Dogs have evolved alongside humans for more than 15,000 years. It is not surprising to learn that man’s best friend even outnumbers children — 80 million dogs vs. 74 million children in 2014. Although we know a great deal about how children learn and how their brains work, the canine brain is still a bit of a mystery. However, scientists are now beginning to study the dog’s brain more closely. One subject, Chaser, owned by a retired psychology professor John Pilley, has really caught their attention. For the past 12 years, Pilley has spent five hours teaching his four-legged student. Dubbed “the smartest dog in the world” by a CBS 60 Minutes segment, Chaser knows more the name of more than 1,000 toys and understands nouns, verbs, and prepositions in simple sentences (eg, take, paw, out, bring it, find, nose it). Here is an example of how Pilley communicates with Chaser: “Take wheel. Do it girl, do it. OK. Out. Out. Chase, take KG. Do it. Good girl.” In Pilley’s words, “My best metaphor is [that Chaser] is a two-year-old toddler.” But to appreciate why Chaser is so remarkable, consider that a two-year-old toddler has a vocabulary of only 300 words.
One of Chaser’s biggest fans is Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. In the context of modern scientific research, Hare believes that Chase is one of the most important subjects. “This is very serious science, explains Hare. “We’re not talking about stupid pet tricks where people have spent, you know, hours trying to just train a dog to do the same thing over and over. What’s neat about what Chaser’s doing is Chaser is learning tons, literally thousands of new things by using the same ability that kids use when they learn lots of words.” In other words, Chaser is demonstrating the capability of social inference — the ability to learn new things by using prior knowledge and reading social cues like body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Hare notes how remarkable this is: “There was no evidence until the last decade that dogs were capable of inferential reasoning. Absolutely not. So that’s what’s new — that’s what shocking… of all the species, it’s dogs that are showing a couple of abilities that are really important that allow humans to develop culture and language.”
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For further reading: Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words by John Pilley, Jr. and Hilary Hinzmann (2014)
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than you Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods (2013)
The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities by Stanley Coren (1994)
Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution by Emma Townsend (2009)