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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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).