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The learning game

Teaching dogs new words

Created date

January 3rd, 2014
Dr. John Pilley and his border collie Chaser

In 1973, Dr. Seuss published a playful children’s book entitled I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words. All humor aside, a new study by a retired psychology professor is proving that this, indeed, can be done—tenfold. 

In his book Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), Dr. John Pilley takes readers inside the extraordinary mind of his border collie, who has, to date, learned over 1,200 words. Recently, he spoke with the Tribune about his story.

Tribune: What set you on this path of research?

Pilley: Well, I taught psychology for 30 years at Wofford College in South Carolina. After I retired, I bought Chaser in 2004 from a local breeder. I had read about another dog named Rico, whose owners had taught him the names of 200 different items. 

During my last eight years at Wofford, I had stopped teaching and turned my attention entirely to working with dogs. When I got Chaser, I decided to apply some of the techniques that I had developed to see if I could match, if not surpass, what the other research team had done with Rico.

Tribune: And what was this technique?

Pilley: We’ve found that dogs learn in much the same way that toddlers do. Most toddlers develop vocabulary through seeing an object and using it. 

When I started working with Chaser, I realized that words, if they’re going to have value, have to be associated with objects that had value. So my method of teaching was essentially playing with her. This gave her the chance to emit the behaviors that were built in. 

So I would say, “Chaser, this is Frisbee. I’m going to hide Frisbee, and I want you find Frisbee.” Then I would throw it, and she would follow her instinct of chasing it. In chasing it, the Frisbee took on value and so did the word itself. When this happened, you had memory retention.

Tribune: Chaser, like Rico, is a border collie. Is there something unique to that breed that makes them more successful with this kind of learning?

Pilley: We don’t have the data on that yet, but our hypothesis is that herding dogs that have been bred for generations to keep their ears on the farmer and their eyes on the sheep are better at complex tasks. 

Tribune: When did you decide to really dive into this research that’s the basis for your book?

Pilley: The study with Rico convinced me that border collies can learn the names of a lot of objects. Once I started with this project, this became my goal. I knew that before you could teach the elements of grammar, the dog would need a sizeable vocabulary. 

But I also wanted to test the possibility of putting things into long-term memory and I wanted to be sure that, when she was learning new objects, that she wasn’t forgetting the old ones. For that reason, from the first month up to the end of three years, I tested her repeatedly in experimental situations to see that she was remembering the names of objects.

Tribune: Were there parts of the teaching process that were particularly challenging?

Pilley: With learning and motivation, the challenge was to teach her three elements of grammar [subject, verb, and object]. For example, I might say, “To ball, take Frisbee,” or “To Frisbee, take ball.”

The tricky part was teaching the three elements of grammar together. What I found most successful was to make the last word she hears be the last command she hears. So I used the Spanish sentence structure. The last word Chaser hears is the object she has to do something with.

Tribune: What are the next steps for your study?

Pilley: My latest work has to do with imitation, and by that I mean imitating the behavior of a model.

The procedure is fairly simple. I’ll say to Chaser, “Watch Pop-Pop” (she knows me as Pop-Pop). I’ll pick up an object and put in on a chair. Then I’ll say to her, “Now, you do it.” And sure enough, she soon catches on. She knows that what she sees me do is what I want her to do as well.

The next step is to use three vehicles to teach her the names of behaviors. To do this, I use a technique known as shaping. By using her understanding of modeling, combined with what she’s already learned verbally, and throwing visual cues into the mix, I now have three vehicles to enhance learning.

These three mediums—the auditory, the visual, and imitation—result in the rapid learning of very complex behaviors. 

She’s extraordinary to watch simply because she knows so much and uses these three skills to communicate with us.