My dog is a Luddite

My sheep dog is worried. She read an article in the “Wall Street Journal” about shepherds in New Zealand using remote controlled helicopters to herd sheep. Now she’s concerned about her job security. Of course, I’m kidding. Ivy is a really smart dog and can’t be bothered to spend time reading the “Wall Street Journal.” I read it to her.

I reassured her that I had no intention of replacing her with a drone. I wouldn’t have any more control over a joystick than I have over the dog. I don’t play computer games much and even my computer mouse sometimes moves the opposite direction I need it to. I simply call, “Come,” to the dog and she comes…usually. Sometimes she even figures out what needs to be done on her own.

A good herding dog knows how to make sheep move without making them run. The sheep get used to the dog and routine herding and will often walk to the next gate without being herded at all. In watching the video which accompanied the online WSJ article, I noticed that the sheep being herded by the copter ran as fast as they could to get away from it. The remote shepherd was lucky they didn’t just run right through the fences. It didn’t look like stress-free sheep handling.

I can see situations where an airborne camera might be helpful, like when the sheep get out and are hiding out in a low spot in the neighbor’s field where the dog can’t see them.  Maybe if, as in some parts of New Zealand, the pastures are thousands of acres, a remote control helicopter would be helpful in finding all the wanderers. For me, however, standing in my front yard, herding with a joystick would mean I would need to buy exercise equipment to compensate for the calories I would no longer burn while herding sheep.

A remote control drone would not fix a broken fence spotted while herding sheep or pick up a baby lamb that can’t keep up. Unless one also installed remote control gates, you’d still have to go out and open them.

The drone probably won’t lie on your feet at the end of the day or notice that you are having a bad day and push it’s head under your arm to let you know that you’re the top dog somewhere.

In agriculture and elsewhere in our culture, we see efficiency as limiting the manual labor involved in doing our work. Robots make our cars. Computers do much of our computation. Elevators no longer have operators. There are prototypes of cars that don’t require a driver. Tractors steer themselves and robots milk cows and clean the barn. Amazon is looking into delivering packages with drones and eliminating delivery truck drivers.

None of these labor saving technologies, however, come without costs, both direct and indirect. The capital required to adopt these kinds of gadgets often is high even if the cost of running them is lower than human or dog labor. The non-monetary costs sometimes are even greater. If a sheep rancher can herd sheep without a dog or a shepherd or a horse, can he manage a larger number of sheep on a bigger ranch by himself? What does that mean for the community in which he lives? If he buys his neighbor’s ranch and fires his help, will the church down the road have enough members to keep it’s doors open? What happens to school enrollment? Will the businesses in the next town lose customers? If the rancher is looking at his pastures through the lens of a flying camera, will he notice if the grass has been overgrazed? Will he see invasive weeds taking hold? Will he see erosion along the creek bank? Will he notice that there are no meadowlarks singing from the fence posts?

The time saved in herding sheep may allow for increased monitoring of pasture conditions and better management. That time, however, might be eaten up by the need to retrieve the drone when it crashes or the battery dies or the wireless connection disappears for no apparent reason. There will be constant upgrades to install and to learn to use. How long before the drone itself is made obsolete by newer technology? Will the price of sheep keep up with the price of the technology treadmill? One probably would need to have a dog for backup.

My dog, Ivy, is safe. I won’t be replacing her with a drone. I don’t care if one doesn’t need to feed them anything but an occasional battery replacement and they don’t shed hair all over everything they touch. A camera wielding copter doesn’t come with brown eyes and a wagging tail.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains