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Former Wofford professor's book showcases genius dog and her rise to fame

By Dan Armonaitis
dan.armonaitis@shj.com
Spartanburg Herald-Journal

Published: Sunday, November 17, 2013
 

 John Pilley and Chaser / Michael Justus/Herald-Journal (Photo by Michael Justus/Spartanburg Herald-Journal)

Rene Descartes is perhaps best known for coining the Latin phrase, “Cogito ergo sum,” which translated into English means, “I think, therefore I am.”

But it's what the 17th century philosopher had to say about animals that grabbed the attention of retired Wofford College psychology professor John W. Pilley.

Descartes “actually came out with a view that animals are machines with blood — that dogs and other animals are vastly below us, and that they can't learn language,” Pilley said while relaxing at his home on the west side of Spartanburg.

“But they can learn (language). Not as much, of course, but they're not machines with blood. They have emotions just like we do.”

As Pilley spoke, his beautiful 9-year-old border collie stood just a few feet away surrounded by a few toys. With the help of the female dog, known as Chaser, Pilley has been doing his part in trying to take a bite out of the Descartes view, which hasn't completely left the scientific community.

“That mentality is still around even in the scholarly world, but we're hoping that our research is going to get rid of that and that there's going to be more respect for dogs,” Pilley said.

Pilley, 85, has spent the last nine years turning his faithful four-legged companion into a canine genius who might very well be the world's smartest dog.

Through extensive training and repetition, Chaser has learned to understand the names of more than 1,000 objects.

Her vocabulary is, by far, the largest of any known dog, surpassing the 200 or so words that Rico, a border collie in Germany, learned nearly a decade ago.

“It's play for her, but it's also play for me and my wife, Sally,” Pilley said of Chaser's enthusiasm for learning. “The energy is contagious, and that's one way (the dog) really manipulates us.”

Chaser's rise to international fame has now been documented in a book that was just published by Hougton Mifflin Harcourt and is available at bookstores nationwide, including Hub City Bookshop in downtown Spartanburg.

“Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words” provides a heartwarming glimpse at Pilley's experiment, showing that scientific discovery doesn't have to happen in a sterile laboratory.

“We wanted to communicate the scientific facts, but we wanted to make it personal for dog owners,” said Pilley, who wrote the book along with New York-based writer Hilary Hinzmann. “And we're hoping that people will find meaningful information that they can use with their own dogs.”

Chaser became a media sensation almost three years ago, shortly after Pilley and research partner Alliston Reid, a professor of psychology at Wofford and one of Pilley's former students, had their findings published in a leading scientific journal.

Soon, Chaser was making national television appearances, and her story was being told in newspapers and magazines all over the world.

“The phone just kept ringing and ringing,” Pilley said. “But I wasn't really surprised, because people love their dogs. And that's why I think our book is selling well, too.”

Chaser was an 8-week-old pup when Pilley acquired her in June 2004 from Wayne West, who breeds border collies at Flint Hill Farms in Pauline. A few months earlier, at Christmas, Pilley's wife, Sally, had surprised her husband with the promise of a new border collie who was to be born in the spring.
“Out of a barrel of eight puppies, (Chaser) was the one who came over,” Pilley said. “Sally was sitting on a stool, and that puppy put her paws up, and the next thing we know, she's in (Sally's) lap.

“Well, it may not be true, but both of us felt, 'Well, she's picked us out.' And I had gone there with some questions in my head for Wayne, like 'Which puppy would mirror the talents that we wanted (for my experiments)?' and that sort of thing. But then I just said, 'Wayne, this is the puppy we want.'”
Chaser's abilities stretch beyond a simple game of fetch. She knows the difference between nouns and verbs, and she can correctly group similar items into categories, such as “balls” and “Frisbees.”

From the time Chaser was a pup, Pilley started to train her for four to five hours per day. Using proper names that Pilley gave to more than 1,000 toys, Chaser can retrieve specific items from a group on command.

“She listens to us so much now that she picks up phrases or sentences and interprets their meaning even when we're just speaking to one another,” Pilley said.

“For example, Sally would say to me, 'I'm going to go visit Sue' — our former neighbor from across the street — and (Chaser) would run to the door.

“And as soon as Sally would open the door, (Chaser) would head for the street and wait for Sally to tell her to 'cross over.'”

As Pilley gave another example using the words, “Take a bath,” Chaser, overhearing the conversation, rose from the floor nearby and displayed an eager look in her eyes.

“See, she heard that,” Pilley said. “She's learned so many words that she gives her attention to us even we're not speaking directly to her.”

But Pilley admitted the scientific community might not be ready to embrace the concept fully.

“That's a difficult conclusion to quantify, which is why we haven't included it in our reports,” Pilley said. “If you put something in like that, linguistic people or hard-nosed researchers would read it with a skeptical mind.

“But I think most dog owners are going to readily accept it.”

Sally said Chaser has reinvigorated her husband's spirits.

“Whenever (John) does something, he does it wholeheartedly,” she said. “He was always wholehearted with his teaching and gave his heart, his mind and his soul to his students.

“And, so, when we got Chaser, it was like, 'bingo.' It was a winner. And he still gets so much joy out of working with Chaser for hours and hours at a time.”

Despite the achievement of Chaser's record-setting vocabulary, Pilley isn't about to stop experimenting.

He and Chaser are now pursuing other impressive feats, such as demonstrating the dog's ability to understand sentences with multiple elements of grammar and to learn new behaviors by imitation.

“We believe there are going to be many Chasers, especially when researchers begin to read about the methods that we've discovered in terms of how to teach,” Pilley said.

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