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.