Behind the Scenes with Chaser, the “World’s Smartest Dog”

Written by Pierinna Isis Tenchio

In a world where human beings claim to be the superior thinking creature, some of us are convinced that dogs, our lifetime partners, possess cognitive capabilities far more sophisticated than we ever imagined, abilities that we, for thousands of years underestimated. Nowadays, there are more and more studies that prove it, but there have also been incredible anecdotal demonstrations of their elevated intelligence. This is one of those stories, and I have the privilege of telling you about it.

For those of us who love dogs, introducing a new puppy to the family is always exciting. The cuteness in their eyes, the mayhem of their mischief, the coarse tongue, and the puppy breath come along with inescapable tasks such as housebreaking, make an incomparable combo.

Chaser, the Border Collie puppy who arrived as a Christmas present for the retired behavior psychology professor John Pilley, in North Carolina, was just like this. From the time she was very small, Chaser began to show her amazing cognitive ability. Gradually, with constant guidance and training from Professor Pilley, she managed to learn the meaning of 1,022 words —both nouns and verbs — whereas a dog of considerably high intelligence learns about 100. Thus, Chaser managed to become “the world’s smartest dog,” as she will surely be remembered.

Professor Pilley passed away in 2018, but I had the opportunity to interview his daughter, Debbie Pilley-Bianchi who, with the support of her mother and sister, carries on this valuable legacy.

A gift of love

According to the professor himself, in one of the videos accompanying this article, when he was 75 years old he had decided he would never again make room for another dog in his life — since he had suffered greatly from the loss of his dog Yasha. But on Christmas Eve, his wife Sally told him, “You’re going to have a new dog.”

“This is where it all started. We had Chaser for several weeks before we’d even given her a name. Everything that moved she wanted to chase. We couldn’t have named her better. We have found that play is infinitely greater than food as a reinforcer,” he explained, highlighting the fact that her instincts played a fundamental role in the process.


The start of Chaser’s journey

Professor Pilley begin training Chaser, making time each day to “work” (in reality they were fun times for both of them) with her. In considering why he did this, Debbie — who prefers to go by Pill — tells us that the dog who came before Chaser was a kind of catalyst. “Yasha was a brilliant Border collie/German shepherd mix with a bold spirit and fearless passion for accompanying him on his outdoor adventures, such as rock climbing and body surfing white-water rivers. Yasha could learn behaviors at lightning speed, and because of this, my father was convinced Yasha’s intelligence would shine in his studies.”

She explained that her father “was an emeritus professor of behavioral psychology at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and began his experimental career with rats and pigeons,” focused on animal cognition. “But it was our family dog, Yasha, who inspired him to transition to dogs in the classroom in the late 70s, which was infinitely more fun for the undergraduate students, as well as my father.”

“He used to jokingly say that, ‘Unfortunately, while Yasha was brilliant, I was not.’ His primary goal was to teach dogs the names of objects, and while he was greatly successful in teaching complex behaviors — like drag a chair with a rope over to a table, jump up, and turn on the light —  he was miserably unsuccessful, for over ten years with Yasha and other dogs, in his quest to teach them language. He tended to focus on teaching them ordinary objects like newspapers, a book, a sock, or other everyday items found in the home. However, Yasha and the other dogs seemed unable to understand the nouns independently from an action. For example, if he told Yasha to go get the ‘paper’ in the morning, Yasha would race out the door almost before the words were uttered to retrieve it. However, once the paper was in the house and he requested Yasha get it, the dog was confused. It made no sense to him; he couldn’t identify ‘the paper’ without it being associated with grabbing it out in the yard. My father’s research and formal testing concluded that dogs were unable to learn nouns independent of actions,” she recounted.

Listening to tradition

“It was during his retirement that he became slightly obsessed with Border collie exhibitions. These are where a dog and handler collect groups of livestock and move them quietly around a course.” Debbie recounted her father’s memory of sitting with about five handlers around the campfire one evening, when he boldly stated, “You know, science tells us that your dogs don’t even know their names, it’s simply a signal to pay attention. They cannot learn proper nouns.”

Debbie continued, “He was met with resounding silence and stone-cold stares. After a few long and awkward moments, one crusty farmer drawled out, ‘So that’s what science says, huh?’ Another farmer slowly chimed in, ‘I’d appreciate it if you and the other scientists that have looked into this could explain something to me. If Rascal here — he nodded at the mostly black Border collie lying at his feet — doesn’t understand words or names, how come I can ask him to herd sheep out of the flock by their name, and he’ll do it without a hitch every time?’”

According to Pill, that was a breaking point for her father, who realized that the methods employed in his previous investigation were completely wrong. He had to start listening to the people who worked with dogs in traditional usage. What did they do that he didn’t? And thus he began to form the game plan he later implemented with Chaser. Across centuries, Border collies had been bred to lock their eyes onto the sheep and their ears onto the shepherd. John decided he would use her innate abilities and instincts to teach her the names of the objects. Her flock of sheep would be her pile of toys.

Chaser and a thousand toys

With obvious endearment, Pill describes Chaser as “a charmer and manipulator.” She noted the dog liked people, but didn’t get along too well with other dogs or cats.While she was kind and she tolerated them, as time went on, she grew less patient. “She wasn’t a touchy-feely dog. She felt if we had time to cuddle, then there must be time to play. She loved children because they were the best playmates.”

“We discovered that she knew the names of all the neighborhood dogs one day around the dinner table. My mother mentioned that she wasn’t going to take Chaser on her evening walk because the neighbor was dog sitting a little dog named Casey, who Chaser didn’t care for. Out of nowhere, Chaser appeared by the table growling. Amused, we asked her, ‘What Chaser? You don’t like Casey?’ Chaser jumped backwards, shaking her head and growling. We were laughing and asked her again, ‘You don’t like Casey?’ This time she barked (she never barked). Egging her on, we decided to ask her about the other neighborhood dogs and people,” Pill told us.

“‘How about Fafner?’ Chaser just stood there staring, wagging her tail, no reaction. ‘How about Holly?’ She growled little grrrrs — Holly was an annoying little dog but not threatening. ‘How about Billy?’ She gave some baby growls — Billy was one of my cats who always batted her tail. ‘How about Dixie?’ She growled and gave some head shakes in response to mention of the large red dog next door. ‘How about Casey?’ She gave loud barks and growls — Casey would always sniff Chaser’s bum, and Chaser stoically tolerated the indignity of it, but clearly didn’t like it.”

“From that point forward, we realized that Chaser knew the names of people and places — organically. She loved to ‘go,’ but wouldn’t move a paw until we told her where we were going. If it was to the store, she would plop back down, because she knew she had to wait in the car. If it was Wofford, Nora, or Wayne’s, she would be bounding out the door,” Pill recalled.

“In teaching Chaser words, she had that ‘aha’ moment when she was 5 months old that she realized objects have names. When he held up a toy and said ‘Chaser, this is xxxxx…’ the dots connected in her brain and she understood my dad was pairing the name of the object with the object. And her learning progressed very rapidly; she could learn new words in one trial. It took rehearsal to log them into her long-term memory, as with humans, but the floodgates opened at that point when she understood the concept that words have meaning.”

Why words?

Although some studies have shown that the response to hand signals is higher than with vocalizations, and a food rewards are most often used when teaching any animal a new behavior, Professor Pilley taught Chaser with words and reinforced her with play, before anything else. Why was this?

To all this, his daughter clarified: “Prior to my father’s work with Chaser, this was uncharted territory, and yet, Border collie farmers have always utilized vocalizations to communicate with their dogs at great distances. Their calls are unique and very nuanced, so the fact that the dogs could decipher and recognize these vocalizations is pure and simple evidence that dogs are capable of auditory understanding and are listening all the time. There is significant anecdotal evidence that dogs understand certain words, particularly if they evoke a positive or negative memory, such as ‘You wanna go for a walk?’ or ‘Let’s go!’ or ‘bath’ or ‘vet.’. If the memory has value, you can be sure they will remember the pairing of those words with the experience. It is the same with humans. If you meet someone at a party and immediately forget their name, it doesn’t mean you that you cannot learn their name, it just wasn’t of value at the time.”

“We are often asked, ‘Why teach your dog language?’ Scientifically, there are many reasons. Socially speaking, the answer is very simple; communication is key in any relationship. As humans, we rely on many different languages daily, be they verbal, visual, or technical, to foster connections, relay information, and express ourselves to others. Communication is a gateway to greater understanding, further discovery, and deeper bonds. Just as with fellow humans, the more you can communicate with your dog, the better your dog will be able to communicate with you,” Pill reflected. She added that we mustn’t forget that “in learning any new language, we need to invest time and patience, whether it is computer coding or Japanese. For humans, we want our dogs to inherently know things that even we had to learn. We have to slow down and realize that becoming accomplished at anything takes massive amounts of rehearsal and repetition. Look at athletes, musicians, lawyers, doctors, and yes, dog trainers. So, why would we think our animals are any different?”

Family matters

“In our family, we believe that all forms of communication should be utilized. Chaser was taught hand signals in concert with verbal cues, which became invaluable when she got a little hard of hearing. In her later training, my dad used imitation with verbal and visual cues. She was able to execute very complex behaviors in only one trial in this way, and keep them in her short-term memory,” Pill proudly stated.

Professor Pilley himself would tell you, regarding his achievements with Chaser: “This changes the paradigms, especially now, in the light of what Chaser has learned, learning the names of more than a thousand objects, learning by means of exclusion. These findings show that all animals, especially dogs, are not machines with blood. They have emotions, and they have mental processes. The speech is different now because it confirms what dog lovers have always known: Dogs are smarter than we think”.

“The Chaser Method” in action

Professor Pilley was able to awaken the genius in Chaser, since he used her affinity for words and her passion for shepherding as starting points to teach her human language. He took advantage of her natural instincts and innate abilities to motivate her.

Thus “The Chaser Method” was born, in which Pilley compiled all the processes that led him to achieve such wonders. He did this with the support of his family and Wofford College students, though he himself dedicated five hours each day to teach Chaser, always through play. He would spread out the learning in separate sessions throughout the day, consistently, and focusing on teaching her concepts instead of behaviors. He recounted that learning a concept is more valuable than 100 behaviors, because it encourages the dog to solve problems.

The studies carried out by Professor Pilley and his team regarding this topic were published and are available through Science Direct here.

“Believing in the student”

“He also taught Chaser with errorless learning: the process of creating a situation that is so simple, the dog cannot make a mistake. Dogs are very sensitive to failure, so if he saw she was about to make a mistake, he called her back and rethought his methods or went back a step. He had the philosophy that the teacher must believe that the student can learn and that if learning does not take place, we have to change the methods,” Pill stated.

As she explained, if Chaser didn’t like something or she didn’t find it interesting, her dad looked for another way. “He’d challenge her, but never force her to do something she didn’t want to.”

“What people didn’t realize is that Chaser was not an obedient dog. She knew the obedience commands — which were the first thing he taught her — but it was his belief that obedience should only be used for safety and not the goal of the relationship you desire to have with your dog. It’s not a healthy goal in any relationship”.

A few months ago, at 15 years old, Chaser grew wings and departed from this world. This time, the roles were inverted, since it was John who was waiting for her at the Rainbow Bridge, to continue having fun and learning from each other together, eternally. Their story certainly doesn’t end here.

Pictures: Debbie Pilley-Bianchi

Pierinna Isis Tenchio has a master’s in canine clinical psychology and education. She is a veterinary assistant, first aid certified, and an APDT member. She is a volunteer and head of translators in the IAABC Spanish Division. She also writes articles for the IAABC Foundation Journal in Spanish and English. In addition, she is a journalist, professional translator, and proofreader, as well as editor in chief of the El Telégrafo newspaper in Uruguay.