Goats can interpret human cues, such as the pointing gesture, to gather information about their environment, according to a new study

Goats can interpret human cues, such as the pointing gesture, to gather information about their environment, according to a new study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The study provides the first evidence of how goats follow human cues and implies that the ability of animals to perceive human-given cues is not limited to those with a long history of domestication as companions, such as dogs and horses.

The study, which was carried out at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, UK, involved researchers setting up an object-choice task, where an experimenter surreptitiously hid food in one of two buckets. Goats first had to pass a pre-test where the experimenter indicated the location of the food to the goat by a proximal pointing gesture. Goats that succeeded in interpreting this gesture were transferred to the actual test. In these subsequent test trials, goats were confronted with a condition that differed in appearance and was displayed at a similar distance to the target (testing for generalization of pointing gesture), and a condition that looked similar to the initial proximal pointing gestures but was administered from an increased distance to the target (testing for comprehension of referentiality).

Goats succeeded in locating the correct location when the pointing gestures were presented in proximity to the correct location compared to when the experimenter was further away from the rewarded location (asymmetric), indicating that goats can generalize their use of the human pointing gesture but might rely on stimulus/local enhancement rather than referential information.

First author Dr. Christian Nawroth from Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, Germany said: “We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know if they could follow a human cue such as a pointing gesture in the same way that dogs and horses do to locate a treat. This study has important implications for how we interact with farm animals and other species, because the abilities of animals to perceive human cues might be widespread and not just limited to traditional companion animals.”

“Goats were the first livestock species to be domesticated about 10,000 years ago,” said lead author Dr. Alan McElligott from the University of Roehampton, UK. “From our earlier research, we already know that goats are smarter than their reputation suggests, but these results show how they can perceive cues and interact with humans even though they were not domesticated as pets or working animals.”

The researchers hope the study will lead to a better understanding of how skilled farm animals are in their capacity to interact with humans based on their cognitive abilities – and to an improvement in animal welfare in general.

The study was supported by grant money from Farm Sanctuary’s The Someone Project, an endeavor aimed at using scientific evidence to raise the public’s understanding of farm animal cognition and behaviour.