Goat Training Fundamentals
Why Raise Goats Using Positive Reinforcement Training?
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Are goats smart? They are fast learners. And they are learning all the time, whether we want them to or not. From the day they are born, they learn the easiest ways to get rewards and avoid danger. Innate goat intelligence associates sights and sounds with important memories. This is goat training nature’s way. It is worth understanding what motivates them to behave the way they do, even if you do not plan on formal goat training.
By establishing trust and communication between you and your goats, you will find handling and caring for goats easier and less stressful—for you and your goats. Careful preparation will enable your goats to cope with potentially distressing life events, such as healthcare treatment, veterinary visits, and travel. Calmer goats are ultimately healthier and more productive. Goats need to learn basic tasks, such as standing calmly on their goat stanchion, accepting hoof trimming, and walking beside you on a leash.
If your goats will have an unusual role that involves facing changing events, people, or places, you will need to train them from very young, so that they are not fearful in new situations. Many agritourism ideas are developing, such as pack goats, goat yoga, petting zoos, surfing goats, and entertainment (for example, a play with a goat cast or goats grazing on a restaurant roof). These activities expose goats to events that they would not normally face in the seclusion of farm life. Goats naturally fear new situations that they cannot control. If they learn that they have options to stay safe, they can master their fear. Gradual exposure to new people, places, and equipment allows them to learn the strategies they need to cope with change.
Habituation—an Essential Part of Goat Training and Management
Habituation is gradual exposure to new things in a safe environment. You can habituate goats at any age, but the younger they are, the better. During their first few weeks of life it is easier for them to accept novelty. Within this time, they need plenty of gentle handling, and to encounter the kind of scenarios that they may have to deal with in later life.
Progress will be slower with older animals. The key is to let the goats explore the new environment, person, animal, or object in their own time, with no pressure. Goats need to perceive that they have the option to withdraw to safety if they are overwhelmed. Associate the new scenario with a positive experience, like a food treat. Let them get to enjoy the situation before adding any restraint or trying any treatment.
Basic Goat Training Principles
Training certain voluntary actions is empowering for you and your goat, as you are both in control of the situation. All animals, including humans, learn certain behaviors depending on what they have found is rewarding for them and what they have found is frightening or damaging. Aim to make each handling experience pleasant. Goat training methods are based on the following principles:
- animals learn which actions get them what they want and repeat those actions;
- they approach the things that they want and move away from things that they do not want;
- animals remember events and associate them with good or bad outcomes;
- visual or sound memories are often connected to each event;
- animals are learning all the time;
- each animal is an individual and may respond in a different way.
Goat Training Methods
Many people use mildly aversive techniques when dealing with animals. We tell animals “no” when we do not like their behavior. They quickly understand this rebuke as they are sensitive to our body language and vocal expression. Gentle pressure on a leash also falls into this category as the goat walks forward to release the pressure. It is important not to drag the goat, but let the leash go slack as soon as she moves in the right direction.
Positive reinforcement is a more effective technique, but requires a little more time and planning. The aim is to reward the goat when she does what you want (desirable behavior) and remove the reward if she does something that you don’t want (undesirable behavior). It is important to understand that your goat is not actually naughty. She is just doing whatever gives her the most immediate reward. She will continue to behave this way as long as it works for her.
Your Role in the Herd
I believe that positive reinforcement is worth the extra effort, especially in the case of goats. This species sets up a hierarchy on the basis of authority. By chastising your goats, you claim top rank. However, you also expose yourself to challenges. As goats grow, they reassess their strength and challenge their superiors. And your goats may become bigger and stronger than you.
With goats it is more effective to assume the role of provider of all good things, so that they see you as an ally, rather than an authority. As a provider, you can build your relationship on trust rather than fear. It is harder to control a frightened animal.
Firstly, ensure that the environment makes it easy for your goat to perform the desired behavior. Make sure that passages and enclosures are well lit, as goats are fearful of dark spaces. Check that there are no distractions from external events or other herd members. Interference from rival goats may form bad associations in the trainee’s mind. Equally allow companions to be close by and visible if your goat is prone to separation anxiety. Make sure that platforms are sturdy, solid, and safe. The goat should feel comfortable in the new position or apparatus. Thoroughly habituate goats to the environment before using it for any kind of goat training or manipulation.
Build up trust in your relationship by cementing your role as provider, initially by feeding, then through grooming and play. When your goat is totally relaxed in your presence, she will quickly forgive the occasional unpleasant treatment. You can quickly re-establish your good reputation by rewarding with treats.
Empowering Your Goat
Your goat will feel more comfortable to explore the new situation if she knows she can leave or withdraw at any point. Allow her to escape if she wants to and avoid restraining her. Your aim is for her desire for the reward to overcome her reticence about the new scenario. If she feels that she has this control, her confidence and trust will grow.
Communication is Key
Watch her behavior to find out what she finds rewarding and how she perceives your actions. Apart from food, rewards can be grooming, scratching certain parts of her body, play, or even just your attention. You may even find that your reaction to naughty behavior is rewarding for your goat. Make sure that you don’t end up with your goat training you!
Check goats’ faces to gauge the focus of their attention. If something else is more interesting at this moment, you will not be able to compete. You may need to wait for interest in a distraction to wane before trying again.
Positive Reinforcement Techniques
Basically you reward your goat for desirable behavior. Equally you must make sure the reward cannot be obtained by performing undesirable behavior. The reward must be timed to coincide with the exact moment that the right behavior occurs.
You may find using a clicker is the easiest way to signal this to your goat. You click as soon as he makes the right movement, so he knows this action will be rewarded. First, however, you must train your goat to associate the sound of the click with an imminent treat. You do this by repeatedly producing one treat after making each click. Once the goat gets the connection, you can move on to making a click whenever he takes a step in the right direction.
You can use a word instead of a clicker, but be sure to make the sound clear and consistent. Choose short, hard sounds like “good” that are easy to pick out of speech. The drawback is that the word will be linked to one trainer’s voice, whereas a click always sounds the same.
The task you wish your goats to perform may be quite complex and need breaking down into simple steps. This is called shaping. You reward each step in the right direction with a click or a word, followed by a treat. Gradually you ask for a tiny step more before rewarding. You will want to take several sessions to teach the complete task. Keep sessions short so that you and your goat do not get tired or frustrated.
You can use a cue stick to guide your goat. This is a wand with a defined tip. First, you reward your goat for placing his muzzle on the end of the stick. You then induce your goat to follow the movement of the stick, by rewarding each progression towards the desired outcome.
Discouraging Bad Behavior
If your goats are used to getting their treats despite undesirable behavior, it can take time and perseverance for them to unlearn the bad habits. Any slip up, and the bad behavior quickly returns. You will need dedication and a consistent approach.
When goats perform undesirable behavior, you remove the reward. This may mean withholding treats, turning your back, ignoring them, or simply leaving, depending on the situation. In any case, they must not receive a reward until they stop performing the undesirable act. If your goats are jumping up at you, refuse to give them a treat until all hoofs are on the floor and they are waiting calmly.
Take Care when Choosing Treats
The rumen is a delicate organ that needs to adapt gradually to new food types. Concentrates such as cereals and bakery products degrade rapidly in the rumen and can cause serious health issues. Favor unprocessed, high-fiber treats, such as grass pellets, sweet chestnuts, and vegetables. Goats may not take to an unfamiliar treat immediately.
With patience, repetition, and consistency, you will find that positive reinforcement methods provide longer lasting and more satisfactory results. You can readily adapt the same basic principles that work for dogs and other animals to work for goat training. For more information, I would recommend the following resources:
- Temple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm Animals: Safe, Humane Livestock Handling Practices for the Small Farm by Temple Grandin;
- Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor;
- The Backyard Goat: An Introductory Guide to Keeping and Enjoying Pet Goats, from Feeding and Housing to Making Your Own Cheese by Sue Weaver;
- Animal Training Academy’s free online course.
Video example of shaping with a clicker while training a lamb:
Originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.