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Why a goat may stare at you with puppy dog eyes

Goats don’t just bleat when in distress. They glare.

A new study shows that farm goats gaze at humans when dealing with a difficult problem. The behavior hints at form of communication seen in other domesticated animals, suggesting a common behavior among tamed beasts. The trend suggests that some wild animals adapted humanlike social skills on the road to becoming domesticated.

“It has been known that dogs and horses are able to communicate in a referential and intentional way with humans,” biologist Christian Nawroth of Queen Mary University of London said of his study in Biology Letters. “We wanted to know whether or not this extends to livestock species which are bred for production rather than companionship.”

So, Nawroth and his colleagues drove an hour east of London to Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, where they set up a problem solving experiment with 34 adult goats. The team trained the goats to take off a plastic box lid in order to obtain a piece of food. Once the furry subjects became used to the task, the researchers created an “unsolvable” setting, wherein a goat could not remove the lid. A researcher sat in the pen during these trials — either facing toward or away from the goat — and the team filmed the interactions.

Experimenter in the test arena demonstrating forward (a) and back (b) conditions. Photo by Nawroth C et al., Biology Letters, 2016.

Experimenter in the test arena demonstrating forward (a) and back (b) conditions. Photo by Nawroth C et al., Biology Letters, 2016.

The goats responded to the immovable lids by immediately gazing at humans. The farm animals typically made eye contact within 20 seconds when the researchers faced forward, but then waited six times as long when the researchers had their backs turned. The goats also tried to make eye contact more often and for longer when human presented their faces.

Gaze alternation and approach behavior toward  experimenter. Photo by Nawroth C et al., Biology Letters, 2016.

Gaze alternation and approach behavior toward experimenter. Photo by Nawroth C et al., Biology Letters, 2016.

Human toddlers exhibit the same habit, which is thought of as a sign of maturing social skills.

Nawroth and his team suspect that animals pick up these social cues only after spending significant amounts of time with humans. Wolves do not exhibit human-directed gazing behavior, even when raised under similar conditions as dogs, he said. The exact reason for this is still debated, but domestication seems to be a major factor.

“Great apes and some monkeys exhibit this behavior to humans, but also to other apes and monkeys,” Nawroth said. “This behavior in primates is mostly seen in captivity, but only rarely or never in the wild.”

But the domestication rule doesn’t always apply. Cats perform poorly and barely look at humans in experiments with an unsolvable challenge. We assume that this is due to their rather solitary lifestyle, Narworth said. In the future, his team plans to investigate whether or not goats exhibit the attachment behavior seen in dogs.

“We are interested in the exact purpose of this human-directed behavior, for instance, if they use it as a direct request for help from humans,” Narworth said.

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