Photo: Alan McElligott

It turns out goats really do know that you’re trouble when you walk in. These domestic animals can distinguish human facial expressions, and prefer a pleasant smile to a disgruntled frown, according to new research.

“This is the first evidence that shows goats are capable of visually discriminating facial expressions of a very different species, humans, who express their emotions in very different ways,” Natalia Albuquerque, study author and ethologist at the University of Sao Paolo, told Gizmodo. “This means goats are more complex animals than we thought.”

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Previous research has shown that goats have some pretty impressive cognitive abilities. They can recognize what their goat friends look and sound like, and also communicate via their gaze, which is something only dogs, horses, and primates (like us!) are known to do.

After studying how dogs can recognize human emotions in 2016, Albuquerque collaborated with some goat-focused researchers for this new study to see if goats could do the same.

Working with 35 goats who live at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in the United Kingdom, the researchers first trained the animals with treats—pieces of dry pasta, which goats absolutely love—to walk forward about 13 feet toward a person crouching in front flat pieces of metal mesh that kind of resembled blank bulletin boards. The person who gave the goats their pasta maintained a neutral facial expression and looked at the ground during this part.

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Then, the pasta-giver was replaced by two large, side-by-side photos of human faces, one smiling and one angrily frowning, tacked to the metal meshes. Those were placed about four feet apart (see image below), and occasionally swapped so that the smiling and frowning photos were on the left or right sides at one point or another. The researchers selected faces that were unfamiliar to the goats, and used one female face and one male face.

In the experimental setup, researchers released goats who were then free to walk toward the smiling or frowning face (or be stubborn and refuse to move).
Photo: Christian Nawroth

After modifying the setup, researchers led the goats to the same starting point, and let them off the leash. The idea was that the goat would walk toward the face it’s more attracted to, but things didn’t always go exactly to plan.

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“The goats that took part in our study are not trained in any way, so we could not just ask them to sit, stay still, or to look at the images,” Albuquerque told Gizmodo. “We only looked at spontaneous behavior, meaning they only did what they truly wanted. We had very robust data about their behavior, but we ended up having to exclude some animals from our analysis due to lack of attention, or because they just would not move at all.”

After tallying and crunching the numbers from this study, Albuquerque and her colleagues found that no matter the sex of the goat, the gender of the person’s face, or which photo was on the right or left, goats gravitated toward the smiling face significantly more often than the frowning one.

Study author Christian Nawroth takes a selfie with a goat.
Photo: Christian Nawroth

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“We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we didn’t know how they react to different human emotional expressions like anger or happiness,” study author Christian Nawroth, who is a self-described “scientist who stares at goats” at Queen Mary University of London, told Gizmodo via email. (More precisely, he studies behavior and cognition in goats.) “One of the limitations is that we do not know yet if they in general prefer happy faces or if they might have avoided interacting with angry faces.”

The team plans to continue studying emotional perception in goats to further uncover how farm animals process emotions. They hope to perform similar studies in goats that are unfamiliar with humans, or goats that don’t live happily in sanctuaries.

At the very least, the knowledge that goats like us better when we smile should motivate us to show them how happy they make us. They notice!

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“Goats do discriminate an angry from a happy person, and would rather interact with happy people,” Albuquerque told Gizmodo. “When we are around goats, we should show them our positive mood and our affection.”

[Royal Society Open Science]