Our dogs are capable of understanding and learning so much more than they are frequently given credit for. Take, for instance, retired psychologist and author Dr. John W. Pilley’s dog Chaser, who has memorized the name of each one of her 1000 toys and can retrieve them on command. And that’s just for starters. Chaser has moved on to demonstrating an understanding of full sentences and the ability to learn behaviours by imitating her trainer. But amazingly, Chaser isn’t unique. Yes, this is a remarkable duo; Chaser is a Border Collie, a breed known for its smarts, and Dr. Pilley is an emeritus professor of psychology, but Dr. Pilley’s training methods can be put to use by anyone. The lessons and training principles—such as incorporating learning into play and channeling your dog’s natural drives—found in his fascinating book “Chaser” can definitely be applied to your own dog.
Dubious? Think of the vocabulary your dog has picked up largely by osmosis. My dog Chewy can be in another room and if I voice a query like “should I add cheese to the salad?” she’ll come running unbidden, picking out that word, delivered without any intonation indicating its import, from the rest of the repast-making chatter. At the office, she also understands that “come on up” spoken into the phone means the imminent arrival of a courier to be greeted with a round of barking. And many of us spell out the word “walk” to tamp down the pre-excursion enthusiasms its sparks.
If dogs can self-teach words of interest to them, imagine what knowledge you can impart with a little effort. If you’re willing to devote a bit of time, I’m pretty sure your dog will soon be showing off for guests by plucking an individual toy from a pile when asked to grab that particular one by name. Yes, this is amusing but also a service to your best friend; dogs are smart and, like most of us, like to be challenged. To help you get started, we asked Dr. Pilley a few questions about where and how to begin building your dog’s vocabulary and understanding of language. Phase two? Teaching your dog categories of things, like trees. Yes, it’s possible. Read on…
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