Goats: Man's other best friend?

Recent research shows that goats look to humans for help, just like dogs do. 

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
A goat is seen during the 25th international agro-industrial exhibition Belagro 2015 in Minsk, Belarus, June 3, 2015.

Ask not why that goat is staring at you, ask what you can do for that goat. 

A new study published in Biology Letters finds that, much like dogs, goats look at humans when they need help with something. Scientists say the surprising behavior is the result of at least 10,000 years of interactions with humans through farming, making goats the second-oldest domesticated animal.

"Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach," explained Christian Nawroth, first author of the study, in a statement. 

The findings were the result of an experiment, documented in part on video, in which goats were trained to remove a lid from a box to receive a reward. In the final test, researchers made the reward inaccessible to the goats and studied their reactions. 

The team found that, while struggling to remove the lid, the goats frequently redirected their gaze between the box and the humans in the room. They looked at people facing them earlier, more often and for longer than they looked at people who were facing away from them. 

With the discovery, goats join dogs and horses as the only animals known to use directed gazes to communicate with humans. Similar experiments conducted with dogs and horses have yielded the same results, but those findings were less surprising, says Alan McElligott of Queen Mary University of London, lead author of the goat study.

"The key difference is that these goats have not been bred as companion animals or pets," Dr. McElligott told The Washington Post. "The other animals studied, those were domesticated to work fairly closely with humans, as guard dogs or companion dogs or, in the case of horses, to be ridden. So we thought goats would be a very useful model to compare them to, because they were domesticated for milk, meat, and hair instead." 

The research could help us better understand how animals are domesticated, animal cognition experts say. Domestication is a long process requiring thousands of years of human interaction, but not all "tame" animals are considered domesticated. For example, the degree to which cats are domesticated, even after being beloved companions to humans for nearly 10,000 years, is still hotly debated by biologists. 

The study also contributes to a growing field of knowledge about the psyche of goats, building upon other goat-related research conducted in recent years. Goats are also more clever than scientists previously thought, according to an earlier study by McElligott and other researchers, and have "excellent long-term memory."

Another study conducted about ten years prior by different researchers found that, also similarly to dogs, domestic goats were able to follow human gazes and use social cues when choosing an object – in other words, when an experimenter indicated where food was hidden by pointing or looking in the direction of the food, the goats were able to locate the food. 

In some areas, McElligott told The Telegraph, goats are as intelligent as dogs, and interact with humans in similar ways. 

One goat owner, Amanda Phipps, told the BBC that she wasn't surprised by the research findings, as her goats are both very social and skilled at finding hidden treats.  

"It's been a revelation to see these two animals, which you'd think of as wild, being so loving," she said of her goats, named Ebony and Jack. "They really do have feelings and emotions and seem to thrive on kind human contact and affection."

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