Why Does My Goat Paw at Me? Caprine Communication
Understanding Goat Body Language and Communicating with Them
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Goats are social creatures, forming close bonds between herd members. Essentially, they rely on each other to look out for danger and learn about forage. To strengthen the group, friends and family engage in social activities, including rubbing against one another, competing, or play-fighting. To these ends, they have evolved sensitive communication skills. If you develop a friendship with your goats, you may experience their attempts to interact with you. Your goat may paw at you or even try and enlist your help.
Goats raised in close proximity with kindly humans accept them as allies, possibly seeing them as herd members or leaders, and certainly as providers. Those accustomed to strangers lose the fear of humans, provided the encounters are happy ones. A socialized goat approaches people readily and may communicate with a bleat, gaze, paw, rub of their head, or butt.
Reading Body Language
Even in a commercial setting, the relationship between handlers and goats is crucial to the overall well-being of the flock, and therefore to their health and productivity. We need to be aware of goats’ sensitivity to our demeanor so that we can manage a calm, contented flock. Equally, it is important for us to understand goat body language and facial expressions so that we can attend to their needs.
During a documentary on European TV channel ARTE, Alain Boissy, Research Director at France’s National Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), discussed how perceptive goats are. He has noticed how much goats watch us: “From the moment you enter the barn, you’re detected, identified and analyzed. Goats can pick up on your posture, your smell, and above all your facial expressions.” He described how goats thoroughly assess you before you have had time to spot any goats showing signs of poor welfare. He also explained how goat behavior varied in reaction to the moods of their handlers.
Researching Goat Perceptions
Over the last 15 years, studies have only scratched the surface of how the goat mind works. Building on the foundation of research into farm animal behavior and cognition, teams of researchers have already collected evidence for goats’ problem-solving abilities, long memories, complex social behavior, and emotional complexity. Now they are investigating how goats perceive, react to, and communicate with humans. Similar research has been put to good use when applied to cattle handling and transportation techniques.
Researcher Christian Nawroth commented, “Recent work has shown that goats respond to subtle behavioral changes by humans, but also highlighted some of their limitations in comprehending information directed towards them … in order to implement better handling practices, it is crucial to know how goats perceive and interact with humans.” Not only must we be careful that our approach is non-threatening, we need to be sure that our instructions are clear to the goat mind if we want to avoid the frustration of unruly goats.
Who and What Do Goats Recognize?
Studies confirm that goats recognize familiar companions by sight, smell, and the sound of their bleat. There are no published results yet on individual recognition of humans. From personal experience, I find that my goats respond differently to seeing me and hearing my voice than to other people. Not only have they learned my voice, they also respond individually to their names. Many goat keepers would say the same. Trainers have found that goats can learn a word associated with a particular action.
Research shows that goats are sensitive to the emotion displayed on the faces and in the bleats of their companions, and the expression on people’s faces. In one study, goats approached photos of smiling faces more readily than frowning ones.
Indeed, goats have shown they are sensitive to our faces and body position. When anticipating a food treat, dwarf goats behind a partition watched the experimenter while he was facing away, but actively begged when he was looking at them. In another environment, goats approached people from the front of the body, whether or not the people were looking away. These goats approached people looking away just as readily as those looking at them, as long as the body was facing the goat. They approached researchers who had their eyes open more readily than those with their eyes closed, and those with heads in view more often than those whose heads were hidden. In summary, goats have an appreciation of when we can see them.
Goats pick up cues from each other and from humans. If a member of the herd (or, to a lesser extent, a person) suddenly looks around, others will check out what she is looking at. This reaction is common to both wild and domestic ungulates.
Goats often respond when we draw their attention to a food source. They are mostly guided by our position, when we touch or stand by a bucket, for example. Just looking at a food location is not usually a strong enough cue for them. But some goats demonstrated that they could follow a pointing finger when a person seated equidistant between two buckets pointed to a nearby bucket (11–16 in./30–40 cm from the fingertip). However, when the person sat by one bucket and pointed to another, goats tended to approach the human, rather than the indicated bucket.
When asking for help, goats alternate their gaze between a human and the desired object. Researchers tested this behavior by sealing a transparent box containing a treat. Once goats found that they could not open the box and get the treat, they looked at the experimenter who was facing them, then at the sealed box, then back again, approaching and, in some cases, pawing at him, until he opened the box.
Why Does My Goat Paw at Me?
There are no studies of pawing behavior yet, but it appears that goat may paw at people as a means of requesting attention. Only some goats paw at humans, and some more than others, and it seems to occur more often around feed. However, I know goats who paw for petting or play. The pawing stops when I give them the desired attention and starts again as soon as I stop.
Learning from People
Goats learn from one another about forage plants and locations. When they trust humans, they try out the feed we offer, so we must be careful what we give them. They also follow trusted herders to lead them to pasture. Through patient training, we can help goats to form positive associations with new people, places, and things.
Researchers tested goats’ ability to learn from humans by placing food visibly behind a V-shaped barrier. In some cases, a human demonstrator walked the route in front of each watching goat. Those goats who saw the demonstration learned the route to the feed more quickly than those who had to work it out for themselves. I find demonstration very useful when teaching my goats about hot wires, new equipment, and new pastures. But beware of hopping over fences, as they may learn that too!
- Nawroth, C., 2017. Invited review: Socio-cognitive capacities of goats and their impact on human–animal interactions. Small Ruminant Research, 150, 70–75.
- Nawroth, C., McElligott, A.G., 2017. Human head orientation and eye visibility as indicators of attention for goats (Capra hircus). PeerJ, 5, e3073.
- Nawroth, C., Albuquerque, N., Savalli, C., Single, M.-S., McElligott, A.G., 2018. Goats prefer positive human emotional facial expressions. Royal Society Open Science, 5, 180491.
- Nawroth, C., Martin, Z.M., McElligott, A.G., 2020. Goats follow human pointing gestures in an object choice task. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 915.
- Schaffer, A., Caicoya, A.L., Colell, M., Holland, R., Ensenyat, C., Amici, F., 2020. Gaze following in ungulates: domesticated and non-domesticated species follow the gaze of both humans and conspecifics in an experimental context. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 3087.
- ARTE documentary, Into Farm Animals’ Minds—Very Clever Goats.
Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.