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Video: Meet Chaser, the canine Einstein!

  1. Transcript of: Meet Chaser, the canine Einstein!

    MATT LAUER, co-host: So you think your dog is smart because he can sit, stay or fetch ? Well, meet Chaser, a female border collie with the largest vocabulary of any known dog, an astonishing 1,022 nouns. She's here along with her owner and trainer, John Pilley , and Alliston Reid , who co-authored a study on Chaser. Gentlemen , good morning. Chaser, nice to see you.

    Mr. ALLISTON REID: Good morning.

    Mr. JOHN PILLEY: Thank you.

    LAUER: This is serious stuff, this isn't dog tricks we're talking about here. What did you set out to prove with Chaser?

    Mr. PILLEY: Well, we think it's science. And our effort, our primary goal is to try to teach her dog language . We don't call it human, she'll never get that close, but we're trying to teach her words and learn how to teach her words.

    LAUER: So learn nouns and verbs, actions, so you can actually give Chaser two different commands and she can operate under both?

    Mr. PILLEY: Correct.

    LAUER: OK. And is Chaser a one in a million dog, or do you think this is something that any dog could learn?

    Mr. REID: I think any border collie could learn all this. The real issue is how much training John Pilley has put into this dog, four or five hours per day for about three years.

    LAUER: And you basically had to take that training and turn it into scientific fact...

    Mr. REID: Into science, right.

    LAUER: ...which is a hard thing to do.

    Mr. REID: We needed to test Chaser's vocabulary and be able to make statements about what Chaser really understood about each of these words.

    LAUER: We've got 1,022 nouns that Chaser understands, we brought 25 items with us, or you have, here to the studio. Now I understand if I get down over there and kneel next to Chaser I can actually give her some commands. She doesn't know what items I'm going to ask her to fetch , right?

    Mr. PILLEY: Correct.

    LAUER: So I'm going to try this because I know the names of the things that I want her to fetch . So Chaser, fetch tennis. Fetch tennis. Chaser, fetch tennis. Chaser, fetch tennis. Put it in the tub.

    Mr. PILLEY: Good dog.

    LAUER: In the tub, in the tub.

    Mr. PILLEY: Let's bring it over to you.

    LAUER: Again, she's using my -- OK, she's using my voice, which she's really never heard before. Good girl. In the tub. In tub. Good girl. All right. Chaser, fetch peppermint. That's exactly what the peppermint is, the peppermint little -- in tub. Chaser, fetch SpongeBob . Fetch SpongeBob .

    Mr. PILLEY: SpongeBob 's not out there.

    LAUER: No, here it is right here.

    Mr. PILLEY: Oh. Oh, there it is.

    LAUER: Here is SpongeBob right there.

    Mr. PILLEY: She sees better than I do.

    LAUER: In tub.

    Mr. PILLEY: OK.

    LAUER: In tub. Chaser, in tub. This is incredible.

    Mr. PILLEY: Good dog. Good Chaser.

    LAUER: What else do you want to learn from Chaser, what else can you accomplish with her?

    Mr. PILLEY: Speak, Alliston.

    Mr. REID: Well -- ruff, ruff.

    LAUER: You're good at that, too.

    Mr. REID: I would -- I would like -- we're very interested in syntax. For example, do the order of the words matter?

    LAUER: And do you think -- can we learn something real quickly about human learning from this?

    Mr. REID: Well, it's hard to know whether we can apply it to humans or not. We're trying to understand what dogs understand when we're talking to them and how extensive their vocabularies can become if they're given a great deal of training.

TODAY contributor
updated 2/9/2011 10:22:12 AM ET 2011-02-09T15:22:12

They say every dog has its day — and Wednesday was that day for Chaser, a 7-year-old border collie whose owner purports that the dog can recognize 1,022 nouns. On TODAY, Chaser demonstrated that dogs may have some of the same capability to learn as human children.

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On bended knee next to the alert-looking canine, anchor Matt Lauer ordered: “Chaser, fetch tennis.” And after just a few seconds of nosing around the 25 items that her owner, Dr. John Pilley, had brought to the set, the dog located a tennis ball and promptly dropped it into a tub on Lauer’s command. Chaser also fetched a peppermint chew toy in response to Lauer’s command — but it was when he instructed her to “fetch SpongeBob” that she really showed her mettle.

“SpongeBob is not out there,” Pilley told Lauer. But in seconds, Chaser wagged her tail while eagerly shaking a SpongeBob flying disc in her mouth.

“No, it’s right there!” Lauer said. Pilley laughed and commented: “She sees better than I do.”

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Practice makes perfect
If it all sounds like fun and games, that’s just what it is for Chaser. Border collies are reputedly one of the smartest and most motivated breeds in dogdom. They like challenges and stimulation, and since Chaser is a house pet and not out herding sheep, the dog needs other tasks to complete.

Pilley, a retired psychology professor from Wofford College in South Carolina, adopted Chaser as a puppy, hoping to use her to test some teaching methods he’d devised for dogs. Practicing four or five hours a day for years, Pilley found Chaser could recognize a remarkable array of items, and pick each one out of a group.

Video: Meet Chaser, the canine Einstein! (on this page)

Pilley told The New York Times that Chaser’s vocabulary of recognized nouns could have climbed even higher if he himself hadn’t tired of teaching them. So, he moved on to verbs. And sure enough, with training, Pilley could get Chaser to alternately paw, nose or fetch a requested item on command.

Related: Dog’s vocabulary makes her a star

Appearing on TODAY with Pilley and Chaser, Pilley’s research associate, Dr. Alliston Reid, told Lauer that Chaser’s impressive achievements may help the world better understand how much a dog can actually learn, and that those findings may be applicable to learning how human vocabulary grows as well.

Video: Meet a dog who can read (on this page)

“We’re very interested in syntax,” Reid said. “For example, does the order of the words matter?

“It’s hard to know whether we can apply it to humans or not,” he added. “We’re trying to understand what dogs understand when we are talking to them, and how extensive vocabularies could become if they’re given a great amount of training.”

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Pilley told The New York Times that even after the thousands of hours of training Chaser has received, she still begs for more. “She still demands four to five hours a day,” he said. “I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.”

Video: Talented cat tickles the ivories (on this page)

Pilley told Lauer that he believes he’s done more than teach an older dog some new tricks. “We think it’s science,” he said. “Our primary goal is to try to teach her ‘dog language’ — you don’t call it human, she’ll never get that close — but we’re trying to teach her words and learn how to teach her words.”

Related: Sparky the deaf dog gets sign-language training

Chaser was so impressive that comic actor Russell Brand — who followed the dog on TODAY to promote a new movie in which he provides the voice of an animated Easter Bunny — seemed a bit jealous. When Meredith Vieira noted how hard it is to follow a dog act, Brand remarked: “It’s pretty easy, actually. I could put all those things in that tub. I was watching Chaser and thought, ‘That’s easy!’ ”

To learn more about Chaser and the latest developments in animal intelligence, watch “How Smart Are Animals?” on NOVA scienceNOW, Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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