have any meaning for them unless [the thing linked to the word] is related to their activities," he says. "Before the dog is even going to listen to words, that object has to take on value for that dog."

So Pilley didn't try to teach Chaser the words for, say, book or telephone. She's incredibly toy motivated, and he made use of that. "That ball has value for Chaser and other dogs because they can play with it," he says. "Then once that object has value, the name of the object can take on value, and then the dog will listen to the word because they get to play with that object."

A Special Team

Even if what Chaser has accomplished is possible for other dogs as well, someone had to figure out how to do it first, and it probably had to be a pair like Pilley and Chaser. Pilley thinks that a consummate herding dog like the Border Collie is already primed for this kind of task.

"In our book we talk a lot about the Border Collies that work with farmers — how they solve difficult situations in working with the sheep," he says. "The Border Collie has been bred for centuries to listen to the farmer and keep their eyes on the sheep. Our hypothesis is that this breed has a special propensity to listen to the words of the farmer."

And Pilley clearly has some special propensities as well.

"If he were a dog, he would definitely be a Border Collie. He has to do; he can't sit," says Pilley's daughter, Deb Pilley Bianchi. "Growing up with my father, everything was an adventure. The reason he didn't accomplish these things earlier is partly that he was busy living his life with a richness that most people don't ever experience."

And it seems like that's still true. When asked why he started this project at age 76 when he could have been sitting on the beach, Pilley says, "I'm not sure I really even know." But one thing he does know is that it has a lot to do with Chaser. "Her enthusiasm for life and for play is contagious," he says, "and life is about doing things."

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