It’s safe to say that there never has been a dog quite like Chaser. Received by ethologist Dr. John W. Pilley as a gift in 2004 from his wife, Sally Pilley, this border collie showed incredible intelligence potential even early on in life. Over the course of their time together, Dr. Pilley taught Chaser over 1,000 words, and she often demonstrated that knowledge while being tested and quizzed by Dr. Pilley and others.
Border collies are already known for their smarts, taking the number-one spot out of a list of 110 breeds in Dr. Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs. A large part of the reason why the border collie achieved first place comes from its work-related intelligence and instincts as a herding breed. Understanding the behavior capabilities of herding dogs, Dr. Pilley created a training regimen for Chaser that catered to her herding instincts as a border collie. The result was essentially like taking a dog from a breed already known for its intelligence and supercharging her brain.
For her first three years of life, Chaser trained with Dr. Pilley between four and five hours a day. First, he would show her an object, and then he would repeat its name 40 times to associate the word with the object in Chaser’s mind. Once that part of the training process was completed, Dr. Pilley would hide the toy and send Chaser to find it, calling it by its name.
Ultimately, Dr. Pilley taught Chaser the names of 800 animal toys, 116 balls, 26 flying discs, and a number of plastic items over the course of their training together. Pilley stated that Chaser learned and recognized 1022 unique nouns altogether, and his claims were often validated when others would come to test Chaser’s incredible abilities, such as the time Neil Degrasse Tyson paid Dr. Pilley and Chaser a visit in the NOVA clip below.
Pilley also published a study in 2013 that showed he had taught Chaser the basic “syntax and semantics of sentences consisting of three elements of grammar[:] a prepositional object, verb, and direct object.” According to the study, thanks to her early years of mental training, Chaser was able to use two types of cognitive ability—memory storage, which is the process of turning recently learned experiences into long-term memories, and working memory, which is the short-term system for keeping information available to be processed—to successfully diagram sentences.
But, like all great things, Chaser’s life came to an end late last week. Dr. Pilley passed had already away last year at the age of 91, and Chaser lived with his wife and daughter until the black-and-white dog’s health took a sudden turn in mid-July. Chaser was 15 years old, and, according to the surviving Pilley family members, died of natural causes.
A bronze statue of Chaser will be erected in her home city of Spartanburg, South Carolina, by the Hub City Animal Project. The statue, which is expected to be completed in 2020, will feature a set of Dr. Pilley’s footprints alongside it. The piece is meant to honor the dedication and achievements of both Chaser and Dr. Pilley with the goal of inspiring people (and perhaps dogs) of all ages to never stop learning.