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Celebrity dog Chaser entertains fans

By Trevor Anderson
trevor.anderson@shj.com
Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal
Saturday, November 23, 2013


About 500 people poured into the Chapman Cultural Center's David Reid Theater in downtown Spartanburg on Saturday to celebrate the tale of a four-legged phenomenon.

Retired Wofford College psychology professor John Pilley and his co-author Hilary Hinzmann were the guests of honor at a signing event for their new book "Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words."

Chaser, Pilley's 9-year-old female border collie who has been unofficially coined "World's Smartest Dog," seized the moment and offered up a few play bows to adoring fans.

"Dogs really deserve our respect," said Pilley. "We have an animal here that can teach us more than we think."

Pilley, now 85, and Chaser became global sensations almost overnight three years ago when videos of the owner and his extraordinary canine companion went viral.

Through years of extensive training and repetition, Chaser can understand the names of more than 1,000 objects, which has raised the eyebrows of scientists and animal lovers across the nation and world.

Prior to his experiments with Chaser, Pilley studied behavior in rats and pigeons.

"About 10 years before I retired, I decided to change my research subjects to dogs," Pilley said. "It was a change that my students were happy about. I had it in my head that I wanted to teach the dog the names of objects… Up until that point all training focused on teaching dogs how to behave."

For the first few years, Pilley focused on increasing Chaser's "vocabulary." Since then, he has taught her categories for objects, verbs and adopted a style for teaching her basic sentences.

"I realized that dogs don't have any nouns in their vocabulary, only verbs," Pilley said. "Like a child, she learned the names of objects."

The book, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, documents Chaser's rise to international fame, provides a heartwarming glimpse of Pilley's methods and how he raised her to become a part of his family.

Pilley's daughter, Debbie Pilley, traveled from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., to introduce her father and Chaser at the event. She said she had no idea how ground breaking her father's methods were prior to Chaser's rise to fame.

"This book affirms two things," she said. "Dogs are smarter than we think they are and, even at 82, dreams are not only still viable, but obtainable."

Pilley gave Chaser the opportunity to strut her stuff on-stage.

The most poignant moment was when Pilley asked the crowd to provide him with one item that Chaser had not yet learned—a shirt.

He placed the shirt in the middle of a group of Chaser's toys and then asked her to retrieve it. Without hesitation, she softly gripped the shirt with her jaws, exuberantly shook her head and brought it to her master.

Pilley said the achievement confirmed her use of deductive reasoning and complex problem-solving skills to address novel challenges.

"It's pretty awesome," said Jennifer Evins, president and CEO of the Chapman Cultural Center. "What a great gathering for our community. It shows the diversity of the center and how many different things our people are interested in."

The event was sold out six days in advance. At least 480 people attended the signing. A film crew from the CBS news program "60 Minutes" was also in attendance.

"We have to find a way to have a second signing," said Betsy Teter, executive director of the Hub City Writer's Project. "The demand was just incredible… How remarkable is it that Spartanburg is the home of the world's smartest dog?"

Debbie Pilley thanked Teter, local author and Wofford professor John Lane, Wofford's Director of News Services Laura Corbin and others involved in organizing the signing event.

"They have created a great brand here in Spartanburg," Debbie Pilley said. "The courage, dedication and artistry they have brought to this community is simply amazing."

Pilley and Hinzmann's book is available for purchase at bookstores nationwide, including the Hub City Bookshop in downtown Spartanburg.

(Reprinted with permission)