First there was Rico, the super smart Border Collie with an amazing vocabulary, and now there’s Chaser.
The 2004 news about Rico, a Border Collie with the ability to recognize the names of more than 200 toys and fetch them on command, sparked the interest of John Pilley and Alliston Reid, psychologists at Wofford College in South Carolina. They became interested in what capacity dogs had for receptive learning of language skills, and they started working with Pilley’s Border Collie named Chaser.
Over the course of three years, Pilley and Reid taught Chaser the names of a whopping 1,022 toys! To do this, they purchased toys, balls and stuffed animals from thrift stores and wrote the name given to the object on it in order to remember it, and to systematically introduce each to Chaser one by one. The training sessions ended due to time constraints (and perhaps a lack of toy storage space!), and not because Chaser was unable to learn additional words, so her upper limit of learning new objects was never reached.
Chaser’s ability to identify every object out of an enormous collection of 1,022 toys and such – and from the photo, you can see it was quite a collection, is only part of the research findings, and an amazing feat in itself. (You can see Chaser’s face at the very top of the heap).
More interesting are Pilley and Reid’s findings from three additional experiments. One demonstrated Chaser’s ability to distinguish between the names of objects and commands. The researchers’ randomly combined nouns and commands and Chaser responded correctly. For instance, she was told to either ‘touch her nose,’ ‘touch her paw’ or ‘take’ a specific object.
The next experiment showed that Chaser could also differentiate the objects by categories, such as ‘balls,’ ‘Frisbees’ and ‘toys,’ and she could obey specific commands with regard to the items. For example, when she was asked to retrieve an object of one of the three types, she successfully did so.
The final experiment demonstrated Chaser could learn the name of a new object by reasoning of exclusion. In other words, she would choose an item because it was the only one whose name she did not know.
The results suggest there is a lot more to explore when it comes to dogs and learning language, Pilley and Reid said. “The mental capacity of border collies, and maybe all dogs, is greater than we believed,” Pilley said. “The dog is capable of greater learning with extensive training. Chaser, the smart pup she is, is likely to agree.
Read the study from John W. Pilley and Alliston K. Reid in the journal Behavioural Processes, “Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents.”
View a number of Chaser’s videos on John W. Pilley’s YouTube channel.
Thank you to Wofford College for the photo of Chaser, and Mark Olencki for the photo of Chaser and her toys.