Chaser: Can dogs learn language? (book review)

I recently finished reading Dr. John W. Pilley’s new book, Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words (view on Amazon). You might have heard of Chaser; over the past couple of years she has appeared on NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s World News, and PBS’s Nova ScienceNow, as well as in countless newspaper articles.

chaser book cover

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in dog behavior, dog training, animal learning, and animal intelligence. It’s a fascinating book that follows the adventures of Dr. Pilley, a retired psychology professor, and Chaser as they explore the limits of canine learning.

Do dogs really understand language?

I was talking to someone recently who said she wasn’t that impressed by Chaser, as her dog understands lots of different words. Dogs are smart. However, in daily life, dogs are often guided by a combination of our words, plus, the environmental context, our body language, and many other factors.

For example, you tell your dog, “Spot, go get your ball and let’s go outside.” Spot goes, gets her ball, and heads to the back door. Did Spot understand each individual word and its grammatical function? Or, did she only recognize key words in the sentence, such as “Spot,” “ball,” and “outside?” Or, did she ignore the words and respond instead to your tone of voice and the fact that you picked up your coat and headed toward the door?

Because Spot’s behavior could be explained in several different ways, scientists have (rightly so) been skeptical about whether dogs understand the unique meanings of individual words, as well as the functions of different words when they are combined within a sentence.

For researchers, there are still many unanswered questions about canine learning, including whether dogs can comprehend individual words as referring to objects (independently of actions), whether dogs can learn basic grammatical structures, whether dogs can learn new words by exclusion, and more. These are some of the questions that Dr. Pilley hoped to answer with Chaser.

Chaser’s language lessons

photo from:

photo from:

Dr. Pilley traces his journey with Chaser and describes his challenges and triumphs as he teaches her everything from basic obedience behaviors, to sheep herding, to advanced language skills. It’s evident from the book that Dr. Pilley loves and respects his dogs and that Chaser is a well-loved member of his family. I really enjoyed that he discusses several times in the book that he sees Chaser as his research partner, not as an experimental subject.

Much of Chaser’s training revolved around play and social interaction, which I found particularly interesting. These elements are also common to language learning for young children, which could have contributed to Dr. Pilley’s success. For example, Dr. PIlley would ask Chaser to find a certain object, and then spend three to five minutes playing with Chaser and the toy. While reading the book, I wondered as well if these long periods of reinforcement that involved the object whose name was being learned also contributed to Chaser’s learning.

Because most of Chaser’s training involved fun play, Dr. Pilley and Chaser often spent four to five hours a day working on language training. And this training definitely paid off! By the time Chaser was seven and a half months old, she had already learned the names of more than 200 objects. She had also demonstrated that she could learn the name of a new toy after just hearing the name one time and that she could learn as many as ten new words a day. Pretty impressive for a young pup!

Learning one thousand words (and more)

In the book, Dr. Pilley also describes his research process, including how he controlled for possible doubts and questions about Chaser’s talents. Using rigorous experimental designs that controlled for things like Clever Hans effects, Dr. Pilley has published several academic papers that demonstrate that Chaser is in fact responding to individual words and grammar elements. He’s also done a lot in his research to counter some of the criticisms of earlier canine language research.

I found it humorous that once Chaser had learned close to 1,000 object names, her memory was much better than Dr. Pilley’s. In the book he describes some of the “blind” tests, where someone else arranged a collection of objects behind a screen and then gave Dr. Pilley a list of object names to ask Chaser. In the book, Dr. Pilley writes that sometimes he would read a name out loud and he wouldn’t be able to remember which toy it referred to, but Chaser would remember and bring him the correct toy!

Chaser’s amazing language learning goes much farther than just learning the names of 1,000 different toys. Dr. Pilley also describes some of the work that he and Chaser have done regarding category words, learning by exclusion, one trial learning, match to sample, combining nouns and verbs, learning through imitation, and learning direct objects (such as take A to B vs. take B to A).

Finally, one thing I really liked about this book is that it is evident that Dr. Pilley respects and seeks to learn from professional animal trainers. Dr. Pilley discusses at length several of his friends who train working Border collies and the amazing things that these dogs learn as part of their daily work herding sheep. In the book, Dr. Pilley writes that his interactions with Chaser and other dogs have taught him that “We all learn better and faster when learning is fun.” I hope we can all remember this, anytime we are teaching an animal (or another human).

Book giveaway!

**Thanks to all who entered! This book giveaway is now closed.

I will be giving away a copy of Dr. Pilley’s Chaser book on my blog! It’s really easy to enter, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post. I’ll pick one winner at random on Thursday night (Dec 19) at midnight, so if you’re interested in winning, please leave your comment before then.

And if you don’t win the giveaway, Chaser, of course, is also available through Amazon, as well as most major bookstores.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the Publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt earlier this fall. I was under no obligation to write a review of the book on my blog.

If you liked this post, take a moment to share it!

, , ,

Don't miss out on great information about animal training! Subscribe now to the Stale Cheerios newsletter and receive email updates when new posts are published.

Disclaimer: StaleCheerios posts occasionally contain affiliate links. Affiliate links are one way that StaleCheerios can continue providing top-quality content to you completely for free. Thank you for supporting our hard work! Learn more here.