Chaser the Border Collie: The World’s Smartest Dog?

Most owners find it pretty hard to teach their dogs to sit, fetch and roll over on command, but John W. Pilley, a retired psychology professor, managed to teach his Border Collie, Chaser, to understand 1022 different words. 


Yep you read that right, over a 3 year period, Chaser actually learned and remembered the names of 1,022 objects and demonstrated that she understood the meanings of those separate names and commands in a series of hundreds of fetch trials (they must've used some pretty effective dog training treats!). 


During those 3 years, Dr. Pilley trained Chaser for 4-5 hours a day! His rigorous technique involved showing her an object, saying its name up to 40 times, then hiding it and asking her to find it. He used 800 cloth animal toys, 116 balls, 26 frisbees and a variety of plastic items to ultimately teach Chaser 1,022 nouns. Thanks to this training, behavioural researchers concluded that Chaser had attained the vocabulary and intellectual capabilities of a 3 year old child.


It was even reported that sometimes the dog did better than her handler, who eventually had to write the names on the 1,022 toys to recall them correctly.


This impressive feat granted Chaser the title of 'the dog with the world's most extensive vocabulary'. She overtook the prior record-holder, another Border Collie named Rico, by a wide margin, as Rico had learned 200 words. And to make Chaser's achievement even more impressive, she also came to understand the distinctions between nouns and verbs and can make appropriate matches between the two (is there anything that dog couldn't do?!)


Now while this all seems quite extraordinary, animal psychologists believe that Chaser's cognitive abilities are not an anomaly. In fact, research into canine cognition has exploded in recent years, with top tier university researchers including Yale University and the Max Planck Institute in Germany all having programs dedicated to studying dog psychology. At Emory University, neuroscientist Gregory Berns has been using an M.R.I. scanner to investigate the inner working of dogs' brains. His findings have revealed that dogs experience many brain functions that are startlingly similar to human experiences.


He has found that a dog's ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that they have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests that us humans should rethink how we treat dogs.


Inspired by these new findings, psychologist Brian Hare has co-founded Dognition, a series of interactive games that give pet owners an unprecedented perspective on how their dogs think. So why not pick up your pups favourite dog training treats and give the games a go this weekend? By understanding your dog's mind, you'll build a deeper connection with the personality behind the smiling face that greets you every day.


In Dr. Pilley's own words; "the big lesson is to recognize that dogs are smarter than we think, and given time, patience and enough enjoyable reinforcement, we can teach them just about anything."

March 16, 2022 — Georgia Dynon