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VINE VOICEon August 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a dog lover and the owner of a Shetland sheepdog that never ceases to amaze me with her intelligence. For most of my life, I have strongly disagreed with the belief, long espoused by the church and philosophers such as Descartes, that animals are soulless and therefore essentially different from humans. It is therefore with great interest that I picked up a copy of 'Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words', a book that knocks that archaic attitude on its tail.

Its author, John Pilley Ph.D., is a retired professor of psychology at Wofford College who, during his teaching career, taught animal behavior using, as his teaching assistant, his dog, Yasha. With both Yasha and his teaching career behind him, Pilley took to moping around the house until his wife, as any sane wife would, put her foot down and told him in no uncertain terms that he was going to get another dog. Enter Chaser, a border collie puppy that enters the Pilley household and immediately takes over.

Pilley, with his background in animal behavioral research, is not your everyday dog owner and immediately sets out to answer the question, "How much can a dog learn?" Armed with love, patience and an endless supply of free time, he worked with Chaser every day, devising experiments aimed at discovering the limits of what a dog can learn. I use the words work and experiments but the truth is that everything he does with Chaser is play, at least as far as Chaser sees it. Within three years, Chaser had learned the names of 1,022 toys and was able to correctly respond to several commands related to each. She also was able to apply deductive reasoning and retrieve unfamiliar items by process of elimination.

This is an excellent book for dog owners who want to better understand how dogs think and what motivates their behavior. Once we understand what motivates our dogs, we can better adjust their behavior, keeping the dog safe and the family happy. Pilley describes the process of his work with Chaser in painstaking detail that would border on overkill if it wasn't for the fact that he is telling us exactly what he did to teach what is often referred to as the smartest dog in the world.

My biggest concern with Pilley's book is that he makes it seem so easy. He does mention that border collies are known as the smartest dog breed and that they are highly motivated to succeed at whatever task they are assigned. What he doesn't stress enough is that a border collie without an assigned task will create one itself and it will likely not be one its owner will appreciate. Pilley's success in teaching Chaser is not so much the result of Chaser's intelligence as it is because Pilley treated training her as a full-time job. They worked together for at least five hours a day for years. If you want to own an amazing dog like Chaser, you can. You just need to be willing to invest a lot of time and effort. If you are willing to do that, Pilley's book will tell you how to do it.
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on September 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a delightful story about how Chaser, the border collie, has learned over 1000 words and several rules of grammar as well. Several dogs have learned an impressive number of nouns to name their toys, but Chaser also has learned how to apply different verb actions to her toys and how to deal with both a subject and an object in a sentence.

I'm a sucker for a good dog story, and this is definitely a good dog story. It's written very conversationally, and makes it very clear that Chaser is a loved family member and not a research subject. In fact, there's a lot of background leading up to Chaser, and we don't really see her start learning until halfway through the book. Dr. Pilley talks about his previous dogs and how they helped him in the classes he taught before retiring. He makes it very clear how much work it takes with intensive training to teach Chaser so much. I like that it also emphasizes learning through play and finding what motivates your dog.

This book reminded me a lot of Alex & Me, another great animal learning story with a personal touch, by Irene Pepperberg.

Training like this is not an activity for the casual dog owner. But it's intriguing to see that it can be done, even though I know my dogs are never going to learn much past "walkies" and "dinnertime."
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VINE VOICEon October 29, 2013

Bottom Line: Dogs are much smarter than they are given credit. John Pilley explains exactly how quickly they learn and given the chance can communicate with us. Pilley explains how he used his dogs as research subjects in his lab in his job as a psychology professor. His students observed them and dissected their abilities. After his last dog dies, his wife insists he is getting a new puppy for Christmas and they both agree that a local breeder of Border Collies is their best choice. With infinite patience and his training as a scientist, he teaches his new pup to relate objects to words.

Border Collies are working dogs and love routines, without structure in their lives, they can be almost destructive. Their natural curiosity and ability to be trained is both a gift and a curse. I had an Australian Shepherd with a similar personality and if we didn't do our routine each day, he was a very unhappy dog. I had taught my dog probably 100 words and he could easily follow commands to retrieve certain objects. I never imagined that a dog could place names to over a thousand objects.

There is a science background to this book, so as well as being a memoir, it also has some wonderful information based on fact to go along with it. Chaser was featured on a NOVA program about her unique abilities. This is one fascinating look at how you can train a dog to learn more than you thought possible with a little extra time and energy. Dog and memoir fans are going to adore this story.
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VINE VOICEon September 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Chaser is a remarkable dog, who broke the stereotypes and demonstrated that dogs can know many words, understand nouns, verbs, and grammar, and have more ways of learning than the experts declared. This book tells his story.

While the NOVA special made it sound like Chaser's story is a retired guy who gets a dog and teaches him cool things, this is also a scientific research project by a professor of psychology with specific goals, motivated by similar work done at a prestigious German research insitution.

This is not a book on the science, though; this is a book with the story of Dr. Pilley, his experiences with dogs, this particular amazing dog, and how it all happened. There's not much about dog or animal cognition or language acquisition, and that is done lightly as needed to explain emotions or actions described. It describes the training process in general, but this is definitely not a book on dog training.

Not, I'm afraid, a great storyteller; too much detail and characters with no particular contribution to the story, buildups go nowhere, the drama doesn't come to life. But it's such a remarkable thing that it doesn't matter.
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VINE VOICEon October 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I caught the NOVA segment about Chaser with Neil Degrasse Tyson, and I rather wondered how she was trained. I have also read a bit about Alex, the African Gray parrot, and his training regimen, so when I saw this book on my list, I pounced.

It's a pretty good read. Not great lit, and not great dog training material, and if you have a smart puppy and five hours a day to invest in training, you too can probably have a dog who knows an awful lot. That's what I needed to know. Training dogs like Chaser is a full time gig.

That said, like Alex the parrot, it only takes one black swan to blow the model wide open. If one dog with a lot of attention can learn 1000 words, lots of dogs can learn a lot more than we give them credit for. I rather hate that I had to out-think my lab when he learned how to open chain link fence gates. He was so happy with himself. Can't figure out cotter pins yet.

Of course, the sheepherders who work with BCs all the time knew it all along. They're not surprised by dogs knowing sentence structure. I suspect many service dogs can do pretty much the same.

So--You'll learn that it's possible; you'll win arguments with unbelievers, and you'll learn a little bit about how it was done. You'll have to push through a few dry places.

And remember, Chaser's doing it all in ESL. One can only wonder what she knows in Dog.
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on October 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In the book of Genesis when telling of God's creation, it says he created the wild animals and the domestic animals. Wolves are wild. Dogs are domestic. And they are very special, so important to so many of us. God uses dogs for so very many purposes in our lives. And several of them are evident in this book.

I loved learning so much about Border Collies. I had noticed at Border Collie events at the fair that the dogs seemed very pleasant, no aggression toward other dogs that I ever saw. The author has worked extensively with Border Collie experts--including the expert he got his pup from--and it seems that part of the Border Collie instinct is to pay attention to the stock and the people, and not much attention to other dogs. That seems like a very good trait to me.

He got Chase as a puppy (female) and raised her very carefully with lots of scientific experience and knowledge about teaching her words. He started from the beginning and worked at it very diligently. Border Collies can work and work and work, so that's another plus factor in being able to teach her so many words.

If you don't have a Border Collie, didn't start out well in training your dog, or have other factors that would make teaching all the words not really work, you will still learn a LOT from this book.

One thing that interests me is how different it would have been if Chaser had been a male. In dogs as well as humans, the male and female brains are quite different. It's not a matter of one being smarter than the other, but there is a big difference in how they perceive the world and how they think. Would be interesting to know how that would affect learning words!
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VINE VOICEon October 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I was immediately interested in reading this book as I had seen Chaser on Nova Science Now when it aired and was amazed at what she could do. I wanted to find out more about how she developed her skills and how her owners had figured out her capabilities. This book comprehensively tells how John Pilley, a professor of psychology, found his pet and eventual partner in his studies in canine intelligence. Pilley tells in detail how he identified Chaser's intelligence and began to work with her (which really is "play' for Chaser) until she was able to understand over 1,000 words and commands.

While Pilley is obviously an accomplished expert in psychology, his language and explanations are simple and accessible. Additionally, it is clear that he has genuine love and respect for Chaser as a member of his family.

If you are curious about Chaser, as I was, from the Nova special, you'll get the behind-the-scenes view of how they got there and what happened since then. If you are someone who loves dogs and always suspected that they are smarter than society gives them credit, this book may still surprise you with Chaser's abilities. You can also draw tips on how to better work with your own dog to realize his/her abilities.
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VINE VOICEon October 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I was totally impressed by a dog called Chaser when I watched a TV program Nova ScienceNOW "How Smart Are Dogs?"segment. Chaser not only remembered more than 1000 words, but she also managed to guess a new word by an elimination technique! I became very interested in Chaser and her owner Dr. Pilley (who is a psychologist). How did Dr. Pilley meet Chaser? Did he knew Chaser would be this smart when he met her? How did he managed to teach words? That's why I was delighted to have a chance to read this Advanced Reader's Copy.

This book answered all the questions I had when I watched the short TV program. I especially liked Dr. Pilley's message on how to raise an intelligent dog with love and positive attitude. There are also so many things we can learn from his way of teaching and treating dogs in general.
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on September 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Chaser catches both my IQ and my FQ (fun quotient). It is very well written so that one may read it quickly but absorb great amounts of knowledge at the same time. I could see professors using this as a case study to teach students procedure in a fun way -- or reading it to their elementary-school children as a bed time story. (My dad read to me up to jr. high school -- usually animal books that were not as much fun as this one is.)

It is an appreciated rarity to find a prof who can write intelligently and enjoyably at the same time!
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on November 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Pilley got Chaser with the idea to try to teach her words. One thing he learned, after getting her, was that animals could apparently potentially learn only 100-500 words (p. 94). He wanted to push the boundaries and see if he could beat that. While he includes how to teach and raise dogs, though, no one reading this book should think their dogs will acquire quite the knowledge of Chaser, because Pilley was able to devote four to five hours each day in training (100), attempting to teach her about one or two new words per day.

The book starts out at about present-day, then goes back and follows pretty much chronologically Chaser's path and Pilley's teaching methods. This includes some cute stories about Chaser just starting out, as a puppy, and getting her comeuppance when trying to herd sheep. While reading, I was very appreciative of the chronological writing, since sometimes memoir-type books have a way of jumping about in such a way that can leave the reader feeling motion sickness. That is not at all the case here.

I really enjoyed this book. You can tell Pilly just loves Chaser and the other dogs he has had in the past, especially his dog Yasha, who was a precursor to Chaser. His enthusiasm leaps off the pages, so it never gets bogged down with too much scientific or technical jargon. It's obvious, as Pilley points out more than once, that Chaser is not merely a research subject, but a member of the family (ex: 150, 159, 190). The amount of time and devotion he and his wife have bestowed upon Chaser make it easier to understand how she became such an exceptional dog. One of my favorite things to find out about her is that Pilley's wife taught Chaser how to put away her own toys by singing a cleaning-up song.

I first learned about Chaser on TV's _Nova ScienceNOW_ with Neil deGrasse Tyson, where he tested her with her toys, adding a new one and calling it a new name. She knew just which one to pick. She's just amazing! It's still free to view on PBS' website (_How Smart Are Dogs?_), if you would like to see her in action! Make sure you watch the whole thing since she doesn't appear in just one segment. Pilley also recommends a neat sheepdog Disney video you can catch on YouTube, as well as his own YouTube channel of Chaser, which has 14 videos at the moment. Seeing these will really add to your appreciation of the book and Chaser's abilities. The latter ones are fun since they go back to late 2007 and show some behaviors explained in the book. I watched all of them, in addition to reading the book. You'll want to, too!
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