Chaser: The World’s Smartest Dog

Chaser is a Border Collie with the largest tested memory of any non-human animal. She can identify and retrieve over 1000 toys by name. The dog’s vocabulary nearly puts her on intellectual par with three-year-old human children, and she has been called “the smartest dog in the world” many times by many people.

She was taught by her owner, retired Wofford College professor and psychologist John W. Pilley, better known to Chaser as “Pop-Pop”. John and Chaser’s inspiring journey demonstrates the power of the animal/human bond as well as the concept of learning through play. Not only does the story open our eyes to the boundless potential in the animals we love, it is also inspiring, enlightening and touching on many levels.

It all began a few years into Pilley’s retirement. An article was published about a border collie in Germany who knew more than 200 words . Pilley had Chaser for about two weeks. A language skill previously thought to be associated only with human children could also be present in another species,  per the Rico study based on the German border collie.

Pilley was inspired, to say the least. Flash-forward to today and Chaser can knows the names of more than one thousand toys. She also recognizes common nouns such as house, tree and ball. Based on that learning, she and her owner and trainer Dr. John W. Pilley continued her training.  Chaser routinely demonstrates her ability to understand sentences with multiple elements of grammar and to learn new behaviors by imitation.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks – Or can you?

Chaser’s abilities are revolutionizing the way we think about the intelligence of animals. Chaser also shows a high level of intelligence through her ability of “inferential reasoning”. This means she can infer the name of a new object by excluding objects whose names she already knows. For example, imagine there are three items on a table – a shoe, a ball and a wallet. Imagine that Chaser only knew what a shoe and a ball was (which of course she did). Chaser would be asked to retrieve the wallet. She would determine on her own that the wallet was the only unknown object in front of her, since she knew what a shoe and a ball were.

Chaser, a border collie, and her Pop-Pop, John W. Pilley
Chaser, a border collie, and her Pop-Pop, John W. Pilley, a retired Wofford College professor and psychologist

“Chaser : Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words” is a book written by written by John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann. Pilley said he wanted to explore the boundaries of language learning and communication between humans and man’s best friend.

He spent four to five hours a day enriching his new dog’s social and learning experiences.  The scientific journals, Behavioural Processes and Learning and Motivation, published his research and findings.

Chasers’ credits include appearing on The Today Show with Matt Lauer, ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper, USA Today, Fox & Friends, BBC Earth, to name a few. Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and author of The Genius of Dogs, called Chaser the most scientifically important dog in more than a century.

Sadly, John Pilley passed away on June 17, 2018. He was 89 years old. Pilley’s daughter said before her father died, Chaser positioned herself facing his bed looking directly at him and barked loudly at him (she isn’t a barker). She kept her eyes fixed on him until after he died. Since Pilley’s death, Chaser lives with her former owner’s family, Deb, Sally and Robin. Before his unfortunate passing, Pilley was at work on a second book about Chaser and how to train your dog. As a memorial to Dr. Pilley, the Pilley family is adamant that the book, “A World of Chaser” will still be published. You can learn more about Chaser and the legacy of John W. Pilley on Chaser’s personal website.

A ball named “Blue” was Chaser’s favorite toy and also the first word she ever learned, said Pilley, Chaser’s Pop-Pop. There is no shortage of tear-inducing “all dogs go to heaven” quotes. However, I will leave you with two of my favorites, as well as my wish for Chaser and her Pop-Pop. Oliver Gaspirtz said that “Heaven is a place where all the dogs you’ve ever loved come to greet you”. Will Rogers said “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went”. It is my sincere hope that whenever Chaser’s inspiring time on this planet is over, Pop-Pop will be waiting for her, with Blue in his hand, ready for a long-awaited game of catch.