American Psychological Association

119th Annual Convention
Washington D.C., August 4-7 2011

Chaser and Her Toys: What a Dog Teaches Us About Cognition

Part 2 of a series on Canine Cognition: Object/word memory.

Chaser the Border Collie
Chaser (above) as presented by John W. Pilley, Ph.D.

At the APA Convention 2 years ago I attended a popular presentation by Dr. Stanley Coren, where he shared a great deal of historic research, referencing cognitive processing models and developmental (human) notions such as "object constancy" and other concepts from Piaget and learning theory, along with some slides from experiments and some engaging video clips of some talented dogs (including a border collie on a skate board). Coren also traced the role of genetics (breeding) and compared different breeds. Today's presentation was focused on one particular set of memory and reasoning skills and centered on one very talented border collie in particular: Chaser. And .... Chaser was there too (above), although she did not "perform" live. Instead, her incredible skills were presented through numerous video clips (home-made, mostly).

As Dr. Pilley noted at the very beginning, "Obviously people love dogs".

This was a fun event; one could watch in awe and be appreciative of Chaser's cleverness and memory skills (seemingly well beyond some humans!) as well as coming away more informed about border collies. Dog lovers in general were definitely enjoying the behavior, demeanor, and "intelligence" of Chaser. And clearly both dog and owner are devoted to each other.

(For more on cross-breed comparisons as well as several additional controlled laboratory studies I'd suggest the 2009 presentation by Coren on
How Dogs Think.)

Dr. Pilley first referenced Kaminsky's 2004 report on
Rico, who could learn over 200 names of objects. A key finding, which placed Rico's learning apart from simply recognizing a few commands and object names, was how he learned by exclusion. "Exclusion learning does not depend on associative factors. It requires a higher cognitive level."

Research into children's language acquisition posits that young children acquire "referential understanding" when they reach the stage of knowing that objects have names - and they're taught with cues." One researcher (Markman) was not convinced it was so simple; for example, 2 words might (in the beholder's mind) perhaps be combined into one morpheme (sound byte) and that could be learned as one entity rather than having learned 2 separate words and their meanings. In any case, Dr. Pilley's own extensive research with Chaser "confirmed the findings of the Kaminsky team" - namely of learning through exclusion.

There were ooh's and ahh's among the dog-loving audience, as Dr. Pilley showed some home videos of "Chaser and Papa". He recalled what the breeder told him when he first adopted Chaser: "If you give your heart she will give you her mind." Clearly they struck that deal!

Pilley described 4 studies he conducted:

-- Experiment 1 "demonstrated Chaser's ability to learn a proper-noun name of over 1000 objects."

-- Experiment 2 "demonstrated that two word commands like 'fetch ball' were independent - that both the verb and noun had semantic meaning."
   [Later clips showed Chaser either tapping or fetching things, and following 2-step verb-subject commands handily.]

-- Experiment 3 "demonstrated Chaser's ability to learn common nouns - words that represent categories, such as ball, frisbee, and toy."

-- Experiment 4 demonstrated Chaser's ability to learn words by means of exclusion - inferring the name of an object based on its novelty among familiar objects that already had names."
   [For example, if she had 10 toys in front of her, 9 of which she knew, and was asked to fetch the new one, she'd pause a moment and then decide the 10th must be the object which was named.]

Dr. Pilley presented his criterion for learning, which consisted of 8 consecutive trials where Chaser had to correctly identify a series of named objects. In this study, if Chaser failed any one of the 8 trials, she started over again and was given additional training until the criterion was met. In the end, statistically significant findings were obtained in all 4 experiments.

[Slide of Chaser in the family room in the typical border collie stance, and with fixed gaze.] "They can assume this stance for a long time." Next we saw Chaser herding sheep, as taught by Pilley: "Bring her here girl. Good Girl!" Chaser at times now will "herd a toy - as a surrogate".
Video clips showed Chaser performing more and more complex tasks, including 2 and 3-step commands :"Drop, drop... Back-stand-stay". Then, standing in the classic stance, she responds to 1... 2... 3.... (waiting still), Go!

It gets better and better...

The training and research began when Chaser was only 5 months of age. Pilley assessed her memory of toys every month for 30+ weeks. He made up names for the dolls, plush animals, and other toys until he had accumulated over 1000 toys, in 16 large Tupperware tubs. Did she really learn the name of every toy? "Yes, with 95% success."

"Find ChaCha... Find Candy... Find Sweet Potato... Find Snow.... Good girl! Find Roast Pig... Find White Moose...." And Chaser could do much more than finding and retrieving, too. (Multi-step commands to find and place a paw or her nose on a toy, recognizing a bird sound, more.... as they say: amazing.)

Chaser began to accumulate accolades such as "world's smartest dog", and was widely cited as having a documented vocabulary of 1022 words. This captured media attention, as well as numerous online clips (Youtube, etc.) Pilley next showed a "more professional" documentary of sorts, which you can see a version of below, as presented on ABC News, Feb.9, 2011. (Titled, aptly, "An Amazing Dog").

The background: Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson (also known from PBS NOVA) was invited into the home, to judge for himself if this Chaser was as smart as all the buzz made out. As he was a big strapping stranger, unknown to Chaser, he was asked to have a seat on the couch and speak softly at first, so she would not be afraid. The only other advice was about the importance of reinforcement, to keep her engaged, such as praise ("Good girl!") for her performance. Once settled in, Pilley left the room, so he could not in any way exert an influence. It was just Tyson and Chaser - and a camera behind the couch where toys were scattered, to show her at work and prove nobody was helping her. As you'll see in this brief excerpt, Tyson and Chaser got along famously: "He was so excited. Chaser was doubly excited." They did multiple trials in which Chaser repeatedly scored 9 out of 9. See for yourself. Here's the ABC report:

Chaser: An Amazing Dog

Finally, Dr. Pilley ended with some more home videos, with Chaser following multi-step commands, beyond simply finding and fetching, such as get/bring/paw, nose on ABC, and even responding to the cue of a bird sound.

One can learn more about Chaser not only on YouTube - where many other animal studies, Chaser stories, and a famous Australian border collie are all easy to find - but also on Dr. Pilley's (and Chaser's) own website:

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2008 Convention Highlights:

Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:
Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

2010 Convention Highlights:
Online Support Groups & Applications | Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now

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