Ideas that add up #100

Sheepdogs use just two simple rules to round up and herd sheep, scientists have found. Sheep come together dependably when threatened, with individual animals aiming for the centre of the flock. So dogs can simply 1) gather and keep the sheep together through threatening behaviour and 2) drive them forward once they’re aggregated. Although this rule sounds simple, it was not obvious when researchers from the UK and Sweden started their project…

“At every time step in the model, the dog decides if the herd is cohesive enough or not,” says Daniel Strombom of Uppsala University. “If not cohesive, it will make it cohesive but, if it’s already cohesive, the dog will push the herd towards the target.”

FT Magazine, 27/9/14

I heard a shepherd phone in to a radio show a couple of weeks ago to ridicule this research. In fact she was outraged, protesting that what the dogs do is phenomenally complicated and saying that the scientists must be idiots.

Having just two fundamental operating principles — round up, drive forward — doesn’t mean that there isn’t an infinitude of options for applying those principles at any one moment. The character and experience of the dog plays a role, and its timing, and the prevailing environment. By the same token, driving a car can be reduced to two sets of actions — turning left or right, and speeding up or slowing down — but each driver applies those decisions in a unique way.

Maybe the shepherd is right about scientists, though. The article ends:

This shepherding algorithm could be applied to human crowd control, the researchers suggest.

This entry was posted in Behavioural science, Dog and the rest of them and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ideas that add up #100

  1. Michelle says:

    hey, hey, you’re back in action! I know, I’m behind the times. But I’m so glad. Ethology is where it’s at. I agree with the shepherd lady mostly. Sheepdog is communicating with sheep for one, also continuously fighting the urge to tear their white, fluffy heads off (just a little tearing, maybe? ok, no) ethical stuff.

    • doncropper says:

      Hey Michelle – thanks for commenting. I actually blushed to think anyone might be reading this, it’s beta stuff, can’t shake the pompous tone off but figure just keep going and maybe it’ll start making sense. Really dig your recent stuff on ehulepo.blogspot: that poem 3am, and even bought a (disappointingly slim) Morris Berman book on the strength of your review. Jia You!

      • Michelle says:

        You don’t need to blush, it’s a great blog! spectacularly intelligent and serious (In my dark moments, I castigate myself for pompousness, too.) Your blog is a thousand times better than Morris Berman’s blog. I only really like his early work. Lately he’s been moaning on and on about how awful Americans are, as if that was some kind on discovery!

  2. doncropper says:

    Americans are wonderful. It’s America that’s the problem 😉 Hey, I just looked up ethology – what an interesting field, I want to know more

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