Man’s new BFF: The goat

They might not be much good at collecting sticks or fetching the paper, but according to a new study, goats are just as intelligent as dogs and interact with humans in a similar way to canines in order to get what they want.

After dogs—a species whose close relationship with humankind dates back further than surviving records and transcends almost all cultures—goats were the first animals to be tamed, and this long and at times very strange history appears to have left something hardwired in the beasts’ brains.

The study, completed by researchers within the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), found that goats look to humans for help when faced with dilemmas they can’t solve by themselves, and they adapt their behaviour according to how the person in question responds to them.

The QMUL team conducted a series of experiments, training goats to remove lids from containers to access rewards, and then placing treats in boxes that the animals could not access, and then analysing their reaction to the situation.

Goats. Smarter and friendlier than you might think.
Goats. Smarter and friendlier than you might think.

‘Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach,’ said the paper’s principle author, Dr Christian Nawroth. ‘Our results provide strong evidence for complex communication directed at humans in a species that was domesticated primarily for agricultural production, and show similarities with animals bred to become pets or working animals, such as dogs and horses.’

It’s thought that dogs’ ability to read signals from humans is the result of changes to the brain, which have evolved since they became a companion animal many millennia ago. This new research suggests that goats have also picked up a few tricks over the last few thousand years.

‘Goats were the first livestock species to be domesticated, about 10,000 years ago,” says lead author Dr Alan McElligott from QMUL’s Department of Biological and Experimental Psychology. ‘From our earlier research, we already know that goats are smarter than their reputation suggests, but these results show how they can communicate and interact with their human handlers even though they were not domesticated as pets or working animals.’

The team hope their study will lead to a better appreciation of how livestock think and an enhanced understanding of their ability to solve problems and interact with humans. Ultimately, they believe it could and should lead to improvements in the animals are treated and kept.

‘Our primary long-term goal is helping to improve welfare guidelines,’ explains Dr McElligott. ‘Currently there are about a billion goats on the planet being used for agriculture, but still most of the welfare guidelines for keeping them come from sheep. Anyone who’s worked with goats and sheep know they’re quite different.’