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Top dog: U of M psychology alum turning ‘Chaser’ into a household word
Dogs comprehend a lot of what owners tell them, but how many words do dogs actually understand? For Chaser, a 6-year-old Border Collie, the total is more than 1,000 words.

Chaser and owner John Pilley, the first psychology PhD recipient at the University of Memphis, work four to five hours a day practicing vocabulary and basic sentence commands.

“How can a dog learn 1,000 words?” Pilley asked. “Just like children do. She learned that objects have names. For example, when I showed her an object and said, ‘Chaser, this is Santa Claus,’ those words alone were sufficient for her to become aware that the word that I used referred to that particular object.”

He believes any pet has a larger mental capacity than most owners realize.

Pilley graduated from then-Memphis State University in 1969 with a PhD in experimental psychology.

Former instructor Frank Leeming, Pilley’s U of M academic adviser, said of his past student, “His work with his dog probably pales in comparison to his work with students and people. I imagine he has had an enormous influence on a very large number of students at Wofford.”

Pilley spent 30 years teaching psychology courses at Wofford College, a liberal arts college in Spartanburg, S.C.

Leeming not only motivated Pilley, but outside of class, the two became friends.

“He is the one who helped me develop an interest in discovery and research,” Pilley said. “Through the years, and even before I graduated, he became one of my best friends. He taught not just in class, but he taught outside of class.”

Only in the last 10 years of his teaching did he start working with dogs. Chaser is the fifth dog Pilley has worked with for these studies. Previously he had studied rats and pigeons.

Chaser and Pilley were also featured on the PBS show Nova scienceNOW in February. Visit www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/how-smart-dogs.html to see clips from the show.

— by Laura Fenton

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