Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words Hardcover – October 29, 2013
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"Chaser is the most scientifically important dog in over a century. Her fascinating story reveals just how sophisticated a dog’s mind can be."
—Brian Hare, coauthor of The Genius of Dogs
"After you read Chaser, you will realize that you may have underestimated the intelligence of your dog. Marvelous insights into a dog’s mind."
—Temple Grandin, author of
Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human
"This is an extraordinary book, full of warmth and wisdom that has the potential to forever change the way we look at dogs. While Chaser herself seems extraordinary, maybe she is also every dog, in showing us what every dog is capable of. Maybe not every dog can learn over a thousand words, but every dog I have ever known can read our heart, and that, to me, is the great secret between dogs and humans that we are just now learning, and which is so deeply evident in this wonderful book: Chaser loves people, and because of that love she will do anything asked of her, even learn the names of one thousand toys! Dr. John Pilley’s work with Chaser is not only a loving affirmation for readers who already know how much they adore and trust the ability of dogs, but is also a game-changer for skeptical scientists, who must find themselves, after reading this remarkable book, inching closer to recognizing the full humanity of dogs."
—Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie About Love
"A Border Collie that understands lots of words won’t surprise people who work with these inventive dogs, but what makes John Pilley’s tale special is his dogged determination, long after his retirement from teaching psychology, to keep his own brain fizzing with all the new words and techniques and ideas he needs to learn to get his results published in a respected science journal."
—Bruce Fogle, author of The Dog’s Mind and The Encyclopedia of Dogs
"If a truly great book leaves one better for having read it, then Chaser is quite simply a masterpiece. Dogs and those of us who love them owe to debt of gratitude to the brilliant, courageous author and his equally heroic subject."
—Jennifer Arnold, author of Through a Dog’s Eyes
"An engrossing and remarkable tale." -- The Bark "A delightful memoir that offers a challenge to behavioral psychologists and inspiration for pet lovers." -- Kirkus Reviews "This marvelous blend of good science and heartwarming dog story will inspire all of us to reexamine our canine friends." -- Booklist, *starred* review
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the science behind Chaser's amazing behavior and learning. Dog training is again at a crossroads, having
crossed from outdated dominance theory to positive training via operant and classical conditioning over the
past 20 years. Now, new science about our closest friend in the animal world has shown that we can go
beyond simple click-treat to something much more complex, with Dr. Pilley's work with Chaser providing
a roadmap. But it's also not just about the science - its about the personal journey of Dr. Pilley from his
career change at the age of 35 from a minister to an animal behavior psychologist, to his
beloved dog Yasha, and how "Puppy" returned him from the depths of sadness to his love of people,
science, and knowledge. If you want to know the science of Chaser, it's there as well. I would urge
any dog 'teacher' (partner?) to read this book: We are at the tip of an exciting change in how we
relate to, teach, and learn from what is increasingly becoming the most unique creature in the world, Canis lupus familiaris.
Chaser has definitely been noticed by scientists specializing in animal behavior (ethology), and author Pilley is, himself, a retired psychology professor who understands what he must prove to his colleagues.. He devoted many daily hours of training (work AND play) into puppy Chaser's education, and eventually gets help from a colleague to write a book which scientifically proves her accomplishments and their enormous significance.. Chaser, herself, has become a star who has appeared on many popular TV program since the book was published.
Aside from her amazing language accomplishments and her learning by inference/deductive reasoning, Chaser is also a lovable and engaging dog. Work is play for Chaser, and she learns sheep herding -- the job she was bred to do both with a partner and independently-- as well as learning her backyard agility course, as well as basic training commands. She is a beloved part of the Pilley family, not just a prodigy, who proves that Border Collies learn language much the same way as human children do. She is a delightful dog, and her story, which this book details, is a delight, too..
Border Collies, for those who don’t already know, were bred for sheep herding along the English-Scottish border. They are considered the most intelligent breed of dog, and there was huge protest when the AKC accepted BC's: BC lovers and handlers want them to continue to be bred for their intelligence and herding ability, NOT for a standard of appearance. The AKC is making the effort to comply.
But Border Collies are not ideal dogs for anyone who doesn't understand/can’t fulfill their needs for human companionship and WORK, i.e. plenty of exercise, both physical and mental.
I loved this book. In addition, I've already given copies to several people and plan to "gift" it to others in the future!
Top international reviews
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).
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.
- Pr. Pilley – 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.
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!