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Bordering on Human

By Pam Bonsper

chaser with toys

Readers of this magazine know that dogs are human. They speak to us, read our minds, feel and express emotions, remember promises we’ve made, and hold grudges when we break the promises.  We know they are capable of becoming CEOs and politicians, and we have even found them reading novels after we’ve gone to bed.

 That’s because we’re quirky California dog lovers.                  

 What if a professor emeritus of psychology spent an entire career—especially the last nine years—confirming (some) of our indisputable fantasies? He’d be our new BFF, right?

Let me introduce you to Professor John W. Pilley, PhD, guardian and trainer of Chaser, the nine-year-old, world-famous Border Collie who knows well over a thousand words. Chaser not only has a huge vocabulary, but she can distinguish between nouns and verbs, learn by imitation, demonstrate exclusion learning skills, match to sample, and comprehend a three-elements-to-syntax sentence in its semantic reversal.

How many of us can do that?

Turns out most of us can. These language skills may sound confusing, but most humans acquire them somewhat effortlessly. However, a canine able to do these things is another story entirely. But Dr. Pilley, in his fascinating book, Chaser, demonstrates just how he has been able to teach language to his dog.

If animals are going to learn a language, he explains, they must be able to learn words (memory), they must be able to distinguish sounds (auditory), and they must be able to distinguish similarities and differences between objects (visualization). They must also have the ability to connect emotionally with people. Dolphins and dogs, both highly social, connect with people.

Chaser had to learn behaviors first, so Dr. Pilley took advantage of a classic Border Collie’s natural instincts. When she was just a puppy, he started with verbs: come, sit, and stay. He also taught these word terms used by farmers while herding sheep: come by, go out, way to me, drop, and crawl.   

When Dr. Pilley could rely on Chaser’s ability to perform necessary behaviors, nouns were introduced. Objects—toys and household objects she could carry in her mouth—were given names, which she memorized. She was at a disadvantage to human babies, who are given cues when they’re being taught words and then learn through association. In Chaser’s case, she had to learn and memorize  a word without any associations. The object (in this case, the word) had to take on value. Her reward at the end of learning a word was positive reinforcement: hugs and play time. Dr. Pilley emphasizes, “The key to all training and teaching of dogs is play based upon a relationship of mutual trust and affection. Learning has to be enjoyable.“

Dr. Pilley was fascinated with just how many words Chaser could learn. For three years, every three months, Dr. Pilley and his associates would test Chaser as she built up her vocabulary. If she forgot a word, they rehearsed it with her. The toys and objects she could identify became her “flock.”

 After these stringent training years, Chaser could not only separate the meanings of the words, she had also learned at least three nouns that represent whole categories of things. Furthermore, she could learn a new word by inference, meaning she could pick a new object out of a group of items (whose names she already knew) by the process of exclusion. Dr. Pilley published these findings in the British journal, Behavioural Processes.

chaser pilly

In 2007, at the end of the third year, Chaser’s “sheep” in her flock were put away. In 2009, they were brought out and placed before her in groups of twenty. She could fetch each one by name and get 18, 19, or even 20 out of 20 correct. This established the fact that dogs have strong long-term memories.
Dr. Pilley is often asked if Chaser is unique.  He answers that other Border Collies could likely achieve similar results with similar training, but other dog breeds might prove just as capable of learning.

In recent years, Dr. Pilley has been working on increasing Chaser’s ability to understand other elements of grammar, such as understanding a direct object. As a result of this training, Dr. Pilley concludes that Chaser’s brain does process a mental image of the direct object when she hears its name. She has lodged her words in her long-term memory but can also hold two words in her short-term working memory, proving that like toddlers, an animal’s brain can display implicit understanding of rudimentary grammar. Currently, Dr. Pilley is working on imitation learning, giving Chaser commands using auditory and visual cues. He will point to an object and tell her what to do with it, or he will do something himself and then say, “Ok, you do it.”

I asked him how long he will continue his research with Chaser. “She demands our attention,” he says. “She is up to the three elements of grammar. We’re working on new things—scent discrimination and we constantly challenge her with things she has to figure out.”

Dr. Pilley emphasizes the keys to teaching a dog language:

    • Persistence. Be willing to go over something again and again. Follow it up with something fun.

    • Do one thing at a time. Reinforce it with praise. 

    • Don’t do it for them. Infants and dogs can con you. If they can get you to do it, they will.

    • And finally, give them lots of love.

A Border Collie trainer and friend of Dr. Pilley’s once told him, “Training dogs is kind of like training children . . . You just have to be consistent every day with them—,children or dogs.”

I think Dr. Pilley and his colleagues have convinced all of us quirky dog lovers that we have been right all along. Our dogs are smart and they should be treated like people.

Thank you, Dr. Pilley, for sharing this with the scientific community. They’ll “come by” “way to us” eventually.  Just ask Chaser.


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