Sheepdogs round up the rules for crowd control

Scientists have found two simple rules behind how sheepdogs manage to round up and move sheep so efficiently, which they hope can be used in designing robots for crowd control or environmental cleanup.

Sheep wearing GPS packs
Credit: A. J. Morton

The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface this week, involved strapping backpacks with GPS units to sheepdogs and sheep and then feeding the data into a computer simulation to create a mathematical ‘shepherding’ model.

The researchers saw, for the first time, that sheepdogs use just two rules: to collect the sheep when they’re dispersed and drive them forward when they’re aggregated. Once they had got this elusive knowledge, they were then able to make a single shepherd herd over 100 individuals in the model.

“If you watch sheepdogs rounding up sheep, the dog weaves back and forth behind the flock in exactly the way that we see in the model,” Dr Andrew King, of Swansea University, said in a press release.

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

King adds, “There are numerous applications for this knowledge, such as crowd control, cleaning up the environment, herding of livestock, keeping animals away from sensitive areas, and collecting or guiding groups of exploring robots.”

The study has been covered widely in New Zealand and global media: Scientists studying sheepdogs’ tactics
MSN NZ: Mystery of how kelpies herd sheep solved
ABC: Why herding sheep is dogs’ work
Weekly Times Now: Secrets to sheepdogs’ herd success revealed in European study
Business Insider Australia: The Science Of Sheepdogs And The Secret Of Rounding Up Sheep
BBC News: ‘Two simple rules’ explain sheepdog behaviour
BBC News (Video): The relationship between sheepdog and master revealed
Telegraph: One man and his droid: could robots replace sheep dogs?
The Guardian: Sheepdogs could be replaced by robots after scientists crack simple process
The Independent: Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings
ITV News (Video): Two easy steps to being a sheepdog
Irish Examiner: Sheepdogs may be about to be replaced by a superior race
TIME magazine: Scientists Claim GPS Data Has Finally Solved the ‘Sheepdog Mystery’
Voice of America: Herd Mentality: Sheepdogs Provide Lessons in Crowd Control
Huffington Post: Sheepdog Study Yields Simple Explanation For Dogs’ Awesome Herding Ability
Discovery News: How One Dog Can Herd So Many Sheep: Mystery Solved
Delhi Daily News: The sheepdog and master relationship decoded
Zee News: Science sheepdogs use to herd sheep revealed