Teaching language to dogs

Have you heard of Chaser, the dog who knows 1,000 words?

There’s a neat article that was published on the Scientific American blog earlier this week about Chaser and her owner and trainer, Dr. John Pilley. You can find the full article on their site here.

Most media reports about Chaser have focused on Chaser’s incredible abilities — the amazing things that she can do now. However, I loved this article because when the author, Julie Hecht, interviewed Dr. Pilley, she specifically focused her interview on the fact that “Learning the names of over 1,000 words doesn’t just happen overnight.”

In the interview, Hecht explores Chaser’s beginning training and some of the initial and intermediate steps that helped Chaser master 1,000 words, as well as basic grammar concepts. Rather than thinking of Chaser as having “magical abilities,” the interview delves into the sequence of training steps that helped develop Chaser’s ability to respond to spoken language.

Here’s a quote from the interview that I just love:

“I like to say that learning builds on learning. Not until she learned the two elements should she learn three elements.”

As I have discussed on my blog in the past, we can only train complex behaviors and advanced skills after the basic building blocks are in place. This is why it is so important during training to start with the basics and to teach pre-requisite skills and component behaviors before moving on to the “harder” stuff. This is what Dr. Pilley means when he says, “learning builds on learning.”

The article also mentions that Dr. Pilley has recently finished writing a book about Chaser! The book, Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words, will be released in October. I can’t wait to read a copy of the book. (Click here to take a look at the Chaser book on Amazon.)

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  • Jenny H

    I always think that most people seriously under-estimate dogs’ ability to learn language comprehension.
    After all if we only spoke to our kids in short single word ‘commands’ they would not learn much language either.
    But our dogs are so adept at understanding body language that I do wonder a bit if, rather than learning ‘verbal’ grammar, Chaser is really picking up on the non-verbal cues. (Maybe we could call it the Clever Chaser effect? 🙂

    • Hi Jenny,

      Good thoughts.

      From what I know, the research with Chaser has been carefully controlled to prevent (as much as possible) biases, subtle cueing, etc.

      For example, I know they tested instructions such as “take ball to bone” and “take bone to ball.”

      Also, (not sure about Chaser, would have to go back and check) I know for a lot of the border collie language research that has been done, the dog goes into another room to pick the correct item(s). The person giving the instruction cannot see where the items are placed or the choice that the dog makes.