Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Communications Breakdown

Sheepherding looks so simple. Under the guidance of a good dog/handler team, sheep move smoothly from one place to another, seemingly without fuss. The dog looks so natural as it runs in a graceful arc and then coaxes the sheep to the handler. It looks so confident walking into them and driving them down the field, so in control when it backs them into a pen.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you could pick this up quickly. Perhaps I can even be forgiven for thinking it, not so long ago.

Why is it so hard? Complexity.

Sheepherding involves three elements, all living, breathing, and thinking: the handler, the dog, and the sheep.

More to the point, sheepherding involves communication. The goal starts with the handler, who sets out to perform a task – for example, to pen the sheep.

First, the handler has to make the dog understand his intent. Then the dog must get the point across to the sheep. And the handler must watch the sheep to correct matters when they go awry.

Not so hard, right? But communication isn’t one way. The dog signals confusion or uncertainty to the handler, and sometimes the dog instinctively knows a better way to go about things. And sometimes a ewe signals her intentions when she turns and faces the dog, lowers her head, and stamps her foot.

So with three different species, each in two-way communication, how many interactions does that make?

Handler à Dog. Commands, corrections, and praise, but also emotion. If a handler is tense, the dog senses it in the tone of command. If relaxed, the dog hears that as well.

Dog à Handler. Confusion, uncertainty. The astute handler can watch a dog’s body language to sense that he’s going to do something before the dog actually takes action. This is critical to good correction.

Handler à Sheep. Minimal, except at the pen or during the shed, when the handler might shoo sheep in one direction or another.

Sheep à Handler. More than you might think. In fact, the best handlers can read sheep, not just noting when they’ve changed direction (while simultaneously keeping an eye on the dog), but also reading their behavior to predict what they’ll do next, similar to reading a dog.

Dog à Sheep. Volumes could be written on this. Dogs communicate with their eye and with their body, and perhaps by other means. Eye is ‘the stare,’ which makes the sheep uncomfortable. It has been described as similar to a stranger staring at you as you stand at a bus stop. It makes you want to move away from the offender. Unless you’re an aggressive sort, in which case you might be confrontational. Fortunately, sheep rarely react this way. The other way dogs communicate is with their body, using their gifted athleticism to race in front of sheep to head them off. I don’t doubt they communicate in more subtle ways as well, though I think the movie ‘Babe’ stretches it a bit far.

Sheep à Dog. The most obvious is a sheep’s refusal to move in a desired direction.

A good handler is like a good mid-level manager. He has to keep the team communicating effectively and running smoothly. It's a little more complicated because the employees are sheep and dogs, not humans.

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