Are Goats as Communicative with Humans as Dogs?

A new research study says goats interactive capabilities with humans are as good as that of other domesticated animals such as dogs and horses. Researchers observed that, goats try to communicate with humans by gazing at them when confronted with a challenge which they cannot tackle by themselves and also their response change depending on the person’s behaviour.

Domestication has molded the cognition and behavioural capabilities of animals such as dogs and horses. When compared to wolves, dogs have the capacity to communicate in a referential and intentional way with humans. This is an outcome of the domestication of dogs as a companion animal.

Out of all the domestic animals, goats were the first species to be domesticated by humans nearly 10,000 years ago. However, little is known about how domestication has affected the cognitive features in these domestic non-companion animals. There is a long held notion among animal researchers that, only a specific kind of domestication – selection for companionship, has led to the development of complex communication with humans. But is this really true?

The ‘unsolvable problem’ task

In order to understand this aspect, researchers made use of what is known as the ‘unsolvable problem’ task and experimented with goats – a species domesticated for production. Initially, the goats were trained to open a lid from a box to receive a reward. Later, the reward was made inaccessible and the goat’s reaction towards the experimenters was recorded, who were either facing the animal or had their backs to them.

For the experiment, researchers picked 34 adult goats of various breeds ranging in age from 2 to 15 years. They were fully habituated and had experienced many positive interactions with people. For the trials two experimenters participated with the first experimenter positioned either to the left or right side of the reward box while the other stood at a distance of 2.5 meters. All the goats were tested individually and during the training or trials, the experimenters did not interact with them.

Experimenter 1 in the test arena demonstrating the group conditions: (a) FORWARD condition and (b) BACK condition; Experimenter 2 (not in the image) was positioned on the right side of the camera in both test conditions. Image Credit: Christian Nawroth.
Experimenter 1 in the test arena demonstrating the group conditions: (a) FORWARD condition and (b) BACK condition; Experimenter 2 (not in the image)
was positioned on the right side of the camera in both test conditions. Image Credit: Christian Nawroth.

Communicating through gaze

It was observed that, all goats physically interacted with the one or both experimenters, mostly to plead for food. They consciously redirected their gaze frequently between the experimenters and the inaccessible reward. Interestingly, they gazed towards a forward facing experimenter earlier, more often and for longer period compared to when the experimenter was facing away.

Dr Christian Nawroth who conducted these experiments says, “Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach, for example. 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.”

Also it was observed that, they stared for a longer period during their first gaze at the forward facing experimenter, and later their gaze alteration frequency increased with lower latency periods.

This approach has been previously observed in dogs, horses and also in human toddlers, wherein they alter their behaviour depending on the human body and head orientation. In another previous research, when the ‘unsolvable problem’ task was tested with cats, they performed poorly and hardly looked at humans. Researchers attribute this to the solitary lifestyle of cats. However, horses respond very well to the test and they not only look at the person, they also show a strong sensitivity to the attentional state of the experimenter. This is mainly because, dogs and horses have been domesticated to work very closely with humans and as a consequence, they show a higher inclination to rely on human information.

Researchers noted a specific approach behaviour in which the goats paused for approximately 2-3 seconds, at a distance of 20-40 cm in front of the experimenter (observe this in the video) with minimal or no physical contact, before returning back to the reward box. Researchers feel that this approach behaviour could be an extension of the previously adopted gaze alterations.

“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.” said lead author Dr Alan McElligott from the School’s Department of Biological and Experimental Psychology.

What we can conclude from this research study is that, domestication of animals has a much broader impact on human-animal communication than previously perceived. Domestication has not only brought changes in the communicative capabilities of animals domesticated for companionship and work such as dogs and horses, but also those animals like goats domesticated for production.

Reference: “Goats display audience-dependent human-directed gazing behaviour in a problem-solving task”, Christian Nawroth et al, Royal Society journal Biology Letters, 14th June, 2016.

Feature Image: A goat at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, UK.
Image Credit: Christian Nawroth.

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One thought on “Are Goats as Communicative with Humans as Dogs?

  1. Interesting. When my doe was kidding, she quite obviously wanted someone to be with her, she was nervous and anxious. When she yelled that something was happening (we’d gone inside, I didn’t realise she was kidding *right then*), the wether started running between the doe in the shed and the house, bleating for all he was worth – quite obviously indicating that something required human attention.

    As for cats… I suspect the cats in the experiment were very independent – as in used to doing for themselves (as many cats are) – rather than used to having a human to do what they ask. That is obviously my completely unscientific view on it, based on having many cats who frequently make requests. Lol

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