Zac loves his job. The hours are good. There’s lots of natural light in his workplace. He’s not quite his own boss, but he gets along really well with upper-level management, who celebrate his strong work ethic and attention to detail with consistently positive performance reviews and an occasional bacon-flavored bonus.

Zac is a dog.

Bright-eyed and serious, Zac the border collie teams with Robin Queen, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Linguistics and chair of LSA’s Department of Linguistics, in the sport of competitive shepherding. That means that Queen and Zac compete with other teams on a series of tasks that include gathering a small group of sheep across a long distance, guiding the sheep into a corral, and separating one or two sheep from the rest of the flock.

Queen chose the hobby as a way to unwind and because it had nothing to do with her day job as a linguistics professor. But that didn’t last long.

A diagram of a typical shepherding competition field. The dog, following the trainer’s guidance, goes through a series of commands, including pushing the sheep, keeping them moving in an orderly fashion and constant pace, bringing them to a halt, and holding them in place.
Illustration by Hans Anderson

“I didn’t think there was any way I could turn competitive shepherding into research,” Queen says. “Shepherding seemed like it wasn’t tied to linguistics because, as we all know, only humans are language users, right?”

It turns out it's a lot more complicated, Queen says. While human beings may be the only true language users on the planet, people have figured out how to adapt language in a way that some animals—dogs in particular—can understand in order to get a job done. And that adaptation goes beyond rudimentary forms of communication like isolated commands or displaying emotion.

Queen started paying attention to the ways that shepherds speak to dogs and the ways that dogs listen and respond to their bipedal shepherding partners, taking in such nuanced elements as pitch, speed, word order, and tone of voice.

“What became pretty interesting to me very early on is actually how complex the communication is between the person and the dog,” Queen says. “And as someone who has done a lot of work on language contact, it felt a lot to me like language contact.”

A Meeting of the Minds

Language contact refers to the moment when people who speak different languages come into contact with one another and really need to interact. An American in Strasbourg tries to buy a postcard. A Kenyan in Nashville asks for directions to the movie theater.

“There are some general principles for what happens during language contact,” Queen says. “The most common thing that happens is that people try to converge on what seems to be shared in their language systems. Because languages are actually really similar to one another, this allows humans to modify their language and essentially filter the differences out.

“During language contact, people will do things like alter their syntax a little bit, essentially simplifying it,” Queen says. “They use fewer relative clauses. They drop off some of the inflectional endings so things that mark tense or aspect or whatever are gone, and now you just get the noun or you just get the verb. And that’s the same thing that you see when people work with dogs.”

Shepherding dogs are often described as having a lot of or very little “eye.” Eye refers to the strength of the eye contact that the dog uses to motivate the sheep to start moving, keep moving, or stand still. Zac has “a medium amount of eye,” Queen says, making him a very effective partner.

The communication system that Queen and Zac use during shepherding competitions is a mix of vocal commands and whistles. Over long distances, a vocal command can sound like a shout, which might give Zac the wrong idea about whether he’s doing a good or bad job and about how urgent the command is that he’s receiving. The whistle—a half-moon-shaped object that Queen keeps on a loop around her neck—is loud enough to easily bridge distances that Queen would strain to shout across, allowing more nuanced communication between her and Zac to happen.

One of the most interesting takeaways that Queen finds in her work with Zac is that of the highly collaborative nature of shepherding and its communication system.

“The person gives the orders of course, but the dog is really a partner,” Queen says. “You give the orders, but the dog decides how and when to do whatever you’re asking. And if the dog doesn’t like what you’re saying, they may ignore you or test to see if you really mean what you're saying.

“You have to have buy-in from the dog on whatever you’re trying to do, and that means treating and talking to the dog like a partner.”

Photos by Natalie Condon