When Chaser, a lovely Blue Merle border collie that resided in Spartanburg, South Carolina, died July 23, it made news as far as The New York Times which even ran something of an obituary the following Saturday.
Chaser, who was 15, declined quickly and was presumed to have died of natural causes, meaning old age. Fifteen is venerable for any dog.
One of the bittersweet things about a border collie living into golden years, for its human companion, is to see how much wisdom has been hard gained and wonder where it all goes. And so it is with Chaser, who was dubbed the world’s smartest dog. She had acquired a walloping 1,022 nouns – in English, as it happens, in human – which she could use to decipher sentences that also had a verb, like “Bring Susan the blue frog, Chaser!”
She was preceded in death last year by John W. Pilley, 89, a professor emeritus of psychology. He was Chaser’s master, to use an old-fashioned term, and she his pupil, although it should be plain that he must have learned at least as much from her as she from him.
There was another star border collie before Chaser, Rico, a black-and-white male. His owner, Susanne Baus, of Dortmund, Germany, broke a limb and, with time on her hands, taught him over 200 words. He would then locate the corresponding object with word combinations, like “orange monkey.”
Rico could do simple logic, said Julia Fischer, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, who examined him. “It’s like he’s saying to himself, ‘I know the others have names, so this new word cannot refer to my familiar toys. It must refer to this new thing.’ Or it goes the other way around, and he’s thinking, ‘I’ve never seen this one before, so this must be it.’ He’s actually thinking.”
Whether dogs can actually think should not be in dispute, but it cannot hurt to have it shown by the Max Planck Institute. Rico died in 2018, aged 14.
Then there was Betsy, a pseudonym given to another black-and-white collie, from Vienna, who had a vocabulary of about 340 words and was thought to be one of the world’s most intelligent dogs before she was eclipsed by Chaser, who had the largest tested memory of any non-human animal.
What Rico and Chaser had in common is also that their owners had patience to begin to meet them on their own terms.
Pilley worked with Chaser for four to five hours a day, using cloth animals, balls, Frisbees and other toys.
“What we would really like people to understand about Chaser is that she is not unique,” Pilley’s daughter, Pilley Bianchi, told The Times. “It’s the way she was taught that is unique. We believed that my father tapped into something that was very simple: He taught Chaser a concept which he believed worked infinitely greater than learning a hundred behaviors.”
They also serve who only stand and wait, Milton said. Noticed missing the same week that Chaser went to the rainbow bridge was Coley, a handsome village collie from Penybanc, Wales, who for 11 years sat every day beside a roadway between 5:45 and 6:45 p.m., watching the world go by and barking at certain cars. Coley was so dependable that people in Wales used him as a landmark and to give directions. He died in mid-July.
In response to inquiries, one of Coley’s owners, Lesley Owen, posted on Facebook last week the sad news, saying, “I hope I can prepare the parents to prevent all the children being disappointed when Coley will no longer be waiting on the side of the road.”
We hope Coley and Chaser are having a nice chat right about now, perhaps comparing notes about people and cars and verbs and toys.