Update on Chaser, the world’s smartest dog

Over two years ago, I wrote about Chaser, a border collie that not only had a vocabulary of over a thousand words, she could also make logical inferences. I now learn via Machines Like Us that Chaser has got even smarter. Dan Nosowitz got a demonstration of what Chaser can do.

Here is one example.

Throughout the interview, Pill gave Chaser what I considered to be some pretty intricate directions. It was never “sit” or “stop,” but things like “relax” or “go to the living room,” which Chaser actually obeyed. These weren’t to impress me; this is the way John and Sally and Pill talk to Chaser. But I wanted to see some tricks.

I got a private demonstration with Chaser in Pill’s apartment, which seemed far too put-together for a rambunctious dog like Chaser to be running through. I was given a plush donut-shaped toy, the name of which I was told is “Fuzzy.” My first task: hide Fuzzy and have Chaser find it.

“Find” is a difficult test for an animal, because it is entirely based on the spoken word. It requires that the object to be found not actually be in sight, or else how could it be lost enough to be found? “Fetch” allows the dog to see the object as it’s thrown, but not “find.” Border collies aren’t natural hunting dogs like hounds, and all dogs have pretty short attention spans, so the task of finding an object seemed tricky to me.

I hid Fuzzy under a tall piece of wooden furniture, tucked way in the corner. There was only a few inches of space underneath there; Fuzzy wasn’t really in sight at all. It was too good of a hiding place. Chaser understood the task, but got frustrated quickly, almost like a toddler. She couldn’t find it. I repeated, at John’s urging, “Find Fuzzy, Chaser! Find Fuzzy!” in an excited tone. After a minute or two of Chaser scouring the apartment for Fuzzy, John told me to play the hot and cold game.

“Seriously? She understands ‘hot’ and ‘cold’?” I said. “Oh, yes,” said John. As she got closer to Fuzzy, I said “hot, Chaser! You’re getting hot!” She got more excited at this and began more energetically searching around that area. Just in case, she turned around briefly. “Cold, Chaser!” I said. She quickly turned back around, and within a few seconds had triumphantly located Fuzzy. She clawed him out from my unfairly difficult hiding place and looked up at me, eyes round, tail wagging, ears extended straight upward. “Good girl!” I said, before wondering how old a human child has to be before being able to accomplish that task.

Here is Chaser being put through her paces.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I think it was an episode of Martin Clunes’ A Man and his Dogs which featured a German (Austrian?) woman’s dog, which was, I think, also a border collie. Not only could the dog recognize and retrieve objects by giving the object’s name, she could recognize drawings of objects. And not particularly artful drawings. She also seemed to understand “get an object which looks like this one”.

  2. ttch says

    One thing that I realized recently is that (most) dogs seem to understand that humans live in a larger world, while cats don’t.

    No slur on cats. I prefer cats.

  3. mobius says

    @1. Rob Grigjanis

    I am not sure if it was the same dog, but a recent NOVA episode on the relationship between dogs and humans showed an incredibly intelligent dog that was from (IIRC) Austria. It had a huge vocabulary and was able to identify several hundred toys when asked to bring them from another room. And they did demonstrate the ability of the dog to do abstract associations by being shown a model of which toy was wanted.

    Absolutely amazing.

  4. Francisco Bacopa says

    My brother has a border collie mix who is very smart. He has to change the texting noise on his phone every few days because the dog doesn’t like it when my brother gets texts. It’s usually something wrong at work and “R” has decided that he’s my brother’s caregiver. It was stressing the dog.

    His wife and a few of their friends all have their own text noises. These do not upset R. He knows to associate certain text sounds with specific people. But work related sounds still stress him once he figures them out.

    His other two dogs are hounds. Not as clever, but much better attention spans. They like to sniff and are always finding some thing interesting. I was walking his dogs once and the hounds dragged me into someone’s yard and wouldn’t budge. I asked my SIL about it when I finally got them home. She said, “That’s where they saw an armadillo four days ago.” They had not been by that house since. Hounds remember that kind of thing.

  5. badgersdaughter says

    Cats are trainable too, just differently. My cats respond to requests like “if you want a treat, you have to scratch the post first” and “go sit down until I go to bed” (when they want to snuggle and I am washing dishes). The response of a cat to a complex command depends on pretraining to a routine and heavily, heavily on context. My cat Ink can now, at the age of 12, come to me in a room that does not contain a scratching post, make a meow that I recognize as a treat demand, and then understand me when I say, “OK, wait a minute and I’ll go give you a treat, but you have to scratch first.” She will sit down and wait, then when I get up, run to the door, check behind to make sure I am following her, go scratch the post, then stop, sit down, meow, and wait for me to give her her treat. If I say just “OK, wait a minute”, she will sometimes forget what she was asking for, lol. She and her same-age housecatmate Smoky come when they are called by name, obey “no” instantly, settle to take a pill when I say “hush hush”, take pills fairly calmly when I signal “OK, head back”, “OK, open up,” “OK, swallow it”, “wait not yet” (if there’s another pill), and “good girl” or “good boy” when pills are done. Both cats recovered from serious hepatic lipidosis this spring. If I hadn’t trained them to recognize so many cues and contexts, I could never have got them through the six daily feedings and pill poppings they required to keep themselves alive and repair their liver damage.

  6. Mano Singham says

    That’s pretty impressive considering the legendary difficulty of training cats.

    Since you know about cats, is it true that they dislike water? And can they swim? I don’t mean just domestic cats but also the big wild ones like lions, tigers, etc.

  7. mildlymagnificent says

    Cats mostly dislike getting wet rather than water itself. I remember an old aunt had one of those big laundry tub arrangements. She had to be vigilant because otherwise the cat would get in and go for a swim in the water that was meant to be the final, super clean rinse for her washing. Most cats I’ve had show a distinct preference for dirty puddles of water in the garden rather than the nice clean bowls set out with their food – and they are perfectly willing to stand knee deep or more to indulge in this luxury.

    Tigers are well known for swimming. And there’s at least one group of lions in Africa that do their hunting in a swamp, flooded area.

  8. kantalope says

    Tigers like water – youtube swimming and tigers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMnK63ppBXU

    As for the small cats – one of ours loved the water. She would sneak around the shower curtain to take a shower and liked to get a drink out of the faucet by sticking her head into the running water and then licking the water as it ran down her face.

  9. badgersdaughter says

    The main difficulty in training cats is that they are neither dogs nor humans. Other difficulties are recognizing that not every cat will learn the same set of “tricks” and most of the things they do learn are not “tricks” but variations of natural behaviors. My cats are not especially bright when assessed by the things they do on their own initiative. But they have definite personalities (Ink is dominant, protective, and reserved; Smoky is extremely outgoing, vocally communicative, and reassurance-seeking) and these inform the sorts of things they can learn and the ways in which they learn them. I doubt any lab setting could properly take that into account; to make things even more complicated, training doesn’t only mean telling the cat what to do, but establishing patterns of feedback between human and cat. I can recognize when Ink is asking for a treat or attention. Smoky will actually vocalize his equivalent of, “hey it’s way past your bedtime”, “the water dish is empty, please give me more”, or “I feel like having a treat, come watch me scratch” (he has self-imposed a variation of the rule that he can’t eat a treat unless he scratches the post; even when I give him one “unearned”, he will go scratch the post briefly before he allows himself to eat it).

  10. badgersdaughter says

    Dislike water? Not if they’re familiar with it. Some cats even fish. All cats can become accustomed to baths if they are started young enough and with due regard for their cat perceptions and preferences. I had a cat once who liked to splash in his water dish for fun, though this was originally caused, I think, by an eye defect he had as a kitten that made it hard for him to detect the surface of the water unless it was in motion.

  11. Mano Singham says

    I had the vague idea that tigers could swim but was not sure if I read that in the book Life of Pi.

  12. Mano Singham says

    That’s pretty amazing video. I am also surprised that the trainers would get so close to the tigers. You could not pay me enough to do that.

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