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One smart dog has science’s attention

Chaser 382x255
2010-12-22

Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl! - New York Times

Border collie takes record for biggest vocabulary - New Scientist  

Who's a VERY clever doggy! - Daily Mail (UK)

Research by Wofford professors with smart border collie receives worldwide attention (Wofford Newsroom) 

Border collie trained by Wofford College professors understands names and commands  

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Wofford College has had the Boston Terrier as its mascot for many years. It turns out, however, the smartest dog on campus is Chaser, a border collie, who is fast gaining scientific attention for her ability to comprehend the names of more than 1,000 objects.

Even more critical, according to the two Wofford College researchers who work with Chaser, she was able to differentiate between the names of objects (nouns), commands to fetch them and capable of forming categories (common nouns) based on these objects.

“This research is important because it demonstrates that dogs, like children, can develop extensive vocabularies and understand that certain words represent individual objects and other words represent categories of objects, independent in meaning of what one is asked to do with these objects,” says Alliston K. Reid, professor of psychology at Wofford College.

Reid collaborated on the research with John W. Pilley, retired psychology professor at Wofford.

A peer-reviewed article on their findings appears in the current issue of Behavioural Processes. Their research will be noted in the Christmas Day edition of The New Scientist (now available online at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20827921.900-border-collie-takes-record-for-biggest-vocabulary.html), will be featured in London’s The Metro tomorrow (Dec. 23), and will be featured in a NOVA documentary to air Feb. 9 on PBS television.

The Wofford researchers built on earlier work done at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, which demonstrated that a dog could identify 200 objects.

Reid and Pilley spent three years working with Chaser. In controlled experiments, Chaser demonstrated that she could remember each of her 1,022 toys – sometimes better than her handlers (who said they had to write the names on each of the toys to recall correctly).

The two psychologists also say they discontinued their training with Chaser after reaching 1,022 objects but indicated there was no upper limit to what Chaser could learn. It’s also clear, they said, more research is needed to determine how this might apply to other breeds of dog.

In a second experiment with Chaser, the researchers demonstrated that Chaser clearly understood that she was being given names of objects, not commands to fetch them. In order to test the independence of names and nouns, Reid and Pilley randomly combined objects with commands to see if Chaser would produce the correct behavior for each object. Without special training, they said, Chaser responded to each command correctly, even on the first trial.

In a third experiment, Chaser demonstrated she understood the difference between similar size objects and their names – for example, the 116 objects she played with that were balls, even though each ball had its specific proper name. While she played with 26 objects with disk-like physical characteristics, she clearly understood they were Frisbees.
Pilley continues to work with Chaser. Reid also is president of the Society for the Quantitative Analyses of Behavior.