Can goats tell the difference between human expressions? Do they care if we look happy or angry? Do they react to smiling, happy faces? Are they turned off by a frown? Researchers aimed to find out by watching goats at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, England, and recording their reactions to photographs of different human expressions. They found that goats preferred people who were smiling. Happy faces were approached first by goats in trials. The goats clearly demonstrated that they were sensitive to facial expression of human emotions.
Goats are highly social beings. Body language and facial expressions of other goats are very important for establishing social boundaries and maintaining peace in the herd. Previously, researchers answered the question, “Are goats smart?” Among goats’ many skills, we saw that they reacted to goat images showing negative facial expressions. We heard that they recognize the bleat of their pen-mate. We read how ear and tail positions are signs of emotional states while exploring how goats think and feel. Research into sheep and cattle emotional expressions suggests that even subtler expressions on goats’ faces can convey emotion through the tension of muscles around eyes, jaw and muzzle. Goats depend on communication between herd members to keep in contact, reinforce hierarchy, signal danger and initiate social or sexual interaction. They understand other goats’ expressions, but do they understand ours?
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Can Goats Read Smiling, Happy Faces?
As handlers, we develop close relationships with our goats and witness how attentive they are to our every move. This raises the question of how well they understand us, our body language, and our expressions. Even if personally we are confident that we communicate well with our goats, it is still important to establish evidence through scientific procedure. This ensures we are not biased by our affection for and our pride in our own goats. Similarly, educational materials and legislative reforms can state with authority how human handling affects our goats’ welfare.
Previously, researchers had tested dogs’ and horses’ sensitivity to human facial expressions, and they had been found to read us extremely well. They are aware of the significance of smiling, happy faces and frowning, grumpy ones. However, these animals have adapted over thousands of years to work closely with humans: their domestication involved selection for those individuals that cooperated well with their handlers. Goats, on the other hand, have been selected for meat and milk production rather than comradeship. It is only recently that people have been keeping them as pets or as pack goats. We are all too familiar with goats’ efforts to “help” us with tasks: the interest is there, but no sense of teamwork! Could production animals, then, have the same sensitivity to human expression as our animal companions and work-mates?
Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats is a refuge for about 140 goats in Kent. Buttercups goats have plenty of contact with loving volunteers and staff wearing smiling, happy faces. Once they settle into their new home, they mostly see people as a good thing. Twenty goats participated in trials to record their reactions to human facial expressions. They were trained to enter the pen by a researcher who kept a straight face while giving them treats. Then each goat was presented with two photographs of an unfamiliar person’s face bearing different expressions: smiling and frowning. The goats were allowed to explore the pen freely for 30 seconds and their reactions were recorded. Each goat had four trials: two with pictures of a man and two of a woman; two with the smiling, happy face on the right and two on the left. The aim was to see whether the gender of the person or position of the photo had any effect on the goats’ reaction. Here you can see how Bernard the goat responded (video by Christian Nawroth, the research paper’s author, provided by kind permission of the research team).
Goats Prefer Smiling, Happy Faces to Grumpy Frowns
Researchers recorded which photograph was approached first, and how long and how often goats interacted with each picture. Goats approached smiling, happy faces first and examined them for longer. However, happy faces placed on the right hand side got more attention. The sex of the goat or human gender made no difference. The results show that not only can goats tell the difference between human facial expressions, but goats prefer smiling, happy faces, as they were drawn to those photographs first. They also investigated smiling, happy faces more when placed on the right, which suggests processing of pleasant emotions by the left side of the brain.
How Do Goats Understand Human Expressions?
It is clear that they are sensitive to expressions on people’s faces. They can even tell the difference between those expressions on strangers’ faces. Perhaps they learned the expressions from familiar people: they remembered that smiling, happy faces on staff and volunteers resulted in treats and cuddles.
Some of these goats may have had previous experience of humans in not such a benevolent mood. After all, they were brought to the sanctuary because previous owners were not able to keep them, or because they were found neglected. They may have learned that people with frowning faces rarely give treats, affection, or anything beneficial. Perhaps they learned that danger could be forthcoming.
Alternatively, goats may possess an innate sensitivity to human body language. Such has already been found in dogs. Even young puppies with little human interaction can respond to directions such as pointing. This is an effect of domestication and is not found in wolves, the dog’s ancestor, but has been found in recently domesticated foxes. Could it be that one effect of thriving under human care is to become naturally responsive to human communication? To find out, more research involving goats that are unaccustomed to people would be required.
People-Friendly Animals with Goat-Specific Needs
Earlier studies revealed that goats look to people for help when they cannot access feed. A recent paper reveals that this is even true in goats that are not used to petting, but just brief basic human contact, such as feeding. Goats also focus on our faces and seek our attention when wanting something from us. They wait until we are paying attention before anticipating a treat. They also understand basic instructions from us, such as indicating a feeding place and demonstrating a route. As we all know, they have the potential to become doting pets.
It is important for goat handlers to understand the full impact of their own behavior on their animals. Indeed, we must be careful not to expect too much from a caprine pet. Despite recent media coverage, goats are not the new dogs, and need to live the life of a goat, as part of a herd. We must be able to meet their specific needs and know how to house goats harmoniously.
Another phenomenon under study is termed emotional contagion. When animals perceive the emotions of a member of their group, they react to it, or even catch that emotion. A frightened animal is a warning to the rest of the herd to flee. Emotion can spread through goats picking up the tone of voices or bleats. We can use this understanding to avoid fear spreading through the herd, and even to spread good vibes.
As goats are sensitive to our moods and behavior, we need to bear this in mind as we handle them. So don’t forget to give your goats a smile: goats prefer smiling, happy faces!
Sources: Nawroth, C., Albuquerque, N., Savalli, C., Single, M.-S., McElligott, A. G. 2018. Goats prefer positive human emotional facial expressions. Royal Society Open Science, 5, 180491. QMUL press release.
Albuquerque, N., Guo, K., Wilkinson, A., Savalli, C., Otta, E. and Mills, D. 2016. Dogs recognize dog and human emotions. Biology Letters, 12(1), p.20150883.
Hare, B., Plyusnina, I., Ignacio, N., Schepina, O., Stepika, A., Wrangham, R. and Trut, L., 2005. Social cognitive evolution in captive foxes is a correlated by-product of experimental domestication. Current Biology, 15(3), pp.226-230.
Langbein, J., Krause, A., and Nawroth, C. 2018. Human-directed behaviour in goats is not affected by short-term positive handling. Animal Cognition, 21(6), pp.795-803.
Nawroth, C. 2017. Invited review: Socio-cognitive capacities of goats and their impact on human–animal interactions. Small Ruminant Research, 150, pp.70-75.
Smith, A.V., Proops, L., Grounds, K., Wathan, J. and McComb, K. 2016. Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus). Biology Letters, 12(2), p.20150907.
Originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.