Farewell to Chaser, a Dog Who Changed the (Dog) World

Photo of Chaser & Dr. Pilley, from Chaser’s Facebook page

How many dogs get a New York Times obituary?

I have to admit to a stab of apprehension every time I saw a post on Chaser the border collie‘s Facebook page since she turned 15. But in the end, I saw the news in the NYT: Chaser passed away last week peacefully, of natural causes. Her dad and trainer, John Pilley, passed away last year. Together, the two of them changed the way millions of people think about and understand dogs and the dog-human relationship.

Anyone who has spent significant time with a dog and really paid attention to that dog knows that dogs can pick up some human language. After all, the entire notion of dog training is based on teaching them to associate our words and gestures with specific actions. But Chaser took understanding of language far, far beyond simple cues and responses.

Chaser understood grammar. In fact, Chaser’s knowledge of grammar often surpassed that of my students. I had to teach them about subjects, objects, and indirect objects before they could understand exactly what she had learned to do …

Chaser hit the TV talk show circuit when she had learned to identify more than 1,000 items by name and category. She knew the unique names of 1,022 toys. More than that, though she could put each of her dozens of balls into the “ball” category while also recognizing each by its own name. Same with Frisbee-type disc toys.

OK, I’m pretty average as a dog trainer, and even I have taught dogs the names of toys and categories. Not as many as Chaser, but I knew it was possible.

But the grammar bit: She learned to understand requests that entailed taking toy1 to toy 2, which required her to distinguish both toys by name and understand which was the direct object (toy1) and which the indirect object (toy2).

It’s so much more than the grammar though. It’s the idea of that complex level of thought, understanding — and communication — occurring between a dog and a human. Chaser made it clear to anyone willing to see that dogs really can learn so much and that their limitations are more in humans’ inability to conceive of how to teach them than in their capacity to learn.

Which brings us to Dr. Pilley. Chaser was a brilliant dog. But many other brilliant and capable dogs have lived and died with no fame or recognition; without learning or reaching their potential. Dr. John Pilley showed the world what was possible. He pushed back against the doubt, the disdain, the dismissive derision of his colleagues and of the journals that demanded extraordinary testing and re-testing before publishing his research.

He was one of a very few dedicated individuals who believed in dogs’ abilities and who put in the hours and years of effort to make the world see what’s possible. Thanks to him and a few others, centers to study dog cognition are popping up at universities around the world and we’re learning more and more about how dogs think and learn and understand.

Very few animals are memorialized in the New York Times. But if ever a dog deserved such an honor, it was Chaser.

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