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