Goat Games Reveal Caprine Intelligence

Goat Eyes and Brains are Skilled at Tracking Hidden Food

Goat Games Reveal Caprine Intelligence

Goat games are fun to watch, and watching goats is a hobby of mine. Once they get used to my presence and go back to browsing as normal, I can wonder at how attentive they are to possible dangers and feeding opportunities. I can observe how they browse selectively, moving to specific plants and fresher patches.

With progress in production and husbandry systems in mind, researchers study such behavior in our domestic goats. They even design goat games for our caprine friends to fathom. Foraging styles, social strategies, stress responses, the human–animal relationship, and the effects of different systems have all come under the empirical microscope. Intensification can lead to increased stress in goats. Some find it difficult to adapt to modern methods. They can get stressed by stock densities, systems that trigger flight reactions, fear of the unknown, or alarm at the unexpected. Therefore, it is important to understand how goats perceive their world, and that is where the study of farm animal cognition is concerned.

Jan Langbein of the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, Dummerstorf, Germany, has been investigating the cognitive abilities of goats, among other farm animals, since 2002. In 2012 and 2013, he and Eberhard von Borell collaborated with PhD student Christian Nawroth, who was specializing in farm animal cognition. They posed the question: “are goats smart?“, and devised goat games to reveal the kind of intelligence goats possess. With their results, they dispelled the popular myth that goats were stupid.

Goat Games #1: Choose a Cup, But Not Any Cup!

Nawroth turned his attention to his team of miniature goats. He wanted to know whether they understood that food still existed when hidden, if they could work out where it was hidden, and if they could take directions from a person. In a specially designed stall, Nawroth taught ten Nigerian dwarf goats to come to a window for treats; each would poke their muzzle through a gap to take a snack from a cup. Clever design enabled these cups to conceal snacks without giving odor, or any other clues, and encouraged the goats to indicate which cup they believed contained food.

Goat Games #2: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

The goats watched Nawroth hide the food, and then were given a choice of cups to investigate. They mostly went for the cup with food hidden inside, demonstrating they realized the food was still there, although they could not see or smell it. This implies they understand hidden objects still exist. Recognizing this important stage in brain development helps us to gauge how a goat understands her environment, and we can take steps to make it less alarming and more interesting.

Goats need to be able to keep track of each other in the undergrowth.

Goat Games #3: the Cups and Ball Trick

What if Nawroth now moved the cups after food was hidden inside? He put a treat in only one cup and swapped their positions. If the cups were different in appearance, three of the goats were good at picking the correct cup. Tracking hidden objects is thought to help foraging goats keep track of the herd in deep vegetation.

The goats were also trained that the treat would normally be hidden under a certain cup, but most were not fooled by hiding it under a different one. This is another ability that is recognized as important in brain development.

Is Your Goat Right-hoofed?

Understanding the inquisitive nature of goats and their acute senses, the researchers went to efforts to ensure they gave no unintentional clues to where the treats were hidden, and even had to redo some sessions if something they did had given them away. Strangely, they found that goats were better at picking the right cup if it was on their right and, unsurprisingly, if it were passed closer to them.

Goats That Stare at Men

The goats turned their attention to Nawroth—as they would, knowing he was a supplier of tasty treats. Interestingly, their behavior was markedly different depending on whether he was facing them or not. If he looked directly at them, even with his eyes closed, they anticipated a treat, pawing the partition and nosing at the window. If he looked away or turned his back, they stared attentively at him. It seems they were sensitive to the position of the human face, watching him while he was facing away, but only expecting treats when he faced them. Once he left the room their attention waned. This reminded me of my own goats, who stand to attention once they see or hear me, always hoping I’m bringing them something good.

Christian Nawroth at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats; credit: Christian Nawroth

Goat Games #4: Getting the Point

This time Nawroth did not let the goats see where he had hidden the treat. He wanted to see if they would follow his directions to where it was hidden. He found most of them understood if he touched or pointed at the cups, some of them learning what pointing meant as the sessions progressed. However, they did not understand that a person looking at a cup was an indication of the location of food.

A Unique Caprine View

As you’ve noticed, goat eyes are quite different from ours. The lateral pupil gives them a focused view at distance over a wide horizontal plane. I find it quite difficult to know exactly where my goats are focusing from looking at their eyes, as the spherical shape and lateral pupil take in so much. However, it is easy to see where their head is pointing. Previous studies had noted that goats look at other goat faces and follow their gaze, but, as we see here, they understand our eyeball direction no more than we do theirs. However, they can learn to understand our pointing hands. They are also well aware of when we are paying them attention and when we are not.

Different Skills for Different Lifestyles

Goats naturally browse in dry, mountainous conditions, and they know how to get the most out of a varied diet. This is thought to have improved their discriminatory and food finding skills, which is well demonstrated by these studies. This explains the high activity, playfulness, and perceived naughtiness of our beloved caprines. Now that goats live with us, we need to take these enhanced skills into consideration: we find that goats which have fun things to do are generally calmer and fight less.

Researchers have investigated different environments and the effect of adding enriching activities. The results show that even adult goats that don’t have access to free-ranging over large and varying areas benefit from having things to play with or climb on, such as planks, trunks, hanging branches, and platforms, or even a goat stanchion to stand on or hide under. When caring for goats, we need to consider mental as well as physical health. The best goats for milk are those that are relaxed, well-exercised and stress-free. Enrichment can be beneficial for members of any dairy goat breed.

Pastures New

Following his PhD, Nawroth moved to England to continue studying behavior at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats with Queen Mary University of London. He joined a research team, headed by Alan McElligott, to observe willing subjects from among the sanctuary’s approximately 140 residents. Nawroth continues to study the human–animal relationship, memory, decision-making, learning, and personality in goats.


Kaminski, J., Riedel, J., Call, J. and Tomasello, M. 2005. Domestic goats, Capra hircus, follow gaze direction and use social cues in an object choice task. Animal Behaviour, 69(1), pp. 11–18.

Nawroth, C., von Borell, E. and Langbein, J. 2015. Goats that stare at men: dwarf goats alter their behaviour in response to human head orientation, but do not spontaneously use head direction as a cue in a food-related context. Animal Cognition, 18(1), pp. 65–73.

Nawroth, C., von Borell, E. and Langbein, J. 2015. Object permanence in the dwarf goat (Capra aegagrus hircus): Perseveration errors and the tracking of complex movements of hidden objects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 167, pp. 20–26.

Nawroth, C., von Borell, E. and Langbein, J. 2016. Goats that stare at men—revisited: Do dwarf goats alter their behaviour in response to eye visibility and head direction of a human? Animal Cognition, 19(3), pp. 667–672.

Originally published in the July/August 2016 issue of Dairy Goat Journal.

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