Putting Border Collies Out of Work?

August 6, 2008 at 5:27 am 2 comments

From the Economist:

A new way of corralling cattle is being tested in New Mexico

BUILDING and maintaining the fences needed to control livestock is an expensive and time-consuming business. The materials alone can cost more than $20,000 a kilometre. On top of that, there is the cost of repairing damage caused by wild animals and falling trees. And then there is the need to move some fences around, a bit at a time, so that grazing land can be used efficiently. Strange as it may seem at first blush, many ranchers would therefore like to see the back of fences—if only they could.

According to Dean Anderson, an animal scientist at America’s Department of Agriculture, and Daniela Rus, a computer expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the answer is to move from real fencing to the virtual sort. The idea of virtual fencing is not entirely new. Pet “containment” systems, such as virtual dog collars, have been around since the early 1970s. But previous attempts to come up with system for controlling free-ranging animals have failed.

Dr Anderson and Dr Rus started from the observation that the job of a fence is merely to regulate an animal’s behaviour and asked if there was another way of achieving the same end. The result is a device dubbed the Ear-a-round, which acts both as a sensor of what an animal is up to and as a discipline on animals that are not behaving as their owner wishes.

The Ear-a-round consists of a small, light box that sits on top of a cow’s head, and a pair of earpieces made of fabric and plastic. The box contains a computer chip, a GPS tracking device and a transceiver that enables it to be programmed remotely. The earpieces serve both to keep the box upright and to supply command signals—either sonic or electric—to the animal wearing the device. For maximum working lifetime, the whole thing is powered by lithium-ion batteries that are topped up by solar cells.

TechDigest.tv reports:

Immediate concern has been voiced that the new technology will result in a hundred grizzled Marlboro men standing in line at the Job Centre come Monday morning, but not so, says Dean M. Anderson (‘Ear-A-Round’ inventor) who insists quite lucidly that the focus is now upon shifting the cowboy’s mentality from that of ‘daily toil and hard physical labour to a greater psychological understanding of bovine behaviour’. Right. And cows might fly.

They might… but I suspect that like the augmented animals experiments the Ear-a-round project will prove to be founded more on hyperbole than practicality.  We love technology, we really do — but it’s not the answer to all of the world’s problems.  Sometimes less is more, and we are sure that the simplicity and poetry of a fine working dog can never be replaced by mindless circuits and wiring.

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Entry filed under: dog training, dogs, science. Tags: , .

What’s New in Poo Doody Calls

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Audie's Gramma  |  August 6, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Oh yeah, that solar collector on the head of every cow would NO WAY be expensive. And of course, the cows would *never* crack them off on the nearest tree.

    Thing about fences — and I say this to my clients with pet dogs and “invisible fences” every day — is that real fences keep things OUT as well as IN.

    “Virtual” does no such thing.

    Other thing about fences is, there are two kinds of real ones — a physical barrier and a psychological barrier. A physical barrier is sufficient to keep a motivated animal of whatever species you are trying to contain/exclude from crossing it. The 12′ double fencing at the big cat sanctuary we just visited is a physical barrier. A psychological barrier, in conjunction with some training, keeps an animal from crossing it under normal conditions. The single strand of electrified tape around my pastures was a psychological barrier to the previous owners’ lazy horses. They *could* have knocked it down and taken the moderate jolt, and they certainly could jump it, but they had learned that it wasn’t worth it to try.

    The thing that can make psychological barriers “fair” and thereby avoid behavioral fallout is that the barrier is predictable. Where there is white tape, I don’t want to go — a cow or horse can get that.

    Take away that predictability from the animal, and neurosis is almost guaranteed. Then there’s the issue of what happens when the animal blows through the boundary anyway. Very big problem with “invisible fences.”

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  August 6, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    Ye-ah… And – what about the thingies that fit into the steer’s ears? Won’t those keep them from hearing the ambient noises in their environment?

    Between never knowing when they’re going to get startled by artificial auditory stimuli and being startled by things around them because they’re not getting adequate real world auditory stimuli — I’m thinking that this would lead to a whole new kind of ‘mad cow’ disease — where entire pastures of cattle are thrown into a state of catatonia through learned helplessness.

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