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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Teaching or Training?

A young Kong addict
A very young Jana figures out how to get food out of a Kong

Puppies, like babies, are born with the potential to learn and problem solve and think. They are innately curious and begin investigating their world even before they open their eyes.
Our job is to develop these skills in our puppies and dogs by providing opportunities for them to learn and develop their conceptual thinking abilities. We can expose them to lots of novel items and situations and provide encouragement and motivation. We can also be on the lookout — especially with puppies — for opportunities to turn potential problem behaviors into desirable, adorable, and even helpful skills!
Dogs who are taught, especially by handlers who use methods that encourage problem-solving, become better problem-solvers. A study called “Does training make you smarter?” compared dogs who had received training with dogs who had not. Dogs who had received training solved a problem — opening a box that had a pad that could be pressed by the dog’s paw — spent more time trying to open the box (and were less likely to seek help from their owners) than dogs who had no formal education. The study’s authors speculate that trained dogs have “learned to learn” in a way that unschooled dogs have not.
But, and this is a big but — not all education is equal. There are many approaches to teaching or training, and the methods you choose will affect more than just how fast your dog learns — it can affect the bond between you and your dog, and it can shape or reflect your attitudes toward dogs. And it’s not just the method. The words matter, too.
I make a distinction between training dogs and teaching them because I think the word choice reflects a difference in attitude and goals.
Training dogs is what I call educational approaches that are narrowly focused on eliciting specific reactions to cues or commands. The trainer has a clear end result in mind for each command. The trainer says, “sit;” the dog sits. Practice emphasizes precision of the dog’s response, speed of the response, and the dog’s ability to respond quickly and precisely even when distractions are present.
When I refer to teaching, on the other hand, I am referring to a process that develops the dog’s thinking and problem-solving abilities. The teacher’s goal is to give his or her students the tools and the confidence to figure out what to do in a variety of situations. Sometimes, a teacher might seek a precise response, like the sit; other times, the teacher makes a request that requires the dog to figure out what to do. “Find a pen” gives the dog a goal but no precise instructions for reaching that goal.
Teaching brings the dog to a level of independent thought and problem solving that enables him to respond to a command or cue that is as vaguely defined as “find a pen;” training does not.
Any approach to training or teaching is based on an underlying mindset or set of assumptions: assumptions about what dogs are capable of learning; assumptions about how dogs learn and how much of what we say and do they actually understand; and assumptions about what the dog-person relationship should be.
Trainers who do not believe that dogs are capable or reasoning or problem-solving are unlikely to put any effort into developing these skills in the dogs they train. Trainers or handlers who believe the dog’s “job” is to be obedient and submissive are unlikely to tolerate a free-thinking dog. Some trainers talk about “getting dominance” or “being the alpha” as ways to ensure that dogs remain obedient and submissive.
Methods of dog “training” or education can be placed on a continuum that ranges from those that do not encourage the dog to think at all to those that practically make the dog do all of the thinking. The Thinking Dog blog will teach you to recognize various approaches and their goals — and encourage and equip you to explore methods that help your dog become the best thinking dog he or she can be.