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Number of Commands

by Robin MacFarlane

What is the average vocabulary of a household pet?

Have you heard about Chaser, the boarder collie, considered the world's smartest dog? Well, Chaser is certainly the dog with the largest vocabulary!

Her story has been around for a while, but I just came across it in recent months when I read the book by John Pilley. John is a retired psychologist who happens to own Chaser and has taught her over 1000 words. Not only the names of over 1000 toys, but she also understands verbs. John can combine the verbs and nouns and Chaser demonstrates a very clear ability to comprehend his sentences.

For instance, John can lay out a couple dozen toys in a pile and tell Chaser to Find, Paw, or Fetch a specific one. Chaser can perform reliably even when John is out of sight of the toy pile, which proves Chaser's ability to distinguish articles and actions independently of any possible signals or cues from him. She has proven she understands the actual words and the ability to understand multiple contexts by combining them with various verbs.

It is a very interesting book. Give it a read or take a look at the story Anderson Cooper did on Chaser.

The story got me wondering what the average vocabulary might be for a household pet? So I began jotting down a list of words that my guys seem to understand. While I have not exposed them to the same extensive testing process John went through with Chaser, I wrote down all the words and short phrases they appear to comprehend.

I came up with just over 100 words. Which actually was a rather humbling experience. Up until I read John's book, I actually thought I was a pretty decent trainer! 1000 plus words is pretty amazing. John admits to training Chaser up to 5 hours day, 5 days a week for three years. That in and of itself is amazing dedication.

It was in interesting process though. To actually take inventory of what my dogs have learned while living with me makes one really focus on the idea of what level of comprehension they are truly capable of.

My opinion of a dog's reasoning ability changed dramatically many years ago when my then Boxer, Maia, demonstrated something amazing. I had given her one of those toys that make odd noises when it moves. It was called a "giggle ball" or something like that. Some apparatus inside the toy emitted odd noises when it rotated off its axis. After pawing and playing with the toy for 10 minutes or so, she paused for 30 seconds with it in her mouth, trotted to the top of a flight of stairs and deliberately dropped it. She then stood there and watched with a delighted look on her face as it plopped from step to step making those crazy noises all the way down the staircase.

She bounded to the bottom of the stairs, picked it up and repeated the process about half a dozen times before getting bored with it and moving onto something else.

The experience forever altered my thinking about a dog's mind and what level of thinking they are capable of. There is more behind those eyes than many of us might have given credit for.

Dog people have known for a long time how intelligent our companions really are, but I'm thankful John Pilley set out to prove it.

-- Robin

Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.

Robin's Obedience DVD

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