Chaser the Border collie, known as “the smartest dog in the world," took the world
by storm in 2011 with her scientific smarts.
The beloved pet dog of Dr. John W. Pilley, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wofford
College and Sally Pilley who lived in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their pioneering
work gave the world scientific, empirical evidence that dogs are not only smarter
than we think, but capable of much more. Together, they embarked on a remarkable journey
as a research team, cracking the code on teaching the family dog human language through
an under-utilized tool in contemporary dog training: play.
As a retired psychologist, Pilley always knew his family’s dogs were much smarter
than most scientists would admit. When his wife Sally gave him a Border collie puppy
shortly before his seventy-sixth birthday, he decided to prove it. Pilley set his
sights on teaching his beloved and brilliant dog a record-busting vocabulary of 1,000
proper nouns in addition to common nouns like house, ball and tree. He demonstrated
the remarkable extent of Chaser’s long-term memory, and illustrated her understanding
of words as more than object names and in more contexts than simply fetching an object.
Pilley and Chaser moved on to further impressive accomplishments exhibiting her ability
to understand full sentences and to learn new behaviors by imitation. While this sounds
like a head spinner even for humans, it was all fun and games for Chaser. The 1,022
proper noun names were her toys that she logged into her long-term memory simply
because she loved playing with them.
"Play is an innate instinct for the dog and the expression of this behavior brings
infinite joy to Chaser," Pilley said. "Play not only strengthens our bond but it also
builds her confidence. Chaser is a prime example, that when learning is fun, the flood
Chaser has demonstrated her formally tested accomplishments on countless national
and international television programs, capturing the hearts of dog lovers worldwide
and charming them with her signature inquisitive tilt of the head.
“There are two ways a mammal learns: step by step, reward-based obedience, and creative,
open ended education," said Amy Nicholson from MTV News. "In human terms, it’s the
difference between, ‘Plug this equation into your calculator,’ and ‘Here’s the logic
behind calculus.’ The first is a robotic command and the second, “The Chaser Method”
invites the dog to solve a problem. One simply rewards the right answer; the other
Chaser bow-wow wowed her audience on Nova ScienceNOW with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, fetching
“Darwin,” a toy she had never heard the name of, nor seen before, amidst a collection
of toys that she knew. In cognitive psychology this is called fast mapping and it
is the way children learn.
Yet astonishingly, Chaser isn’t unique. The way she was taught is unique and Pilley’s
training methods can be effectively used by dog lovers looking to unlock their dog’s
potential. He firmly believed that there will be a “world of Chasers.”
Both Pilley and Chaser are gone now, but their research and story continue to intrigue
researchers and dog lovers alike. Pilley died June 17, 2018. Chaser outlived him by
about a year and died of natural causes on July 23, 2019 at age 15.
Before he died, John Pilley emphasized that he learned infinitely more from Chaser
than she did from him.
“I’ve experienced firsthand the bottomless depth of devotion and teamwork possible
with our family dog Chaser," he said. "Dogs are truly the unicorn of species when
it comes to interacting with humans; they are magic in plain sight and I marvel at
the undefinable magnetism that draws our two species together. Chaser shows us that
science has overlooked and underestimated their unique genius and it is time to change
the metaphor, change the paradigm and to recognize that humans are not the top of
the intellectual ladder. What I have discovered with Chaser, was that by diving into
that innate, interspecies bond, powerful things can happen, and untapped learning
is given a fertile place to grow.”
Source: The Pilley Family. View their full statement or visit the Chaser The Border Collie website.