Chaser the Border Collie gained worldwide recognition as “the world’s smartest dog” because of her remarkable ability to learn and recognize more than 1,000 words. John W. Pilley, a retired psychology professor, taught her using a method known as “play-reward” and demonstrated that dogs are capable of understanding language and reasoning, a capability previously thought to be unique to humans.
Early Life and Training:
Chaser was born on April 28, 2004, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Pilley’s wife Sally acquired her as a puppy from a local breeder and named her Chaser. From a young age, Chaser showed an extraordinary ability to learn and remember commands. Pilley began training her using basic commands such as “sit,” “stay,” and “come.” He would then hide an object and give her a command to find it, which Chaser would do with ease.
Pilley decided to take her training to the next level by teaching her to recognize the names of different objects. He began by showing her an object, such as a ball or a Frisbee, and repeating its name while pointing to it. After a few repetitions, he would hide the object and ask Chaser to find it by name. To reinforce the learning process, Pilley would reward Chaser with praise and playtime whenever she correctly identified an object by name.
Over time, Chaser learned to recognize and respond to the names of more and more objects. Pilley would randomly select objects from a pile and ask Chaser to fetch them by name, and she would do so accurately. By the time Chaser was six years old, she had learned the names of over 1,000 different objects.
Chaser’s remarkable ability to learn and recognize words caught the attention of the scientific community, and Pilley began collaborating with other researchers to study her language and cognitive abilities. In 2011, Pilley and his colleagues published a study in the journal Behavioural Processes, which documented Chaser’s ability to learn and retain the names of 1,022 different objects.
The study revealed that Chaser was capable of learning new words by inferential reasoning. For example, when presented with a new toy that she had never seen before, Chaser was able to understand that the toy must have a name and would look to Pilley for guidance. Pilley would then provide a name for the toy, and Chaser would add it to her vocabulary.
In addition to her language abilities, Chaser also demonstrated a capacity for basic math. Pilley would place a set of objects in front of her and ask her to retrieve a specific number of them, such as “three Frisbees” or “four balls.” Chaser was able to accurately retrieve the correct number of objects, demonstrating a rudimentary understanding of counting and numerical concepts.
Chaser’s accomplishments have had a profound impact on our understanding of the intelligence and cognitive abilities of dogs. Her abilities have challenged the longstanding belief that language and reasoning are unique to humans and have opened up new avenues of research into the cognitive capacities of dogs and other animals.
Chaser has also inspired many dog owners to teach their own pets new words and commands using the “play-reward” method. Her story has been featured in numerous books, documentaries, and media outlets around the world, cementing her status as a cultural icon and a beloved household name.
Sadly, Chaser passed away on July 23, 2019, at the age of 15. Her legacy will live on, as her achievements continue to inspire researchers, dog trainers, and animal lovers around the world. And for knowing more words than the writer of this article.
For another notable canine of modern history, check out The History of “Air Bud” and Buddy the Basketball-Playing Golden Retriever.