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The Dog Who Knows 1000 Words

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Yvonne DiVita
Review of Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words by John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann

"My research seemed to indicate that dogs didn't even understand their own names except as signals to pay attention."

That's a direct quote from the author of this delightful and inspiring book about the intelligence of dogs. I'm sure many of you reading this are shaking your heads in dismay - as if your dogs don't know not only their own names, separately from any other noun, but a whole lot of other things, also. Truth is, the general public still views dogs as companion animals with very little intelligence. Luckily, the author changes his tune rather quickly, in the book.

Intelligence is a tricky thing, don't you think? In my travels, I've met some folks who seem to practice being ... unintelligent, and are proud of it. And, in my travels, I've met a lot of dogs who are highly intelligent, but don't get credit for it. These are creatures who pay attention, who respond to more than voice inflections, and who seem to be practicing the art of understanding.

However, this book isn't about intelligence. It's about whether or not dogs can learn language. However, I submit that in order to learn language, you must first be intelligent. That is, you must have a working brain and be interested enough to want to learn. That's what drives intelligence, to me.

Chaser, a Border Collie, is exceptional and quite intelligent, no dog about it! (yes, I meant to say dog not 'doubt'). Pilley, the researcher and proud Pop-Pop of Chaser, admits that Border Collies have more desire to learn language than some other breeds. The need to understand their farmer's commands, and to be able to discern what must happen with their herd of sheep, at any given time, is vital to their work in the fields. Hence, Chaser has an unfair advantage over other dogs, one would say. But, I submit, my Emily could match Chaser word for word, had I been given the opportunity to teach her what Chaser has learned, from her early life, instead of adopting her at age two.

As I read the story of Chaser, and her predecessors, the wondrous dogs that came 'before', I was struck with a sense of joy that infused my whole being. More than just showing how smart dogs really are, Pilley has opened a door to new understanding of our companion animals. This books demonstrates the reality so many of us live with - that our dogs are highly intelligent creatures and have a place in the family home that is similar to the place we give our human family members.

In the case of Chaser, her desire to "work", which is a form of play for her, dictated her attention span and her desire to achieve results, and her bond with Philley was as much her incentive as her personality. She came to the task highly engaged, bringing obvious intelligence Philley recognized and stimulated, to at last teach her language, in the form of more than 1000 words. That's my opinion. I don't have research to back that up.

There is much delight and happiness shared in the story of Chaser. The people who worked with her, including but not limited to the author, accepted that she was doing more than performing, as she was put through her amazing tasks again and again. The scientists who are at last watching as this amazing girl continues to show that dogs do think, are finally validating what so many pet people the world over know, with having to study their dogs daily endeavors: that dogs are smart, they listen with a keen ear, and they notice far more than their human counterparts give them credit for.

Let me end with one small negative comment. Early on in the charming story of Chaser, a friend of the author's tells him, "A dog doesn't need another dog as a buddy. A dog needs a master or a mistress."

Well, I heartily disagree. Dogs are just as loving and giving and emotionally charged as people, and having another dog (or cat or other 'pet') around is a win-win. It may not be as necessary to them as having people around is to you and I, but multiple pet households could write many a book on the love of one dog for another. Some dogs may not need another dog as a buddy, but why not test that, get the dog a buddy and see?

Read the book. Share it. Learn more about not only the intelligence of dogs but about the human animal bond. It will make you appreciate your dog all the more and you'll be able to tell all those folks who say dogs are just dumb animals that science is proving them wrong. Oh yeah.


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