SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Dr. John W. Pilley, professor emeritus of psychology at Wofford College and owner/trainer of Chaser the border collie, dubbed by the media as “the smartest dog in the world,” died Sunday, June 17, in Spartanburg.
As a scientist he is noted for his seminal and groundbreaking research in canine cognition giving the world empirical confirmation that dogs are not only as smart as we think, but they are cognitively capable of so much more.
“John Pilley’s life was his classroom as he engaged his students through hands-on experiences and shared with them and the community – indeed, the world – his unforgettable ability to connect with people and animals, especially his beloved border collie Chaser,” Wofford president Dr. Nayef Samhat says. “We all learned through him to take nothing for granted, to explore our world and to make connections. The Wofford College campus will miss his extraordinary presence, compassionate spirit and early morning games and walks with Chaser.”
Pilley had been a professor at Wofford from 1969 until his retirement in 1995. The college awarded him an honorary degree in 2016. Chaser accompanied Pilley on that occasion.
“Wofford College has lost an extraordinary teacher, colleague and a true friend in Dr. John Pilley,” says Dr. Michael J. Sosulski, Wofford’s provost. “The hundreds – perhaps thousands – of students who benefited from being in his classroom and lab, the fellow faculty members who had the opportunity to teach alongside him and learn from him, and all the staff and alumni who enjoyed seeing John and Chaser on the pair's familiar morning jaunts on campus will truly miss him.”
A lifelong athlete, Pilley was a competitive gymnast in college, and in midlife he became an expert whitewater kayaker (several times he received one of the only 50 permits a year issued to elite kayakers by the National Parks Department for running the Grand Canyon rapids) and wind surfer. He windsurfed into his 80s.
John Lane, professor and director of Wofford College’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center and longtime friend and colleague of Pilley, recalls, “One of the ways John Pilley impacted young people most directly was his love of whitewater paddling. From the late 1960s through his retirement in the mid-90s he introduced hundreds of students to wild rivers. He loved rivers almost as much as he loved dogs. Those, like me, who paddled with him will never forget it.”
Pilley was born in the then-still rural outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, on July 1, 1928. Thanks to an overheard remark after a fundamentalist Church of Christ service when he was 11 years old (“I could preach better than that!”), he found himself shunted toward the ministry, which became his first career. He initially served as a minister in the Church of Christ, and then, after completing a divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, in the Presbyterian Church.
He worked for two years with a congregation of mainly beach bums in Huntington Beach, California; for three years with youth groups in Bellmore, New York; and for three years as pastor of a church in Lake Mary, Florida. Throughout his time as a minister, he was concerned with helping people learn more about themselves and their connection with other people and the world.
At the age of 36, he left the ministry for graduate study in the psychology of learning at Memphis State University, where he did his dissertation under Frank Leeming. In 1969, he became Memphis State’s first Ph.D. graduate, and then joined the faculty of Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He retired from Wofford as a full professor in 1995, but remained involved in campus activities as an emeritus professor, including working with varsity athletes on performance psychology at their coaches’ request. Wofford, in turn, made its facilities available to Pilley for his research with Chaser.
That research, in collaboration with Wofford psychology professor Dr. Alliston Reid, was published in the Elsevier Journal of Learning and Motivation. The research led to international recognition for Pilley and Chaser, and they made appearances on national television programs such as the “TODAY Show” and “60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper. The pair were featured in numerous national and international print publications.
Pilley co-authored The New York Times bestseller “Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words” with Hilary Hinzmann. At the time of his death, he was working on his second book with Debbie Pilley-Bianchi and Julie Hecht, a canine specialist with Scientific American, on how you can teach your dog the same way he taught Chaser. He firmly believed there could be a world of Chasers. Pilley-Bianchi says the book will be completed as part of Pilley’s legacy.
A memorial service will be scheduled later this summer or early fall at Wofford College.
Pilley was diagnosed in late April with leukemia. He would have been 90 years old on July 1.
He is survived by his wife, Sally. They met during his studies at Princeton, had a three-month whirlwind romance and have been married for 63 years. He also is survived by his daughters, Robin Pilley and Debbie Pilley-Bianchi; son-in-law Jay Bianchi; grandson Aidan Bianchi; and Chaser and Bobby Sue, their nubby-tailed cat.