As It Happens

Chaser, the border collie that could recognize more than 1,000 words, has died

Chaser, a black and white border collie dubbed "the world's smartest dog," has died at the age of 15.

Psychologist John W. Pilley used toys to train the border collie known as 'the world's smartest dog'

John W. Pilley, a professor emeritus of psychology at Wofford College, trained Chaser the border collie to recgnize more than 1,000 words. (Mark Olencki/Wofford College)
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Pilley Bianchi's family dog Chaser was smart. Really smart.

"I have a feeling she was smarter than me. She was able to manipulate and get her way on a daily basis. She had us all wrapped around her paw," Bianchi told As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton.

"But what garnered her international fame was [being] the dog who knew 1,000 words."

To be exact, Chaser could recognize 1,022 individual nouns. The black and white border collie, who made international headlines as "the world's smartest dog," has died. She was 15.

Chaser made international headlines as 'the world's smartest dog.' (John Pilley)

Chaser belonged to Bianchi's father John W. Pilley, a retired Wofford College psychology professor from Spartanburg, S.C., who was fascinated with animal behaviour. Pilley died last year at the age of 89.

When Pilley got Chaser as a two-month-old pup, he saw in her an incredible scientific opportunity. 

"He firmly believed ... that dogs were way smarter than the world has believed them to be. And he wanted to find out the boundaries of the canine mind," Bianchi said.

"In doing that, he chose language because it required a memory system and it required understanding that words have independent meaning. And if he could crack the code on that, then the floodgates would open."

Pilley began teach Chaser to recognize language — one toy at a time.

"Any language, you need a vocabulary — so her vocabulary was going to be her toys," Bianchi said. "It was all fun and play for her. "

Chaser and her 1,022 toys, all of which she knew by name. (Robin Piley)

He would take a toy, repeat its name dozens of times, then hide it and ask Chaser to go find it. 

It was slow-going at first, but by the time Chaser was five months old, Bianchi said she had "that ah-ha moment" where she finally clued in that different toys had different names. 

Over the years, she learned to recognize the names of 800 stuffed animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and a mishmash of plastic toys.

Each one had its own unique name, courtesy of Pilley. There was Boomerang, Comeforth, Muscleman, Clodhopper, Groovy and Lamaze to name a few. 

"It was good because she could remember the names, but we couldn't. We had to write them down," Bianchi said.

Pilley published his findings in the journal Behavioural Processes in 2011

"I was kind of blown away. I mean, I knew what he was doing with her, but until the research was published I really did not understand the gravitas," Bianchi said. 

"His work is being replicated around the world. We get fan letters from people from every corner of the Earth with them teaching their own dogs language. And it's exciting. It's a whole new playing field, no pun intended."

'Gosh, she was fun'

But Chaser was more than a science experiment. She was also a beloved family pet.

"Gosh, she was fun," Bianchi said.

"She was really entertaining for me because when I bring her to New York she loves to go shopping and go into the shops ... anything that she can engage with people and get around their legs and under their feet."

Pilley Bianchi and Chaser. (Submitted by Pilley Bianchi)

And despite being so well-trained when it came to language, she was really a free-spirit at heart.

"What a lot of people don't know about Chaser is that she is not an obedient dog," Bianchi said with a laugh. 

"What my father wanted to do was teach her a concept instead of rote behaviours, so that gave her a lot of leeway and freedom. And while she knew the obedience commands, they really didn't apply to her for most of her life."

But more than anything, she was loyal to Pilley — to the very end. 

"She was not a touchy-feely dog, but, when we brought her to a hospice ... six days before he passed, she would come into his outreached arms and she would, you know, allow herself to be pet," Bianchi said.

"It was hours before his death that she planted herself firmly in front of his bed with her head down, her shoulders square, giving him that border collie eye and gave one very loud, sharp bark. And it gave us goosebumps because we knew that she was not beckoning him to wake up. She was bidding him goodbye. It was stunning."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Morgan Passi. 

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