Saturday, January 1, 2011

Prepare to be bow-wowed by Chaser, the world's brainiest dog

My dog Tessa is a Border Collie mix and very intelligent....likely the smartest dog I have ever here is one of her distant relatives that shows the potential to teach the four-legged children.....They are MUCH smarter than we give them credit for....Good Pup Chaser!!!

Who's a VERY clever doggy! Prepare to be bow-wowed as we put Chaser, the world's brainiest dog, to the test

By Annette Witheridge - UK Mail
Last updated at 11:55 PM on 31st December 2010

Most dogs have a much-chewed, ¬favourite old toy: it may once have had a squeak, is guarded with a playful growl and enjoys pride of place alongside its devoted doggy owner in the sleeping basket.

What most dogs don’t have, however, is 1,000 favourite toys, all identified by name and taking up so much room that they have to be kept in 30 massive tubs in the backyard.

But then Chaser, a six-year-old border collie, is no ordinary dog.

Whisper it quietly — and around Chaser you do have to be careful about what you say — but Chaser might just be the cleverest dog in the world. Which is why I’ve flown all the way from snow-bound New York to see her.

First impressions, however, are reassuringly familiar. She may have become world-famous as the dog who knows more than 1,000 nouns and verbs, but Chaser arrives in a veritable doggy whirlwind, paws clattering on the wooden floor, her tail wagging so hard that half her body seems to be joining in.

I’m in Chaser’s comfortable log cabin-style home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and delighted to say she’s clearly pleased to see me. ‘Ooh, a new playmate; ooh, a new playmate,’ she seems to be saying, as she rushes to and fro bringing me first her favourite tennis ball and then a blue ball she’s particularly fond of.

I rapidly get the impression that the cleverest dog in the world would like me to do what every dog in the world wants us humans to do: throw their ball. So I do, and an instant friendship is forged. ‘Careful,’ says her owner, John Pilley, with a grin, ‘she’ll drive you crazy if you keep picking them up and throwing them for her.’

My new black and white friend looks at me with already devoted eyes. ‘Ignore him,’ they seem to be saying; ‘throw the ball, throw the ball’. So I do once more and then it’s time to discover, not how like other dogs Chaser is, but how extraordinarily different she is.

‘Sugar daddy,’ barks Dr Pilley suddenly, leaving me somewhat flustered — is this a question or an invitation? But it turns out to be ¬neither — the 82-year-old retired psychology professor is addressing Chaser, who rushes out into the yard, sniffs around the tubs and, in pretty short order, returns with an oblong yellow toy. I’m temporarily puzzled until I see the words written on its side: ‘Sugar daddy.’

‘Oh, clever dog; clever dog,’ I say. Her tail thumps with wagged appreciation.

Now Dr Pilley says the name of another toy: ‘Lion.’ And off Chaser trots, before coming back a few seconds later with a small shaggy lion in her mouth. As the trick is repeated again and again, it’s clear Chaser understands every word.

It’s soon clear why the videos demonstrating this dog’s cleverness have become such a YouTube hit. In fact, within an hour, I’ve realised I’ve probably got adult friends with smaller vocabularies than this astonishing dog.

Tell Chaser to go to a tree and she goes to the nearest one and sniffs; ask her to find a twig and she’ll rustle through a pile of leaves until she finds one. But it’s when she’s dispatched to find one of her special toys that her astonishing intelligence and memory become properly apparent

You can see how hard she’s working, how intensely she’s concentrating. She crouches down, as if deep in thought and seems to go into some sort of trance for a while — and then she’s off to find the toy.

Perfectly on cue, Chaser leaps up and rushes out of the room in what I assume is the general direction of the mailbox. This is clearly quite a dog. And so she should be given the training she's been put through

Once she’s found the right toy, suddenly she’s a normal, playful collie again — up go the ears, wag goes the tail and she almost seems to be laughing as she trots happily back with the retrieved object in her mouth.

Chaser’s training with Dr Pilley and his psychology professor friend, 57-year-old Alliston Reid, has clearly gone miles beyond the familiar: ‘Where’s your ball?’

For a moment, I’m struggling to find anything from my own experience that matches that and then I remember Trixie, the collie cross from my childhood. ‘We used to have a dog that could spell the word W-A-L-K,’ I say proudly. ‘When we spelt it out letter by letter, Trixie knew what we meant.’

For a moment, my hosts look non-plussed. Is this the strange British humour they’d heard so much about or am I casting aspersions on Chaser’s abilities? Thankfully, Mrs Pilley, a retired nurse, comes to my rescue with some welcome laughter.

‘Chaser’s exactly the same,’ she says with a warm smile, ‘when I say I’m off to pick up the M-A-I-L, she shoots out of the door.’ Perfectly on cue, Chaser leaps up and rushes out of the room in what I assume is the general direction of the mailbox. This is clearly quite a dog.

And so she should be, given the training she’s been put through. Unlike our Trixie, who was probably lucky if she got trained for five minutes a day during her formative years, Dr Pilley and Dr Reid tackled Chaser’s training like a fully fledged scientific experiment.

Which, as they honestly admit, is exactly what it was, so much so that when I first spoke to Dr Pilley on the telephone, he referred to Chaser as ‘the research animal’. Looking at her now, all wagging tail and eager-to-please doggy smile, that sounds a little harsh, so I turn and ask him if that’s really how he thinks of her.

‘Oh no,’ he says sheepishly, ‘she’s a pet all right.’ Rather sweetly, he blushes bright red at the memory of ever having described her otherwise.

But she’s definitely no ordinary pet. Aware of the breed’s intelligence, Dr Pilley and Dr Reid deliberately chose a border collie after reading about a nine-year-old collie called Rico in Germany, who had amassed a vocabulary of 200 nouns.

They were sure with an earlier start and more intensive training they could do even better. First, however, they had to find the right dog.

Professor Alliston Reid and Dr Pilley have worked intensively with six-year-old Chaser for three years to see how large a vocabulary she could command
‘I went to some farmers and told them what we planned to do,’ Dr Pilley explained. ‘They looked at me like I was nuts.

‘We got Chaser when she was eight weeks old from a local breeder. She got her name a week later when she went chasing after a bright red Jeep.’

Chaser’s education began with conventional puppy training. House training was followed by the usual commands — sit, stay, heel — something that as experienced dog owners, the Pilleys were very familiar with.

But it was soon clear they had a remarkably fast learner on their hands and by the time Chaser reached five months, Dr Pilley and Dr Reid started their experiments with nouns.

‘The Salvation Army and other thrift shops sell big bags of old stuffed toys for $2. I wrote the names in marker pen on the sides of each object so that neither I nor Chaser would get confused. The more Chaser learned, the more I had to buy.’

Mrs Pilley watched in horror as the back patio filled up with toy boxes. ‘I used to think: “Oh no, not more toys”,’ she says laughing. The mere mention of the word toy has Chaser’s tail ¬thumping the floor again in eager anticipation.

Her enthusiasm is remarkable given that Dr Pilley trained her for five hours a day for three years, slowly building up a vocabulary which when last tested stood at 1,022 words.

Not all the training was successful — a couple of early toys were simply eaten, while even Chaser got confused when two different words were attached to identical toys. But gradually, a successful training regime emerged.

Some of the tests on Chaser - many conducted in front of independent witnesses and video-taped - involved putting 20 toys in another room, telling Chaser to fetch and then waiting for her to return with them
‘I would repeat the same name ¬constantly until she got it right,’ Dr Pilley recalls. ‘Then we would stop to play for six minutes or so; then we’d do it again. Gradually more words were added, but we had to keep on re-testing her to see what she could remember.’

Chaser was never rewarded with food treats, though; the Pilleys didn’t want her to put on weight. She was rewarded with attention and time spent playing with her ball.

Some of the tests — many conducted in front of independent witnesses and video-taped — involved putting 20 toys in another room, telling Chaser what to fetch and then waiting for her to return with them.

On a good day, she’d get 20 out of 20; on a less good day or when the objects had been particularly well hidden, she’d still get 18 right — a 90 per cent success rate that makes our Trixie’s party trick of knowing exactly where her lead was at all times look distinctly commonplace.

But training Chaser was exhausting work and after three years, with his pet now possessing a vocabulary to rival a toddler, Dr Pilley had had enough, even if his conscientious pupil hadn’t.

‘I was struggling to find new words for her — I got confused, Chaser didn’t. She could probably have continued learning more and more words, but there came a point when I knew I wanted my life back.’

Dr Pilley, who spent 30 years teaching and studying animal behaviour at Spartanburg’s Wofford College, and Dr Reid, a former student who succeeded him at Wofford when Dr Pilley retired, took a break to write up their study. And Chaser was allowed to put her paws up.

It took the academics two years to write up their findings for New ¬Scientist magazine and the scientific journal Behavioural Processes.

Quite remarkably, during this two-year hiatus, occasional retesting showed that Chaser had forgotten none of her hard-learned vocabulary at all. Professor Reid tells me that the ¬writing up-process — and the knowledge they would be held to account by their scientific peers — was not easy.

‘We are scientists and everything has to be scientifically proven. We’re not saying Chaser is the cleverest dog in the world or that she has the vocabulary of a three-year-old because we cannot prove it.

‘Children pick up vast amounts of language as they go along. For instance, a child of two understands the phrase “I love you”. I don’t think Chaser would know that. By three, a child would say: “Mummy, I love you” and know the meaning. Chaser couldn’t do that.’

As if to prove otherwise, Chaser, who’s been dog-napping at Mrs Pilley’s feet, opens her eyes, wags her tail and looks at me as if to say: ‘Yes, I could.’ And based on what I’ve seen today, I wouldn’t put it past her.

At one point, astonished by the demonstration of her extraordinary abilities, I say out loud that I’m bamboozled by it all, only for Chaser to disappear and then return to lay a bright orange animal at my feet. On its side, clearly marked, is the word bamboozle.

The whole time I’m with her I get the impression Chaser is listening far more intently to our conversation than the average dog. And what’s more, this quite remarkable canine can even understand my Sutton Coldfield accent — which makes me sound a bit like Ozzy Osbourne. It puts Chaser ahead of most New Yorkers, I can tell you.

Just how clever a dog she is, Dr Pilley and Dr Reid are now keen to find out. With their canine charge now approaching celebrity status — a television special is already in the pipeline — they want to see if she can learn three or four-word phrases.

But, for the world’s cleverest dog, there will be nothing like ‘fetch the stick’ or ‘find the dog bowl’: that would be far too easy. ‘If we say to her: “Take lion to bear”, we want to see if she can do just that, we want to see if she can get the order of the words right,’ Dr Pilley says.

When she’s not happily engaged in a training session, Chaser leads a reasonably ordinary dog’s life, although rather like clever people who don’t relate well to other humans, she’s rather shy and reserved around other dogs. Probably finds their conversation rather limited, I expect.

‘She’s not an alpha dog. If another dog approaches, she just stands there,’ explains Mrs Pilley. ‘And unlike most dogs she takes no notice of cats, squirrels or birds. We taught her early on she shouldn’t hurt smaller creatures.’

My time with the Pilleys and with Chaser is coming to a close and I’m very aware of how proud they are of their remarkable pet. She never steals anyone else’s toys, they tell me, has never touched anything belonging to their nine-year-old grandson and has never nibbled a single Christmas decoration.

‘She is super-obedient,’ Dr Pilley says with evident pride. ‘But if she had her way, I’m sure she’d herd sheep all day every day. That is her big passion.’

The sound of Chaser’s tail thumping on the carpet signals her agreement. The cleverest dog in the world is still clearly a collie at heart.

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