Chaser has a way with words. She knows over a thousand of them—more than any other animal of any species except humans. In addition to common nouns like house, ball, and tree, she has memorized the names of more than one thousand toys and can retrieve any of them on command. Based on that learning, she and her owner and trainer, retired psychologist John Pilley, have moved on to further impressive feats, demonstrating her ability to understand sentences with multiple elements of grammar and to learn new behaviors by imitation.
John’s ingenuity and tenacity as a researcher are as impressive as Chaser’s accomplishments. His groundbreaking approach has opened the door to a new understanding of animal intelligence, one that requires us to reconsider what actually goes on in a dog’s mind. Chaser’s achievements reveal her use of deductive reasoning and complex problem-solving skills to address novel challenges.
Yet astonishingly, Chaser isn’t unique. John’s training methods can be adopted by any dog lover. Through the poignant story of how he trained Chaser, raised her as a member of the Pilley family, and proved her abilities to the scientific community, he reveals the positive impact of incorporating learning into play and more effectively channeling a dog’s natural drives.
John’s work with Chaser offers a fresh perspective on what’s possible in the relationship between a dog and a human. His story points us toward a new way of relating to our canine companions that takes into account our evolving understanding of the way animals and humans learn.
About the Author
JOHN W. PILLEY is an emeritus professor of psychology at Wofford College. He has been working with Chaser since 2004 and has published the findings from their work in the journal Behavioural Processes.
Hilary Hinzmann is a freelance editor and writer based in New York City.
Bottom Line: Dogs are much smarter than they are given credit. John Pilley explains exactly how quickly they learn and given the chance can communicate with us. Pilley explains how he used his dogs as research subjects in his lab in his job as a psychology professor. His students observed them and dissected their abilities. After his last dog dies, his wife insists he is getting a new puppy for Christmas and they both agree that a local breeder of Border Collies is their best choice. With infinite patience and his training as a scientist, he teaches his new pup to relate objects to words.
Border Collies are working dogs and love routines, without structure in their lives, they can be almost destructive. Their natural curiosity and ability to be trained is both a gift and a curse. I had an Australian Shepherd with a similar personality and if we didn’t do our routine each day, he was a very unhappy dog. I had taught my dog probably 100 words and he could easily follow commands to retrieve certain objects. I never imagined that a dog could place names to over a thousand objects.
There is a science background to this book, so as well as being a memoir, it also has some wonderful information based on fact to go along with it. Chaser was featured on a NOVA program about her unique abilities. This is one fascinating look at how you can train a dog to learn more than you thought possible with a little extra time and energy. Dog and memoir fans are going to adore this story.
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