Chaser’s Legacy

Chaser, the border collie who learned 1,000 words

I’ve written about Chaser, the dog who had a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words (and who understood English grammar better than most …). The recent story of Whisky shows Chaser’s real legacy though.

Chaser’s dad was a professor. He trained her thoroughly, daily, meticulously. He knew that he’d face resistance when he wrote about a dog learning to understand human language, so he took detailed notes, tested her often, and made sure to have many others work with her to show that she was responding to the cues, not to some secret or unconscious body language cues.

Whisky’s story is different. Her people aren’t trainers or professors. They just played with her. A lot. And consistently asked her to bring toys by name.

That’s where most of us will trip up, by the way. I call Cali about 20 different names. I am supposed to remember to call Owl and Piggy and Duckie by name? To be fair, Cali does not have 100 toys, and we only use names for about five, so I really should be able to be consistent … But I digress.

What Whisky shows is that any dog can learn names for things. And even categories of things.

Koala is inspired by Whisky. She’s learning balls, bones, and toys as separate categories. She has many of each. She’s also learned that bringing them and putting them in her basket pays really well.

Cali is learning that too, but far more slowly. Cali actually does bring Owl, Duckie, and Piggy, plus Hedge, when I ask her to. Oh, and her tennis ball. And she’s learning about Bear. She’s very excited about the paycheck, though, sometimes so excited that she can’t quite tell where the basket is. She’ll toss them near the basket, but she’s getting better at getting the toy into the basket, at least by the third attempt.

Really, it’s not the dogs who have the limitations. It’s us. Chaser proved that, and Whisky is just hitting us over the head with it a little harder. Dogs are smart and love it when their people teach them things. In fact, here’s Cali now, telling me that it’s time for her next lesson.


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