Why Is That Goat Staring at You?

July 6, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Goat looking at little girl
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Goats are a lot like dogs when it comes to interacting with people.

When faced with a task they cannot solve, such as retrieving a treat from a closed container, dogs tend to look at humans. That gaze is interpreted as a form of communication — a request for help or a hint. Horses encountering comparable challenges are known to look towards humans too.

Perhaps it is not surprising that dogs and horses — two species that have been domesticated to work closely with humans — would come to rely on humans for information.

In a new study published the journal Biology Letters, researchers from Queen Mary University of London found that goats — a species domesticated mainly for food, rather than companionship — also gaze at people when faced with a problem they cannot solve alone. Moreover, the goats’ responses change depending on the person’s behavior.  

The researchers trained 34 goats living at a sanctuary to remove a lid from a box to receive a reward. Then they made the reward inaccessible and recorded the goats’ reactions towards the experimenters, who were either facing the goats or had their backs to them.

SEE ALSO: How Mountain Goats Ascend Nearly Vertical Cliffs

As seen in the video below, the goats frequently shifted their gaze between the inaccessible reward and the human experimenters. They also looked at a forward-facing person sooner, and for longer compared to a person facing away. All of the goat subjects approached the experimenters, most commonly to beg for food.

Supplementary video from the study.

“Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach, for example,” lead author Christian Nawroth said in a news release.

“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.”

The findings challenge the notion that only a specific kind of domestication — selection for companionship — leads animals to communicate with humans through gaze, the authors write.

“Goats were the first livestock species to be domesticated, about 10,000 years ago,” said senior author Alan McElligott.

“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.”      

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