Brain Training for Happy Goats

Learning could prove to be an important tool for ensuring the welfare of our goats.

Brain Training for Happy Goats

Domestication has worked over the goat from its wild ancestor, the bezoar ibex, into the farmyard friend we know today. Selective breeding brings about obvious changes in size, conformation, and yield. Additional physical and behavioral changes accompany selection for any specific trait, and these are sometimes quite unexpected. For example, breeding for a calm and friendly temperament in silver foxes also resulted in floppier ears, curlier tails, and coat color changes. Similarly, breeding for productivity may result in behavior changes in goats.

We may soon know how domestication has affected the goat mind. Researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), Germany, and Agroscope, Switzerland, are starting a three-year project investigating and comparing the cognition and learning abilities of modern domestic and wild goats. As Prof. Birger Puppe, manager of the FBN Institute of Behavioral Physiology, explains, “Cognition tests are an important tool in the comparative study of learning and cognitive performance of wild and domesticated animals. Corresponding changes in behavior can only be investigated in a few animal species since the presence of the wild ancestor of domesticated species is a prerequisite for this.”

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These studies are not funded simply to satisfy academic curiosity but are seen as a crucial stepping stone towards the future sustainability of farming practices. Animal welfare is vital to healthy production. In order to maintain good living conditions while production demands increase, we need an understanding of how farm animals perceive the world that we are building for them. Agricultural environments often restrict natural behavior and can lead to boredom, frustration, and stress, especially in a highly active species like the goat. The provision of stimulating activity has already shown positive effects in captive animals. “An in-depth understanding of the cognitive abilities and demands of farm animals is a prerequisite for more suitable husbandry conditions in the future, taking into account appropriate cognitive challenges, as has long been realized with zoo animals,” emphasized project manager Dr. Jan Langbein.

Positive operand training is thought to improve well-being by allowing an animal to control aspects of its environment. Focusing on a rewarding task brings the satisfaction of achievement and confidence to cope with challenges. In addition, the design of appropriate housing and husbandry equipment needs to consider the perspective of the animal mind that will experience it. Rapid development of production techniques may be encouraging management changes, and goats have so far proved their adaptability. However, we must be careful not to push our animals beyond the limits of their coping abilities.

Simulating the wild environment may not be the answer. Goats’ long history of domestication has changed their needs beyond those of their wild ancestors, as they have adapted to living with us. When we breed them, we naturally pick those that do well in captivity with the resources we can provide. We also favor those that are easy to handle and that produce well in our care. In recent years we have focused specifically on certain traits, creating breeds for different functions. These changes may have a knock-on effect on the personality and intellect of the goat. Dairy goats may react to life differently than meat goats and from their ancestors. For this reason, the researchers plan to study and compare a dairy herd in Switzerland and Nigerian dwarfs in Germany, breeds originally developed towards different ends, as well as a wild relative. “The value of the results can increase significantly, by repeating the tests at two research sites under comparable husbandry conditions,” said Langbein.

Goats are believed to be descended from the bezoar ibex, first domesticated approximately 10,000 years ago in Anatolia and the Zagros Mountains in the Middle East. During the late Neolithic period, just before 6000 BC, when agriculture was spreading over Asia and Europe, early domesticated ibex were brought to Crete as utility animals. They subsequently turned feral and now live wild in the Samaria Gorge of the White Mountains. Now known as kri-kri, the Cretan ibex, they are the emblem of this Greek island, symbolic in historic and touristic literature. Only found around Crete or in zoos, they bear little mark of their early domestication and are believed to closely resemble their wild ancestor, which they share with the goat.

Researchers will study a major population of kri-kri at Dählhölzli Animal Park, Berne, Switzerland. This herd, as well as the two domesticated ones, will receive rewarding cognitive training. The team will measure their abilities and learning styles and observe the effects of training on their well-being and ability to deal with challenges.

FBN have been studying farm animal behavior for 15 years and have been influential in dispelling the myth prevalent in Germany that goats are stupid. They have shown that goats are adept at associating a complex computer-generated symbol with a reward and picking out the correct symbol from four choices. Goats can learn and remember correct symbols from several sets, and learning one puzzle helps them to solve further puzzles faster. They can also work out a general pattern, such as discovering that all hollow symbols of any shape are the key to the prize. But do they enjoy doing this? Preliminary studies suggest that they do.

An increased heart rate can indicate excitement or stress, whereas increased heart rate variability occurs on relaxation. When goats first attempted to operate the puzzle, they had a period of frustration, not understanding how it worked, which was reflected in a depressed heart rate. As they started to get results, heart rate went up, suggesting a lift in mood and excitement. As they mastered the tasks, heart rate variability improved as relaxation kicked in. It appeared that the confidence and interest elicited by learning was good for the heart! But how did it affect their ability to cope? A study of physical and cognitive enrichment compared the behavior of goats living with climbing apparatus to those with a computerized learning device and to those with both or none. When these goats were presented with a challenge that might frighten most goats—being alone in a strange pen with an unfamiliar object—the goats from the enriched pens were much more proactive and inquisitive. Goats that used climbing apparatus were more active and made more effort to rejoin their herd. Those who used the learning device were more curious about the strange object and investigated it for longer. The physical exercise afforded by the climbing frame was also seen to improve mental learning abilities.

Enrichment appears to improve the animals’ competence and reduce boredom. The beauty of the learning device is that it can be regularly changed to present new puzzles, so the novelty doesn’t wear off as easily as it does with physical toys. But do the goats still choose to solve the puzzle when they can get the same reward for free? Another study revealed that this depends very much on the ability of the individual, with high achievers often preferring the learning device. On average, a third of all goats’ interactions were still directed at the learning device when a free dispenser was available.

Learning could prove to be an important tool for ensuring the welfare of our goats, making sure they don’t get bored and helping them to deal with stress. Understanding how they see the world will help us to design equipment and housing with their welfare in mind.


Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN)
Bar-Gal, G.K., Smith, P., Tchernov, E., Greenblatt, C., Ducos, P., Gardeisen, A. and Horwitz, L.K., 2002. Genetic evidence for the origin of the agrimi goat (Capra aegagrus cretica). Journal of Zoology 256(3), 369-377.

Langbein, J., Nürnberg, G., Manteuffel, G., 2004. Visual discrimination learning in dwarf goats and associated changes in heart rate and heart rate variability. Physiology & Behavior 82, 601–609.

Langbein, J., Siebert, K., Nürnberg, G., 2009. On the use of an automated learning device by group-housed dwarf goats: Do goats seek cognitive challenges? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 120, 150–158.

Oesterwind, S., Nürnberg, G., Puppe, B., Langbein, J., 2016. Impact of structural and cognitive enrichment on the learning performance, behavior and physiology of dwarf goats (Capra aegagrus hircus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science 177, 34–41.

Lead photograph: Dwarf goats at research site © by Nordlicht/ FBN

Originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Dairy Goat Journal. Subscribe for more great stories! 

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