Is your dog a genius? How much can they learn? What would it be like to teach your dog a skill that no one else had attempted before?
Dr. John Pilley and his family had the same questions about their Border Collie puppy Chaser. Dr. Pilley was a retired Professor of Psychology who believed that Chaser had abilities waiting to be unleashed by the right teacher. So he spent five years working with Chaser, exploring the boundaries of language development. Chaser learned more than a thousand words and became world famous. But more importantly she had a huge impact on the field of dog cognition.
Chaser’s experiences were documented in a book by Dr. Pilley called Chaser, Unlocking the Genius of the dog who knows 1000 words.
At Petminded we are big fans of the work the Pilley family did with Chaser and it is closely connected to our own philosophy of Teach Not Train. So we were very excited when got a chance to chat with Dr. Pilley’s daughter, Pilley Bianchi who was a co-trainer to Chaser and considered Chaser to be her dog sibling.
Pilley shared many of the lessons she learned from her dad in our discussion. We're recapping what we learned in this blog!
Pilley told us that Chaser's success did not happen overnight. It was due to all of the learning steps her father put in place. Each lesson built on the previous ones. When we skip steps we don't have the results we want, Pilley explained, using the example of trying to put together Ikea furniture with out-of-order instructions.
Pilley believes that much of her dad's success with Chaser was due to his intentional methods. By creating an environment, where Chaser couldn't make a mistake, Dr. Pilley built her confidence and made learning fun. This was through error-less learning which included calling Chaser back if she was about to make a mistake.It also meant avoiding the word "no" which dogs probably interpret as being told they are doing something wrong and with being in trouble.
Each dog is unique and has different motivations and temperament. It's important to observe and seek to understand what makes them tick, how they like to play, and what causes fear. Pilley also warns owners who have had dogs in the past, that their previous experiences may be a pitfall. A new relationship with a new dog is not going to look the same and what worked with the previous dog may not with the new one.
Similar to children, play is how dogs learn. That engagement brings them joy and builds connection. "Play cements the relationship between you and the dog," Pilley explains.
Repetition is also key to learning success. Blue was the first toy Chaser learned and it took time and repetition. "Chaser, catch blue." "Find Blue." "Take Blue." Pilley explained that only once Chaser could find a toy by name in another room, would they move on to learning a new one.
Even when out on a walk, Dr. Pilley would point out a tree and say "this is a tree". Chaser started learning that "this is" means that the next word is attached to the object. It also meant that opportunities to learn were constantly happening.
All animals and humans can learn and it's about finding the sweet spot for both. Pilley explains that the word genius comes from the stem words of genesis to begin and jovial. So, it is the giving birth to one's joy. If we can find what brings out dog joy, we can open the box of learning.
Pilley beautifully reminds us that the lessons and simple truths dogs show us can help us be better people and owners. Dogs show us how to be in the moment, how to be one with nature, how to love unconditionally, and how to have perpetual joy. These are the valuable things we can learn from them.
Our audience had many questions for Pilley. Here are some of the Q & As:
Q: What if my dog doesn't like to play?
A: Learning what your dog enjoys takes engagement. They may not know what to do with that new toy until you teach them how to play fetch or tug, or keep away. This may mean being the role model and showing them how the game is played. It also takes trial and error to figure out what your dog enjoys just like your child might.
Q: How did Chaser learn verbs in addition to nouns?
Tying the noun words we teach our dogs to the verbs helps them learn those actions. For example, fetch Blue or take Blue helps your dog start associating those verbs with the action.
Q: How much time should you spend on training?
Training doesn't need to be for long periods of time to have an impact. Two to five minute spurts a few times a day.
Q: What are some engaging ways to play with your dog?
Throwing the Frisbee, playing chase, getting goofy, and losing your dignity. Finding what brings your dog joy. Don't be afraid to get down and roll on the floor and get silly.
Q: How does clicker training play a role?
The clicker is really for the human. It teaches the human to respond to the wanted behavior. Using a treat is another way to respond but it is some time distracting to the dog. Instead, try a simple positive reinforcement such as saying "good girl!" Don't forget to shower on the praise in whichever method you use.
Q: What do you do if your dog gravitates only toward the favorite toy?
Having a favorite toy is great! If you want to teach the name of a new toy, then hide the favorite one. Make sure to
Want to learn more about Chaser and the continuing work being done through the Chaser Foundation?
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Books recommended by Pilley: