Goat Images Take the Podium

Goat Behavior Research in 2016 Reveals Personality Quirks

Goat Images Take the Podium

Goat images were used to improve understanding of goat behavior in a recent study. An experiment using photographs of goat faces was one of five presentations on goat behavior featured at 2016’s Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology on July, 12–16, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Society meets annually to discuss researchers’ discoveries about domestic animal behavior and welfare. These findings are important for anyone caring for goats.

Scottish and French researchers teamed up to study how goats perceive the facial expressions of their caprine companions. Lucille Bellegarde of INRA, France, while studying her PhD at SRUC, Scotland, presented her team’s findings of goats’ reactions to photographs of their herd mates in a negative and in a positive situation. It was clear the goats in the study understood the goat images.

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Recognizing Emotion in Goat Images

Goats of two different dairy goat breeds were photographed while being groomed and also while having an ice-pack applied to their udders. No prizes for guessing which treatment the goats preferred! Goat images revealed that those experiencing an unpleasant situation rotate their ears backwards and show tension in their nostrils and jaw muscles. On the other hand, goats voluntarily being groomed (meaning the goat must initiate or stand without restraint for the treatment) have relaxed facial muscles and droop their ears horizontally.

Displeased goat; photo credit: Lucille Bellegarde.

Companions of the photographed goats were shown these kinds of goat images on a computer screen, and recordings revealed that goats were more alert to photographs of negative expressions than those of relaxed goats. This may be due to a goat’s need to be aware of any dangerous situation that may threaten the herd. The data also revealed that the goats showed more interest in some of their companions than others, perhaps due to their position in the hierarchy. French Alpine goats looked more at the goat images than Saanen goats.

Lucille Bellegarde petting a goat; photo credit Lucille Bellegarde.

Goats Enjoy Grooming

The relaxing effect of voluntary grooming by humans has been a subject of study by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). Elodie Briefer and her team’s paper on the effect on the goats’ nervous system was published in December 2015. Goats were found to be most relaxed during voluntary grooming sessions, even more than when resting. However, feeding was found to be even more exciting than combat. More social goats were found to have less reactive heart rates.

Gentle Handling Calms Goats

Gentle and friendly handling by a sympathetic stock-person has been shown to calm feral goats captured for the feedlot in Australia. David Miller of Murdoch University presented his team’s findings of reduced antagonism between penned feral goats that had regular exposure to a friendly person compared to those with little human contact.

Goats Learn from People

Goats will follow a human friend who is demonstrating how to access a food source, as QMUL’s Christian Nawroth explained to the congress. Goats shown the correct path to the food learned quicker than those who had no such demonstration. After many studies with eager subjects from Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, Nadia and her herd mates have no qualms about following their favorite researchers!

Goats Ask Humans for Help

The process for publishing scientific results takes time due to scrupulous reviews and revisions. However, 2016 saw several goat studies published in respected scientific journals and worldwide in the popular press. You may remember reports of Nadia from Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, who showed the world how goats look to humans for assistance, just like dogs do. When Nadia found she could not open a clear box containing treats, she approached a person who was looking her way and looked at him in the face, even pawing him for assistance. She did not request attention from other researchers who were looking away. Several other goats at the sanctuary displayed similar behavior.

Nadia of Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats; photo credit Christian Nawroth.

Goat Personality

Nadia and her herd-mates also featured in a study of how personality affects learning in goats. Researchers noted goats’ reactions to isolation or reintroduction to their pen-mates and their responses to new objects and environments. They classified their personalities according to how sociable or inquisitive they were. The goats then were given treats when they resolved puzzles and their personality and quiz scores were compared. One test was to find which cup contained a hidden treat after transposing the cups. The other was to guess whether a black or white cup contained the secret snack, after being trained to eat from a container of one or other color. Less explorative goats performed better in the transposition test and less sociable goats performed better at choosing the correct color. It could be that the less active goats are more observant, and sociable goats depend more on learning from others than figuring it out for themselves. A further test ensured that the animals did not have learning deficiencies and found that some goats preferred to use visual clues while others focused more on the location of previous treats. The tests hint that varying personality traits may equip goats with different skills for dealing with their environment.

Understanding how goats perceive their environment and how they react to each other helps us to provide a stress-free environment that is both comfortable and interesting. The use of goat images and recordings enables researchers to capture and analyze their reactions and expressions. The best goats for milk, meat and fiber production systems are those that are relaxed, mentally fulfilled and socially stable. These studies help us understand what is required of us to provide the optimum conditions for their health and welfare.


Bellegarde, L.G., Haskell, M.J., Duvaux-Ponter, C., Weiss, A., Boissy, A. and Erhard, H.W. 2017. Face-based perception of emotions in dairy goats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 193, pp. 51-59.

Briefer, E.F., Oxley, J.A. and McElligott, A.G. 2015. Autonomic nervous system reactivity in a free-ranging mammal: effects of dominance rank and personality. Animal Behaviour, 110, pp.121–132.

Briefer, E.F., Tettamanti, F. and McElligott, A.G. 2015. Emotions in goats: mapping physiological, behavioural and vocal profiles. Animal Behaviour, 99, pp. 131–143.

Dwyer C., Haskell, M., and Sandilands, V. ISAE 2016: proceedings of the 50th congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology, 12–15 July, 2016, Edinburgh, United Kingdom: standing on the shoulders of giants. pp. 175, 178, 182, 193 and 401.

Nawroth, C., Baciadonna, L. and McElligott, A.G. 2016. Goats learn socially from humans in a spatial problem-solving task. Animal Behaviour, 121, pp. 123–129.

Nawroth, C., Brett, J.M. and McElligott, A.G. 2016. Goats display audience-dependent human-directed gazing behaviour in a problem-solving task. Biology Letters, 12(7), p. 20160283.

Nawroth, C., Prentice, P.M. and McElligott, A.G. 2016. Individual personality differences in goats predict their performance in visual learning and non-associative cognitive tasks. Behavioural Processes.

Lead photo: relaxed goat by Lucille Bellegarde.

Originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of Dairy Goat Journal.

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