The story of Chaser began in Spartanburg and now spreads across the globe
Chaser the Border collie, known as “the smartest dog in the world” whose scientific smarts took the world by storm in 2011 died of natural causes, July 23, 2019. Chaser was 15 years old and the beloved pet dog of Dr. John W. Pilley, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wofford College and Sally Pilley who lived in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their pioneering work gave the world scientific, empirical evidence that dogs are not only smarter than we think, but capable of much more. Together, they embarked on a remarkable journey as a research team, cracking the code on teaching the family dog human language through an under-utilized tool in contemporary dog training; play.
As a retired psychologist, Pilley always knew his family’s dogs were much smarter than most scientists would admit. When his wife Sally gave him a Border collie puppy shortly before his seventy-sixth birthday, he decided to prove it. Pilley set his sights on teaching his beloved and brilliant dog a record-busting vocabulary of 1000 proper nouns in addition to common nouns like house, ball and tree. He demonstrated the remarkable extent of Chaser’s long-term memory, and illustrated her understanding of words as more than object names and in more contexts than simply fetching an object. Pilley and Chaser moved on to further impressive accomplishments exhibiting her ability to understand full sentences and to learn new behaviors by imitation. While this sounds like a head spinner even for humans, it was all fun and games for Chaser; the 1022 proper noun names were her toys that she logged into her long-term memory simply because she loved playing with them. Pilley states “play is an innate instinct for the dog and the expression of this behavior brings infinite joy to Chaser. Play not only strengthens our bond but it also builds her confidence; Chaser is a prime example, that when learning is fun, the flood gates open.” Amy Nicholson from MTV News states it brilliantly “There are two ways a mammal learns: step by step, reward-based obedience, and creative, open ended education. In human terms, it’s the difference between, ‘Plug this equation into your calculator,’ and ‘Here’s the logic behind calculus.’ The first is a robotic command and the second, “The Chaser Method” invites the dog to solve a problem. One simply rewards the right answer; the other inspires genius.”
Chaser has demonstrated her formally tested accomplishments on countless national and international television programs, capturing the hearts of dog lovers worldwide and charming them with her signature inquisitive tilt of the head. She bow-wow wowed her audience on Nova ScienceNOW with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, fetching “Darwin” a toy she had never heard the name of, nor seen before, amidst a collection of toys that she knew. In cognitive psychology this is called ‘fast mapping” and it is the way children learn.
Yet astonishingly, Chaser isn’t unique. The way she was taught is unique and Pilley’s training methods can be effectively used by dog lovers looking to unlock their dog’s potential. He firmly believed that there will be a “world of Chasers.”
John Pilley’s final thoughts before he passed away emphasized that he learned infinitely more from Chaser than she did from him. “I’ve experienced firsthand the bottomless depth of devotion and teamwork possible with our family dog Chaser; Dogs are truly the unicorn of species when it comes to interacting with humans; they are magic in plain sight and I marvel at the undefinable magnetism that draws our two species together. Chaser shows us that science has over-looked and underestimated their unique genius and it is time to change the metaphor, change the paradigm and to recognize that humans are not the top of the intellectual ladder. What I have discovered with Chaser, was that by diving into that innate, interspecies bond, powerful things can happen, and untapped learning is given a fertile place to grow.”
Let the blue ball roll.
The text above include excerpts from a statement from the Pilley family. View the full statement or find more information on Chaser The Border Collie website.