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Top dog: U of M psychology grad turning 'Chaser' into a household word

By Laura Fenton

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.

U of M alumnus John Pilley (right) taught Chaser, a border collie, to recognize hundreds of nouns. (Photo courtesy of Cass Sapir/Nova Science Now)

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.

“The demonstrating of a dog being able to learn the names of 1,000 words makes you ask the question, ‘How could she do it?’” Pilley said. “And the answer is: like children. She learned the objects have names. When I showed her the 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.”

Photo courtesy of Cass Sapir/Nova Science Now

In Chaser’s first three years, Pilley focused solely on increasing the dog’s vocabulary. Since then, he taught Chaser categories for objects (ball), verbs (nose, paw and take) and soon will teach her basic sentences (Santa Claus take bear).

“A category is an abstract concept,” Pilley said. “She’s learned three names for many of her toys. Each object has a unique proper noun name, like tennis, but she’s also learned the word ball for all the round, bouncy objects she has.”

Research studies also found Chaser could deduce which object in a pile of three was the one with the name she had never learned. She was able to make a mental inference, which told her that the item she did not recognize was the item with the name she did not know.

“This is a surprising ability for most linguistic people in terms of what a dog can do,” Pilley said.

The studies Pilley and his co-author Alliston Reid completed replicated the German studies done with Rico at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in 2004, except their findings yielded a much higher outcome. Rico had only a vocabulary of about 200 words.

But Pilley isn’t satisfied yet. He and Chaser still have many hours of research to go — although, to Chaser, it’s all play.

“It’s all play to her and it becomes play for me,” Pilley said. “She can do some things over and over and over more than I want to, but it’s all play.”

At the end of the day, once the research has paused, Chaser is just a loving family pet.

“She a member of the family,” Pilley said.

Chaser jumps on the couch, often sleeps in Pilley’s bed at night and plays fetch.

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

“We want people to know their dogs are smarter than [owners] think they are,” Pilley said. “And they are.”

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

Dr. Frank Leeming, Pilley’s major adviser at the U of M, cannot remember everything about his time with Pilley, but the admirable character of his student is an unfading memory.

Chaser at the top of a heap of toys. (Photo courtesy of Cass Sapir/Nova Science Now)

“He was an outstanding student,” Leeming said. “There’s probably no one in the world that doesn’t like John. 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 classes, the two became friends.

“[Leeming] is the major 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 on Feb. 9. To see clips from the show, visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/how-smart-dogs.html or visit www.chaserthebordercollie.com to read more about Chaser, Pilley and the full research study.

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