Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
CNHI News Service
My brown mutt and I went for a walk recently on an old railroad grade at the edge of a ghost-town where we sometimes stroll. Buster Brown is a Lab mix, with an emphasis on the mix.
Buster likes to visit the ghost-town in part because it still has one occupied house, and friends of mine live there with their chickens, a cat and a dog. The resident dog is a small, insanely intense cattle dog mix. He dedicates his considerable energies to retrieving pine cones kicked along the road by willing walkers.
While Buster is willing to retrieve sticks thrown into water, he won’t play that game for more than 10 minutes. But I can’t tire out his country friend, who will chase pinecones as long as you are willing to kick them. The little cattle-dog has a deep and unshakable concentration for his self-assigned “work.”
Humans have bred that kind of intensity into some dogs. And science is now revealing that along with focused energy, some dogs have more intelligence than we ever really understood. Here’s the story:
A border collie in South Carolina named “Chaser” was adopted by a research psychologist. John W. Pilley took Chaser home when she was eight weeks of age and started intensive, five-hour-per-day training of the young pup. For three years the dog worked with Pilley and a few others, learning a variety of commands and behaviors through the process of game-playing, with nothing more than verbal praise as a reward for a job well done.
What’s impressive is how much Pilley was able to teach the collie to ultimately do. Pilley acquired second-hand stuffed toys and went to work teaching Chaser to fetch individual toys by name. In the end, Chaser learned more than 1,000 proper names for the toys and could reliably fetch them from another room or a different part of the yard and bring them back to Pilley.