Learning from Chaser

Chaser and Dr. Pilley

I used to introduce my Latin students to fundamental grammar by telling them about Chaser, the dog who knew a thousand words. Chaser, I would explain, learned the meaning of verbs such as fetch, paw (as in pawing her toys), and nose (as in poking her toys with her nose). She understood the direct objects of those verbs by correctly fetching, pawing, and nosing her toys, including frisbees and stuffed creatures of all kinds. In addition, she distinguished between common nouns and proper nouns.

That is, if her friend and master, John W. Pilley, a retired psychology professor at Wofford College in South Carolina, told her to fetch a mouse, she would fetch any old cloth mouse, but if he told her to fetch Mickey, she reliably fetched Mickey.

“She could understand syntax,” as the magazine Bark put it. I would tell my newbie Latin students that if Chaser could distinguish verbs and nouns and grasp (literally) a sentence’s direct object, then surely they could, too.

Pilley’s book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words (2013), written with Hilary Hinzman, describes how the diligent professor helped his energetic dog to amass a vocabulary roughly comparable to a four-year-old human child. Chaser also exhibited reasoning skills that most scientists would not have predicted. If Pilley asked her to find an unfamiliar toy with an unfamiliar name, for example, Chaser identified it by the process of elimination.

Pilley and Chaser were featured on 60 Minutes and other news shows. Here, for example, she demonstrates her skills for Anderson Cooper. She was called the smartest dog in the world, and as a border collie, bred to be exquisitely attuned to human speech, Chaser had special gifts. But Pilley always insisted that all dogs have tremendous potential for learning.

Pilley’s book about Chaser is also about him, a sweet, determined, single-minded, disciplined man. A former Presbyterian minister, Pilley seemed to employ the same positive techniques with his psych students at Wofford as he did with his dogs. Long before Chaser, he brought his dogs into the classroom and assigned his students to teach them things. Some of them trained his dog Grindle to answer the phone, which he and his wife Sally had to unteach him at home. His dog Yasha learned “to pretend to jump over an invisible hurdle, balance a book on his back while walking, climb a ladder, and obey commands delivered by walkie-talkie.” Most of the student lessons, Pilley admits, evoke David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks, but in the process of teaching dogs, the students learned about learning.

Professor Pilley died in 2018 at the age of 89. Chaser died a year later, at age fifteen, memorialized with an obit in the New York Times. She taught the world that dogs are smarter than we think.

I bet you’ve learned a thing or two from your cats and dogs. Comment below: Are they smarter than we think?

This entry was posted in Books, Weekend Editions and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Learning from Chaser

  1. Kathy says:

    Roger: Ha! Keeping those parishioners in line!

    Pilley writes about how much he learned from the local sheep farmers about dogs. (He’s humble despite his PhD) They tell remarkable stories about their dogs’ reasoning and decision-making on their own. One guy thought all his lambs had been lost in a storm and then found them being guarded in a ravine (all night long) by his dog who had herded them there. Another couple of dogs were herding cows to one gate, but some of the cows kept getting sidetracked through another open gate. One of the dogs figured out to stand at that other open gate to prevent the stragglers from escaping that way.

  2. Roger Talbott says:

    You must have been a great teacher. Although, I feel sorry for anyone who failed Latin after being told “even a dog can learn this.”
    Your question made me recall Queenie, the Scottish Border Collie — English Sheepdog mix, with whom I grew up. She was an excellent “cow dog,” although she fell short of her predecessor who could be told to go out into the pasture and bring the cows to the barn on her own. Queenie would accompany me when I, at 7 years old, would go to get the cows every afternoon after school. I would shout and she would bark to get the bovines moving. They taught me Newton’s first law of motion long before I heard it in a science class. When we finally got them going, Queenie would run around barking and nipping at the heels of the stragglers and wanderers. Your question made me realize that she taught me more about church administration than I ever learned in seminary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *