Pilley ChaserPUBLISHING YEAR: 2013

SUMMARY: A behind-the-scenes look at the life of Chaser, the dog with the world’s largest vocabulary of understanding human words.

AUDIENCE: Smooth like honey. Everyone will enjoy reading this: any jargon is explained in a conversational way and the rest is pure charm.

01 Owner


The author: John Pilley is a retired and, by the sound of it, charismatic, psychology professor whose teaching interests used to include animal learning. He is also Chaser’s owner and trainer.

Style and contents:  The book gives a touching account of the Pilleys’ life with their Border Collie Chaser. Well into retirement, the Pilleys finally give in to the pressure to get another dog after their beloved mixed breed had died a few years before.

They patiently waited until the next litter at their trusted Border Collie breeder, and hand-picked her. The Pilleys gave Chaser the three magic pillars in education: love, attention, and boundaries. They raised her into a (selectively) obedient and (tirelessly) playful and sociable dog.

Chaser proved to be a gifted student of Pilley’s obedience training, so he quickly moved on to more challenging games. The games turned into a scientific project, with Pilley seeing how far he could stretch the boundaries of her cognitive abilities. The results, my friends, are mind-blowing. As a nine-year-old, Chaser FLEXIBLY and DEMONSTRABLY understood:

  • Common nouns: Several categories of objects like any frisbee, not just this frisbee, is called frisbee.
  • Learning by exclusion: Being asked to pick up ‘x’, ‘x’ being a word Chaser had never heard before, results in Chaser assuming the unfamiliar ‘x’ word must be referring to the only unfamiliar object in a pile, and thus picks up the unfamiliar object.
  • Three-part-syntax: take x to y; now take y to x; now pick x out of u, v, w, x and bring it to y which is hidden among y, z, a, and b.
  • Over 1,000 proper nouns: This toy here is called x, and this one is called y. This one is called y1, and this other one is called x2. Ad infinitum and with one-trial-learning and long-term retention with minimum maintenance training. This exceeds what most human adults can manage (myself included), and Pilley himself often struggled to keep the labels straight.
  • Match-to-sample:  This is a picture of x, go find x.
  • Learning by imitation: Following the do as I do method.
  • And much more.

Her documented performance exceeded that of any other dog, and that of the world’s most language-trained apes for that matter. Her abilities got tested and re-tested and tested some more, in the most stringent scientific settings. She sailed through tests for the Hans effect, novelty bias and the other usual pitfalls. Chaser is the real deal. All this work training, testing, and documenting culminated in two eminent scientific papers (Pilley & Reid, 2010, and Pilley, 2013).

The gems

What I enjoyed the most about the book was Pilley’s spot-on approach to raising a dog: it’s not about absolute control, it’s about the relationship. It’s not a battle of will, but a cooperation where you each capitalize on what the other finds fun. It’s not rote learning, it’s letting the dog work things out creatively.

I was also charmed by Pilley’s energy. I mean, come on, an eighty-odd-year-old man still getting papers out in the peer-reviewed literature, going on national tours, play-training four hours a day and, of course, still finding time to go to the gym!

Pilley also tackles the relevant academic topics in a conversational tone, revealing his mastery of these matters. The book takes you on a fascinating tour of syntax, operant conditioning, and much more, viewed through animal cognition lenses.

Here’s another touching feature of the book: how modest John Pilley is. He is a Psychology professor, for crying out loud. But instead of showing off, he professes his admiration for the big hitters like Hare, Miklosi, Horowitz, Staddon, etc. and how comparatively small his animal cognition expertise is.

His modesty when it came to Chaser’s performance was equally refreshing. In the book, he repeatedly confesses that Chaser could be strong-willed, and that he didn’t want a blindly obedient dog. Pilley also made no mystery of the hours and hours of play-training required to get through some seemingly small hurdles. It is a healthy reminder that impressive learning can come from a series of less-than-glamorous failures. 99% perspiration and all that.

Possible points for optimization

These are tiny points for the sake of not leaving this section blank because, frankly, it was a fabulous book.

  • He – and most animal scientists nowadays – make the case for the likelihood that dogs have some kind of theory of mind ability based on the fact that they can imitate us. I have never found these to be sufficient grounds to make that claim. I have little doubt dogs have some kind of theory of mind, but do not feel their imitation feats support this claim.
  • There is a tiny mistake in a passage on operant conditioning (p. 71), as far as I can tell, where he labels a particular consequence to be negative reinforcement, when it’s positive punishment. A similar mistake was famously made in the Big Bang theory, so he’s in good company. And this is really splitting hair.

The verdict: Pick it up if you’re curious about language learning in dogs, or if you’re a Border Collies afficionado. Or if you just want to relax to an informative and entertaining book about dogs. I for one loved every page!

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Author: Pilley John W.
Genre: autobiography
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