A 12-year-old English-terrier mix follows simple directions written on paper

By People Staff
Updated October 29, 2009 06:35 PM

It started with a bet. A friend offered Manhattan dog trainer Lyssa Howells a trip to Mexico if she could teach her English-terrier mix, Willow, to read.

Read? Well, the 12-year-old canine, who had already been taught some 250 tricks, is “the most intelligent creature I’ve known in my life,” says Howells. So, such a task seemed easy.

It took just six weeks for Howells to prove that Willow could act on commands written on a sheet of paper, with no voice or hand signals. Remarkably, the dog can now sit up when a card says “Sit Up,” plays dead when a card reads “Bang,” and wave a paw when a sign says “Wave.” And, Howells took Willow to Baja to celebrate!

But can the dog really read or is she just recognizing cue cards? Brooklyn animal behaviorist Peter Borchelt tells PEOPLE: “This is not reading. This dog is discriminating between the shapes of letters.” Other experts are less skeptical: “It’s not the same as human reading,” says Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know. “Dogs are really perceptive, and I believe they can do more than we give them credit for.”

Either way, the dog’s astounding abilities are clear. “I can ask her, in full sentences, ‘Please go to the kitchen and grab a pen,’ ” says Howells. “She’s amazing.”

Check back later this week for video of Willow reading on PEOPLE Pets!