Blind and deaf Helen Keller needed her teacher, Anne Sullivan, to learn to speak. It happened when Sullivan ran Keller’s hand under running water and then repeatedly spelled out w-a-t-e-r on her palm. Learning to communicate the way all other humans communicate — through language — changed Keller’s life.
What if dogs need that kind of wise and patient teacher to take them to new levels of human language? What if a particularly brilliant Border Collie happened to land in a home with an equally brilliant college professor who believed his dog could learn to understand language? It’s already happened. Meet Chaser. She shares her life with retired psychology professor John Pilley of South Carolina.
Pilley says he has scientifically proven that Chaser understands language — way beyond sit, down, and stay — and he chronicles his dog’s journey into language in his just-released book Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The book is a moving, true-life tribute to a man’s connection with a dog and vice versa. I interviewed Pilley and asked about his and Chaser’s ground-breaking work.
Chaser’s story will sound familiar to many readers because she burst onto the international scene in 2010. She racked up coverage in places like The Today Show, ABC World News, the New York Times, and USA Today. Chaser went viral. What prompted that media firestorm?
John Pilley: The release of the first research publication in Behavioral Processes about Chaser’s unprecedented learning of more than 1,000 objects, which triggered mainstream attention. We believe it was the way New Scientist summed up our findings in their quote of “In the age-old war between cats and dogs, canines might have just struck the killer blow.” That was an attention-grabber and thus the perfect storm ensued. It has been clear that the world of dog lovers has been waiting for this affirmation that their dog is as smart as they think.
Where did you get Chaser? Does she also herd real sheep or just her toys that act as a kind of surrogate sheep?
We got Chaser when she was eight weeks old from Flint Hill Farms in South Carolina by Border Collie breeder and trainer Wayne West. Wayne taught both Chaser and me how to herd sheep at his farm, which is probably the most exciting and gratifying activity for Chaser. She jumps in the car super fast when I mention Wayne’s name.
Your and Chaser’s story is mind-boggling to the average dog owner. Are you saying that dogs can learn human language? How did you prove Chaser understands language?
We like to say that dogs can learn simple elements of human language such as learning the different types of words (proper nouns, common nouns, verbs, prepositions, and adverbs) but you must put in the time and start with the basics. The ABC’s are essential, as is laying the foundation with any learning. It also must be fun for your dog, so that language has value to them.
As you have witnessed in the book, my initial efforts to get our findings formally published were shot down due to the informal presentation of our findings. It took several years to perfect the presentation of the facts as well as the testing environment. Certainly not without perspiration and frustration. The scientific community is bound by rules and absolutes and [its members] are not easily moved. If I recall, I believe one comment was that our findings were almost too good to be true. But they were!
We are happy to report that thus far we are unaware of any criticisms of our experimental methods and findings. Our research was scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb by leading experts in animal cognition.
Now that you’ve written a widely-applauded scientific paper that supports your research with Chaser, how many other groups and individuals have tested her ability?
Ah! Multiple media institutions from around the world have come to visit us and tested various aspects of Chaser’s learning. Among them are Nova ScienceNOW and esteemed researcher and behavioral psychologist Clive Wynne (predominantly known for his research with wolves). The response has been unilaterally positive with extreme excitement.
How long have you worked with Chaser and how many hours a day do you train her on language?
We have worked with her since she was two months old, and continue to do so approximately five hours a day. But this is largely comprised of play for Chaser, so she is highly engaged and motivated. When she becomes frustrated, I back off and rethink my approach.
How old is Chaser and if I may ask, what is your age?
Chaser is now 9 and I am 85, aging backwards like Merlin.
How do you and Chaser unwind after a hard day of language work? What’s her favorite off-duty thing to do?
Our success with Chaser is because she never has “hard days” of language work.The learning for her is filled with play, so that she never gets tired or feels like she is working. It’s all play.
During the testing process, if we would find her getting a little bored, we would always break with play. But she never, ever satiates on play. She has at least nine games that she has created and attempts to engage us in throughout the day. So sometimes, I need to go to sleep just to get a break from her!
Basically, I love spending time with her because she is a member of our family. I like to ride my bike, during which Chaser runs along my side on the grass and we go on hikes in the mountains. I admit that sometimes my wife lets me take off for the beach to do some windsurfing without them and they use the time to take lengthy walks around the neighborhood and visit with the neighbors and their respective animals. Chaser also loves to wander next door to play with the 3-year-old in a game of “catch and keep away.”
Do you honestly believe that other dogs have her skills, or does this talent belong just to the herding breeds?
That’s a great question, but we really don’t know the definitive answer. I think most Border Collie owners and herders would answer affirmatively, as herding dogs have been bred to give their eye to the sheep and listen to the farmer, so they have a natural gift for language. What we do know is that all breeds have their own unique gift and as a pet owner, it’s our job to pay attention and discover what that genius might be.
You talk about how vital a positive relationship is between handler and dog. Do you feel that is the key to how all dogs learn?
The answer is a very strong yes! That is important in any learning relationship, human or non-human.
What are the long-range implications for dogs learning language?
Our research indicates that dogs learning depends on the discovery of how to teach language. Our experience is that Chaser’s life has been enriched tremendously by her understanding of words, such that at the age of nine, she exhibits the wonderful world of the two-year-old toddler. For instance, when we ask Chaser if she wants to “go” with us, she immediately jumps up with her head cocked, asking “Where are you going?” She won’t budge an inch until we tell her. If we are going to the store, she slinks back down, knowing she will have to sit in the car. If we answer “Nora’s house!” she jumps up and runs for the door because Nora’s house is filled with toys and cats that she adores.
Where do you recommend dog owners reading this start if they want to teach their dog language?
Very, very simply. Teach the basic obedience commands, then start with one toy at a time. Name the toy and then play with the toy, find the toy, fetch the toy, toss the toy, until your dog can understand that this object has a name. Place the toy a few inches from your pet and eliminate any option for failure, then continue this for several days with only this one object.
Remember that any skill takes time and repetition and must be joyful for your pet. Also, what is very important, is that the object must have value to them, and this is achieved through play, not treats. Your dog will never satiate on play.
What are you and Chaser working on these days?
We have come to label it as “The Trinity,” using the combination of verbal, visual, and imitation cues to teach complex behaviors. We want to continue to expand her understanding of elements of grammar. These are three mechanisms that can develop rapid complex behaviors. I am constantly blown away by how fast Chaser is able to learn, now that she has grasped the concept that words have meaning. There are many new researchers in the field of canine cognition and the future is very bright for dogs and dog lovers alike.
Here’s a video of Chase in action:
I agree with Pilley. This is a very exciting time to be an informed dog owner, and a GREAT time to be a dog! Here’s to hoping for many more superstar dogs and owners in the near future breaking through the limitations we have put on man’s best friend.
About Annie Phenix: Positive-reinforcement dog trainer and author Annie Phenix never met a mountain she did not love, which explains why she lives in Durango, Colorado, and while she is always smiling since she is surrounded by mountains. She delights in the snowy season here, as do her five dogs, two horses, and six adorably cute donkeys.