School is B-a-a-a-a-ck in Session

Goats are cute … and curious, too! Whether jumping over obstacles or climbing to new heights, goats are always ready to try something new. And when it comes to training sessions, that makes them excellent students. Get the scoop on these energetic, inquisitive animals from keeper Nikki Maticic, who has been working with the Kids’ Farm goats for more than four years.

A goat rests on a small bridge in the grassy yard of the Kids' Farm exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Zoo

How many goats live at Kids’ Farm, and what are they like?

I care for three goats: two 5-year-old Nigerian dwarf goat sisters, Fiesta and Fedora, and one 12-year-old San Clemente Island goat, named Marla. All three goats are very friendly. Fiesta and Fedora are dog-like; they love attention from keepers and are really curious. Marla is a little more shy and takes some time to warm up to people.

All three goats are intelligent and enjoy investigating new things in their exhibit. We often give them puzzle feeder balls and other enrichment, which we fill with some of their favorite treats. The goats know how to push the feeders around the yard with their hooves or heads to quickly get the treats out!

Why is training an important part of animal care, and what behaviors do the goats learn?

Training is an excellent tool for us keepers when working with animals. It allows us to provide better care and can help make medical procedures a lot less stressful for both our animals and staff. I first began training the goats with a focus on medical care. Marla has a sensitive callus under her chest, so I worked with her on becoming more comfortable with keepers touching this spot, along with her sides, back and hooves. We also worked on some training basics, such as stationing (staying in one place) and targeting (following a target, like a pole topped with a blue sphere).

A large goat and a smaller goat walk across a bridge in their grassy, outdoor yard at the Kids' Farm exhibit

Marla walks across a bridge in her yard at Kids’ Farm.

Fiesta and Fedora progressed quickly through medical training, so we moved on to agility, such as weaving, jumping over poles or through hoops, and spinning. I also trained them to hoof at the ground, walk upright on their hind legs, and “recycle.” Once Marla was comfortable with medical training, she joined in too. While these behaviors are fun, they are also a great way to keep the goats physically and mentally stimulated, as they work through learning new behaviors.

Fedora practices her agility jumping during a training session.

Agility training keeps the goats active, and lets them exercise their love of jumping. It also allows us to check on the joint health of our older goat, Marla. The jump bar is about 1-2 inches high for Marla, so she can stay active but doesn’t put any strain on her joints. For Fiesta and Fedora, it’s usually set about 8 inches off the ground! Goats naturally enjoy climbing and jumping, so they also have tree stumps and a playground in their yard.

You mentioned that Fiesta and Fedora learned to “recycle.” How does that work?

I started by training the goats to touch their noses to a plastic bottle. Once they could reliably do that, I had them touch their noses to the bottle while it was clipped to a fence. Slowly, I began to add more items to the fence – a dumbbell, a hairbrush – and cued the goats to only touch their noses to the bottle. I also added a verbal cue: “recycle.”

All the animals at Kids’ Farm are trained using positive reinforcement, so each time the goats chose the bottle on cue, I offered them a treat from my training pouch. The goats have a set number of enrichment treats they can eat each day. Their favorites include beets, sweet potatoes, carrots, hay cubes and biscuits! Marla tends to be a bit pickier with her training treats, so she receives small bits of chopped up hay cubes as a reward.

As the goats became more familiar with the recycling behavior, I was able to place the objects along the fence in random order and ask them to recycle by selecting the plastic bottle. My next goal is to add more recyclable items to this training. It’s a fun way to educate our guests about the importance of recycling … even the goats can do it!

Do the goats enjoy training sessions?

Oh, yes! I store the training supplies in a large trunk just outside their exhibit. As soon as they see me getting training objects out of the trunk, they begin to bleat and come running up to the gate. All the training we do at Kids’ Farm is voluntary, so the animals can choose to participate if they want to. Because the goats are usually very excited to train, it can help indicate to keepers that a goat might not be feeling well if they don’t want to participate that day.

How long does it typically take for Fiesta, Fedora and Marla to learn new behaviors?

The pace at which the goats learn is one of the most fun things about working with them. They learn quickly and are so curious that they are always up for working through new behaviors. Some of the behaviors, like spinning and walking upright, they picked up in just one or two training sessions. Fiesta is very food motivated, so she tends to try new behaviors the quickest. But Fedora is usually first to perform a behavior to its fullest.

A small goat wearing a collar walks through a grassy yard at the Kids' Farm exhibit
Fiesta is very food motivated, so she tends to try new behaviors the quickest.

Since Marla can be a bit shy, she tends to take the longest to learn new behaviors — but she’s a quick learner once she’s comfortable. When I first trained Marla to spin, she wasn’t comfortable turning her back toward me. So, I modified the behavior so she could spin in a circle around me instead. Eventually, I was able to transition her to spinning in front of me, like Fiesta and Fedora.

What does an average training session look like?

I like to vary sessions, so they are always a little different. Typically, I scatter hay cubes (one of their favorite treats) out in the yard and then open the gate. The first goat to come out is usually Fiesta. I’ll start the training session with some basic targets around the paddock — I use a target pole, which I ask her to follow and touch her nose to. We’ll move on to stationing, where I’ll ask her to jump on top of a cinder block and stay there while I move around.

Animal keeper Nikki Maticic stands in front of a small goat and directs the goat, using a hand signal, to stand on a cinder block and remain stationed there.
Fiesta practices her stationing behavior.

Next, we’ll practice agility. I work on a “tower” behavior with Fiesta, where she stands on top of an upright cinder block and spins. We might also work on agility jumps, weaving through poles, recycling, kicking a ball on cue or any other new behaviors the goats are learning. I’m currently training the goats to hold paintbrushes in their mouths and touch the brushes to a canvas to paint. I’m also working with Marla to present her hooves, one at a time. She’s been picking up this new behavior very quickly!

Marla is learning to present her hooves, one at a time, using the verbal cues “left” and “right.”

In every training session, the goats work on lifting their hooves and letting us touch their chests, sides and hooves for health checks. Each session lasts about 10-15 minutes. With a sweeping hand motion and the words “all done,” I signal that training is over, scatter-feed more hay cubes in the yard and open the gate for the next goat.

Are there any moments that have surprised you or made you laugh?

I can remember a funny moment when I first introduced the goats to the agility jump. All three were curious, and Fiesta and Fedora took to jumping over the bar right away. Fiesta was reliably jumping over it on cue, so toward the end of the session we raised the bar up to about 6 inches. I cued Fiesta to jump, and she stopped right in front of the bar. She looked from the bar, to me and back to the bar, and then ducked down and walked underneath it rather than jumping over!

What’s the hardest part of training Marla, Fiesta and Fedora?

The hardest part is keeping up with the young goats, Fiesta and Fedora. They are both very motivated and excited to train, but that can present a bit of a challenge at times. They can get distracted when learning a new behavior, because they don’t get as many reinforcements (treats) as quickly. Sometimes, they’ll present a bunch of other behaviors to see if that will get them a treat!

Fiesta (left) and Fedora (right) enjoy a treat in their yard at Kids’ Farm. Fiesta stands on two pedestals, while Fedora stands in the grass.

Fiesta (left) and Fedora (right) enjoy a treat in their yard at Kids’ Farm.

I’ll often break up training sessions into portions of new and learned behaviors, so the goats are always on the move and getting reinforcement. But Fiesta and Fedora may decide to go a different route. When that happens, I’ll get them back on track with behaviors they know, and then attempt training some new behaviors again.

What is the most rewarding part of working with these goats?

For me, it’s seeing the goats learn a behavior from start to finish. Some behaviors, such as hoof lifts with Marla, take a lot of time and patience. It’s incredibly rewarding to see Marla now allowing all four of her hooves to be lifted for hoof checks! I also enjoy being able to train the goats, because it’s so rewarding to see how motivated they are to participate in training sessions.

Do you have any favorite goat facts?

One of my favorite things about goats is their pupils! A goat’s pupils are rectangular, which comes off as a little frightening to some people. But these special pupils are very important for goats. Having rectangle-shaped pupils allows goats to keep their heads down to graze on grasses and leaves, while at the same time keeping an eye out for predators.

Stop by Kids’ Farm during your next visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to see Marla, Fedora and Fiesta. Want to help replenish toys, puzzle feeders and training tools that are a bit run-down yet well loved by the Zoo’s animals? Donate to the Enrichment Trunk. Your support directly benefits the animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

UPDATE Dec. 21, 2020: Please note that the Zoo is temporarily closed as a public health precaution to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.