Rat in lab

Frequently Asked Questions about Chaser

Q: Lots of the stories in the newspapers claim that Chaser is the "Smartest Dog in the World." Is she really the smartest dog?  

A: As scientists, we would never make such a claim. After all, there are many different ways to be smart. Lots of dogs have been trained to do incredible things in agility training, for television and movies, to help people that have handicaps, and to save lives. Our research with Chaser did not attempt to do those things, and Chaser would not be able to compete with those dogs. Instead, we explored the upper limit in the number of names of objects that Chaser could learn with intensive training (4-5 hours per day, everyday for three years!). Dr. Pilley stopped after she had learned 1022 names of objects -- not because she could not learn more, but because he could not afford to invest more time training her each day. It is true, however, that no dog or any other non-human animal has learned to recognize that many names. She is definitely smart!

Q: Could other border collies be trained to learn so many words, or is Chaser unique? How about other breeds of dogs? 

A: Other border collies would surely be able to learn just as well as Chaser if they were given the same extensive training that Chaser received. It was the systematic daily training (and Dr. Pilley's dedication!) that allowed Chaser to learn so many words. Would other breeds of dogs do as well? That's a great question, and we can only speculate since we didn't work with other breeds. Border collies have been bred as working dogs, and those that did not pay attention to the sheep and the farmer did not get to have pups. As a result, border collies have incredibly focused attention, and their attention span is very long. We believe that this focused attention helped Chaser learn so much. There are other breeds of working dogs with good attention spans, and they may be able to do as well as border collies. On the other hand, some breeds of dogs have trouble paying attention, are easily distracted, and seem to be motivated only by food. I doubt if those dogs would do as well, even if given extensive training. Of course, they may be better at some other (less "cerebral") task than Chaser would be, such as hunting, tracking, or agility training.

Q: I read a newspaper article that said some parrots know more words than Chaser does. If so, then Chaser doesn't have the world record for animals.

A: I have seen this claim as well, and I have talked to some of the owners of these birds. It is important to distinguish between receptive language and the production of language. Chaser does not produce words, she understands what we say to her. We produce the words, and Chaser has learned to recognize the sounds as names of objects. We demonstrated that Chaser actually understands that these names refer to specific objects or groups of objects. Chaser is great at receptive language, but she has not been trained to produce words herself. Parrots are usually trained to produce sounds that we humans interpret as words. One claim is that a particular parrot can produce 6000 words! The bird's owner has the bird in a cage alone on the porch. He records hours of the bird's sounds, and then listens carefully to the tapes to identify words. It is hard for me to understand how this is related to language acquisition because the bird is alone with nobody to talk to. These sounds may sound like our words, but are they used to communicate? Do these sounds or words actually have meaning for the parrot? With Chaser, we demonstrated understanding of words using carefully controlled experimental procedures. This demonstration still needs to be done with the parrots that are said to have such large vocabularies.