Works in Progress - Spring 2012

Learning From Chaser

By Jennifer Henderson | March 14, 2013


Psychologist John Pilley wondered what it is that dogs understand when we talk to them. In 2004, Pilley, a retired psychology professor at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, bought a border collie pup and set about teaching her a rudimentary language. Pilley spent five hours a day for three years training Chaser to select by name 1,022 stuffed animals, balls, and other toys.

Then he and Alliston Reid, himself a psychology professor at Wofford, conducted four experiments to measure the scientific success of the endeavor, the results of which they reported in Behavioural Processes.

Not only did Chaser correctly identify a thousand objects, she did so consistently over a 32-month period. Additionally, Chaser could distinguish between verbs like fetch and paw, understand that common nouns represent categories based on similar physical characteristics, and learn by inferential reasoning—selecting an unfamiliar object by the process of exclusion.

Reid and Pilley write that their study demonstrates a step toward increasing communication between people and canines. “We’re trying to teach some elementary grammar to our dog,” Pilley says. “How far we’ll be able to go we don’t know, but we think we are on the frontier.”

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