Human-Sheepdog Distributed Cognitive Systems: An Analysis of Interspecies Cognitive Scaffolding in a Sheepdog Trial

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
Paul G. Keil Macquarie University Australia

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Humans coordinate with other people and technological resources in order to become integrated into distributed cognitive systems and engage the world in ways beyond their naked capacities. This paper extends the distributed cognitive framework towards human and dog partnerships at a sheepdog trial, arguing that by scaffolding the sheepdog’s cognitive limitations and inability to tackle the trial independently, the human handler forms with the canine partner an interspecies cognitive system. The handler serves as a higher-order cognitive resource integrated through the use of commands and complementing the sheepdog’s own species-specific skills. The process and structure of support reflects parent – child interaction as framed in the developmental literature. However, scaffolding in this instance is a permanent support structure that is situation dependent; the handler must equally be aware of when the dog’s initiative and skills can be advantageously exploited. This paper draws on ethnographic illustrations of the training methods and detailed descriptions of on-field interactions to support these claims. Data at this level of analysis also provides evidence of the reciprocally affecting and co-determining role of each partner as they engage the sheep, and coordinate in ways that blur the boundaries between their two species, supporting broader perspectives in the human-animal literature.

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