Are Goats Smart? Revealing Goat Intelligence
Understanding Domestic Goat Behavior and Cognition
Reading Time: 10 minutes
Are goats smart? Those of us who keep them get to experience how smart goats are, how quickly they learn, and how much they connect with us. However, it is easy to under- or overestimate the mental powers of animals, and we have to be careful how we interpret what we observe.
Firstly, we want to be sure that we do not dismiss them as insensitive to events going on around them: situations that might distress or excite them. Secondly, we must avoid overestimating their understanding of our requirements of them, so that we avoid frustration when they do not behave as we desire. Finally, they will thrive and perform better if their environment is interesting for them without being stressful. And for that, we need to understand how they perceive their world.
How Goat Minds Think
Goats evolved the kind of intelligence that they needed for living wild in mountainous areas where food was sparse and predators a constant threat. Therefore, they have good discrimination and learning skills to help them find food. Their sharp minds and acute senses allow them to avoid predators. Harsh conditions favored group living, needing good memories and sensitivity to the identity and state of companions and competitors. Over many thousand years of domestication, they have retained most of these abilities, while adapting to living and working with humans.
The inner workings of the goat mind are not an open book for humans to interpret by comparing goat behavior to ours. There is a real danger that we will incorrectly assign motives and emotions that are not experienced by our goats if we attempt to humanize them. Our tendency to anthropomorphize (assign human characteristics to animals) can lead us astray when assessing animals’ behavior. In order to gain an objective view of how goats think, cognitive scientists are providing concrete data to back our observations. Here, I will look at several cognition studies that provide evidence for some of the goat smarts we see regularly on the farm.
How Smart Are Goats at Learning?
Goats are notably good at working out how to open gates and access hard-to-reach food. This skill has been tested by training goats to manipulate a specially designed feed dispenser. Goats needed to first pull a rope, then lift a lever to access the treat. Most of the goats learned the task within 13 trials and one within 22. Then, they remembered how to do it 10 months later . This confirms our experience that goats will readily learn complex tasks for a food reward.
Pitfalls to Hinder Learning
Goats are highly motivated to consume feed because, as herbivores, they need a good deal of it to support their metabolism. In addition, we must bear in mind that goats are rather impulsive. Their eagerness to consume may override their training and good sense. Goats were trained to go around the side of an opaque plastic cylinder to retrieve a treat. While most of them had no difficulty learning the task, the situation changed when a transparent cylinder was used. Over half the goats pushed against the cylinder trying to reach the treat directly through the plastic in every other trial . Transparent barriers are not a feature that nature has equipped them to deal with, and this is a good example of impulse over intelligence that we need to bear in mind.
Other factors that might hinder learning could be as simple as the layout of the facility. Goats may be naturally reluctant to enter a confined space, such as a corner or dead-end, where they could get trapped by an aggressor. Indeed, when reaching through a barrier would have meant entering a corner, goats learned faster to go around it to access feed .
How Smart Are Goats at Finding Food?
Healthy goats are alert and sensitive to their surroundings, as a survival strategy against predators. Some are also great observers and skilled at watching where you hide food. When goats could see where experimenters had hidden food in cups, they chose the baited cups. When the cups were moved around while the food was still hidden, only a few goats followed the baited cup and chose it. Their performance improved when the cups were different colors and sizes . A few goats were able to work out which cups were baited when the experimenter showed them the cups that were empty .
In these experiments, some goats performed a lot better than others. Another study showed that this could be down to personality differences. Scientists study animal personality by recording differences in behavior that are consistent for the individual over time, but vary between individuals. Most animals lie somewhere in between such extremes as bold and shy, or sociable and loner, proactive or passive. Some goats tend to explore and investigate objects while others remain still and watch what is going on. More socially-oriented individuals may be distracted from tasks because they are looking for their companions.
Researchers found that less explorative goats were better at choosing the baited cups when cups were transposed, presumably because they were more observant. On the other hand, less sociable goats performed better in tasks that required choice of food containers according to color or shape, perhaps because they were less distracted . Bear in mind that goats tend to choose locations where they have found food before, but some focus on the features of the container more than others.
Are Goats Smart Enough to Play Computer Games?
Goats can discriminate rather detailed shapes on a computer screen and work out which shape out of a choice of four will deliver a reward. Most can work this out by themselves by trial and error. Once they get the hang of it, they are faster at learning which symbol delivers the reward when presented with a different set of symbols. This shows that learning a task promotes their learning of other similar tasks . They can also categorize shapes and learn that different shapes of the same category deliver the reward . They memorize solutions to particular trials for several weeks .
Do Goats Have Social Skills?
In many circumstances, goats favor their own investigations, rather than learning from others [1, 10]. But as social animals, surely they learn from one another too. Strangely, there have been few studies of goats learning from their own kind to date. In one study, goats watched a companion choose between different feed locations that were re-baited between trials. These tended to target where they had seen their companions eating . In another, kids followed the food choice of the doe that raised them by not eating the plants that she avoided .
Goats are interested in what other goats are looking at, as it may be a source of food or danger. When a single goat’s attention was caught by an experimenter, herd-mates that could see the goat, but not the experimenter, turned around to follow their companion’s gaze . Some goats follow human pointing gestures [13, 14] and demonstrations . Goats are sensitive to human body posture and prefer to approach humans who are paying them attention [15–17] and smiling . They also approach humans for help when they cannot access a food source or beg with distinct body language [19–21]. I will cover research on how goats interact with humans in a future post.
Social Recognition and Tactics
Goats recognize one another by looks [22, 23], voice [24, 25], and odor [26, 22]. They combine different senses to commit each companion to memory , and they have long-term memory of individuals . They are sensitive to the emotion in other goats’ facial expressions  and bleats , which can affect their own emotions .
Goats may plan their tactics by assessing what others can see, showing they can take another individual’s perspective. One experiment recorded goats’ strategies when one food source was visible and the other hidden from a dominant competitor. Goats that had received aggression from their competitor went for the hidden piece. However, those that had not received aggression went for the visible piece first, perhaps hoping to get a larger share by accessing both sources .
What Do Goats Like? Keeping Goats Happy
Animals with sharp minds need the kind of stimulation that is fulfilling without leading to frustration. When free ranging, goats get this through foraging, roaming, play, and family interaction. In confinement, studies have shown that goats benefit from both physical enrichment, such as climbing platforms and cognitive challenges, like the computerized four-choice test . When goats were given the choice of using the computer puzzle as opposed to free delivery, some goats actually chose to work for their reward . We need to ensure that all personalities and abilities are catered for when choosing pen features that are fulfilling without inducing stress.
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Leading photo credit: Thomas Häntzschel © Nordlicht/FBN
Originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.