When my mother was a child, she ambled outside to play. Unexpectedly, the family’s polled billy goat rammed her and sent her somersaulting through the air.
As a goat keeper, you don’t want this scenario to happen. You want endearing, trustworthy goats, even when your back is turned. But you may have a goat that’s started headbutting.
Why is my goat headbutting me? Headbutting is natural, normal behavior goats use to play with each other and establish their place in the herd. Billy’s usually headbutt more aggressively than does. It is critical to train your goats not to headbutt you. Never pet goats on the head.
This may go against your instincts because goats are great pets. But, petting them on the head communicates a challenge to your goats.
If your goats try to headbutt you, your children, or other animals, they can cause serious injury. Fortunately, in almost all cases, you can prevent headbutting before it happens. It’s also possible to stop it through operant conditioning.
This article will identify why goats headbutt, three steps to stopping headbutting, and eight tips to prevent it.
Many Goat Owners “Train” Their Goats to Headbutt
As compassionate, intelligent goat keepers, we can take a step back from the situation to identify why they’re behaving a particular way. With a keen knowledge of general and individual goat behavior, we’re better equipped to find solutions and prevention measures.
Goats headbutt for several reasons. Since goats are capricious, playful animals, headbutting starts early as kids play with each other. This is entirely normal and acceptable. My goats displayed this as kids, and they still use headbutting to play with each other seven years later.
Headbutting establishes or maintains dominance in the herd’s hierarchy. This is the most popular reason. As goats are first introduced to each other, they sort out the ranks with headbutting. Whoever submits is the less dominant goat. Once our herd determined the queen, they all settled into their roles peaceably.
Headbutting as a stress response. When goats are disgruntled or startled, they react instinctively by headbutting. For example, my typically laid-back goats raise their hackles when our obnoxious border collie barks around them. This is a case of irritation, not aggression, and it’s easily remedied by not allowing the dog inside the pen.
Goats will headbutt as a defense mechanism, although they’re much more likely to flee in case of trouble.
Ultimately, headbutting is a natural goat behavior developed to protect themselves, display dominance, and play. But it’s disconcerting when a beloved goat begins to headbutt you. Nip the behavior in the bud before it cements itself.
Train a Goat to Stop Headbutting
There are common ways to end headbutting that involve pushing, hitting, or throwing goats to the ground. These will succeed in causing your goats to fear, not respect you. Goats that have been treated with aggression will likely only learn to treat you or others similarly.
Instead, these three steps are compassionate, humane ways to stop headbutting that won’t have any repercussions.
1. Water-Gun Method
The most effective and humane method to stop headbutting is with a high-powered water gun or water bottle. Spritz the goat’s face with water every time he attempts to headbutt you.
Goats abhor water, which you’ll quickly notice in the first drizzle. So by pairing a behavior (headbutting) with an unpleasant stimulus (water), the goat will learn to associate the two, and the headbutting will cease. This is an example of operant conditioning.
2. Firmly Say “No!”
Firmly saying “No!” should send a clear message to your goat, especially a kid, that it’s wrong to engage in headbutting with you. Sometimes you’ll have to say “No!” while waving your arms.
This is an effective positive punishment similar to using a water gun or water bottle. The point is to create an undesirable experience that the goat won’t want to repeat.
3. Redirect Their Attention
Sometimes ignoring the goat is all it takes to stop headbutting. Something most people forget about animal behavior is that only behaviors that receive a response are repeated. If your goat thinks you’re playing or receives a fear response, he’ll likely continue the behavior.
If you ignore the headbutting and redirect their attention onto something else (as long as it isn’t a reward), the goat should stop headbutting.
This isn’t effective for a goat intent on headbutting you, but it will work for the occasional attempt.
4. Flipping Them On Their Backs
In many goat groups, training, and advice articles, it’s recommended that owners flip headbutting goats onto their backs. In some cases, this can be effective because goats HATE being flipped. This should only be a last resort if you can’t find a solution with the previous training methods.
Goats that are regularly held on their backs or held for a long time can develop life-threatening conditions. Their bodies aren’t designed to lay on their backs, and flipping can rearrange internal organs and cause organ issues.
I know personally of one situation where prolapse occurred a week after the owner flipped the goat over for ten minutes. Sadly, she had to be put down shortly afterward.
Although there is little clinical testing that flipping can cause these issues, other instances indicate the danger of extended flipping. I think flipping is not the most effective way to address headbutting, and it can be dangerous.
5. Don’t Bottle Feed Doelings and Bucks
New goat owners often love to bottle feed kids. Sometimes it’s even necessary for survival. However, bottle feeding may cause some kids, especially bucklings, to replace the mother or other goats with a human.
Eventually, this can lead to treating humans as other goats, which includes headbutting. It’s usually best to allow the mother to raise her kids herself unless there are health concerns or she’s neglecting them.
6. Give Bucks a Buddy
Hormonal bucks often become territorial and headbutt more than other goats. For the safety of the herd, it’s best to keep bucks separate but not alone. Lonely and bored bucks are more likely to headbutt you. Sometimes this is a misplaced attempt to fulfill their social needs. It isn’t necessarily because of aggression.
It’s vital to provide companionship to your buck. All goats belong in a herd structure and require social stimulation. Wethers often get along tremendously with bucks. Does, on the other hand, should be separate from bucks except for breeding.
7. Never React in Anger
No matter how upset or frustrated you are, never explode in anger and respond to headbutting in abuse. Abuse of any kind is a direct breach of our stewardship of the animals we raise.
If you’ve tried everything and the goat is truly bent on headbutting, it’s best to rehome it to an experienced goat owner. Make sure the new owner is fully aware of the goat’s behavior and accepts it.
8 Tips for Preventing Headbutting
Prevention is crucial but often overlooked. We’ve raised all but two of our goats from kids. We’ve never had any of them headbutt us after we implemented these eight tips:
Don’t Touch the Head
Many people gravitate toward scratching or rubbing the top of their goat’s heads in the horn area. This is a surefire way to encourage headbutting, even if your goat doesn’t have horns. Instead, scratch under the chin, sides of cheeks, or the neck.
Similarly, avoid grabbing your goat by the horns. Most goats will resist this, and it could lead to headbutting. Train goats to walk on a collar instead.
No Pushing Allowed
Kids will push against your leg or hand, usually playfully, but also to test boundaries. This may be cute with a baby goat, but it won’t be when the kid grows into a 100-200 lb adult.
Instead of allowing it or pushing back, react by immediately moving away, paired with a firm “No!” Make sure your goat doesn’t think it’s a game. If it continues a third time, use a spray bottle filled with water.
Early handling promotes friendliness later in life, so handle the kid with future behaviors in mind. Be mindful of what behaviors you’re even inadvertently rewarding. Never engage or reward behaviors that you’ll regret encouraging later.
Handle kids with affection, and ensure they’re comfortable with human contact. Ideally, they should see you as a protective leader and run to you as soon as they spot you.
It’s important to realize that owners must balance love and training; one without the other won’t work. I’ve seen several beginners think that showering the animal with love will cancel out bad behaviors. They don’t consider proper training. Sadly, it turns into a rude awakening when their beloved goat begins headbutting them.
Integrate New Goats Gradually
It’s tempting to bring home a new goat and immediately introduce her to the herd, hoping they’ll become fast friends. Unfortunately, this doesn’t often happen. Instead, it can result in injury as the goats are forced into determining the new hierarchy.
Integrate any new member to the herd gradually with an adjacent pen, and observe how they behave. Keep sessions short and increase them progressively over time. Give the herd and new goat time to adapt to each other, even if the “herd” only consists of no more than one or two other goats. It’s a good idea to keep new goats separate for health reasons also (link to husbandry article).
This is especially important with young, ill, or pregnant animals. It also applies to other animals, such as Livestock Guardian Dogs, who are usually raised with their charges from pups. Always keep the new animal separate for a time. This prevents any squabbles that could arise, not to mention diseases, and it’s an easy solution.
Plus, keeping goats separated for a few weeks can help to curb any possible infections the new goat may have (link to goat disease article)
Goats are herd animals with a hierarchy. Leadership means mutual respect, not domination. Always maintain cool, calm confidence.
How do you know your goats respect you? Well, when my goats are startled, they all come running to us to hide behind us for protection and comfort. I think that’s a clear indication of who they look to for support.
Separate Bucks or Consider Castration
Keep bucks separate from the rest of the herd, except for breeding. You can keep a wether and a buck or two bucks together. Don’t keep does and bucks together, and never keep any goat alone. Bucks can cause damage to pregnant does, potentially causing a miscarriage, in addition to unwanted pregnancies.
If you do not need a buck, consider getting wethers or castrating your young males. Castrated males are often more friendly and easy to handle than bucks.
Provide Ample Space and Stimulation
Goats require space to run and play. Imagine if a herd of goats is crammed into a small space, and one is getting excessively picked on. It would be challenging or potentially impossible for that goat to hide from the others. Scattering your herd out on a field will significantly reduce the chance of one goat getting headbutted to the point of injury.
Mentally engaged goats are also less likely to headbutt. It’s a great idea to keep fascinating stimuli throughout the pen. We have tires embedded in the ground, which they climb on and use as oversized scratching posts. Some other ideas include large rocks, structures to climb on, wooden wire spools, etc.
Understand Goat Body Language
Sometimes goats give indications that they’d rather be alone. Ignoring these signs and insisting on your company can lead to headbutting. Always give your goats the choice of whether or not to hang around you. Don’t force them.
If a goat raises his hackles, stomps at the ground, walks away, makes loud vocalizations, or shows other signs of stress or discomfort, it’s best to move away. Some people think this passes dominance to the goat, but it actually establishes the goat’s respect for you.
So, learn to be mindful around your goats and to read the signs they’re giving. Remember, these indications are the only method of communication goats have.
What Goats Are More Likely to Headbutt?
All breeds, ages, and sexes of goats can headbutt. That said, bucks and a few breeds of goats are more well-known for this behavior.
Bucks are more likely to headbutt during the breeding season to demonstrate dominance. This is when they’re rutting and surging with testosterone, making them extra pugnacious. Not all bucks are aggressive, but they have a greater probability of it than wethers and does.
A few breeds are known for headbutting, such as Kalahari Red, Madurai, Spanish, and sometimes Boer. Some goat breeds (like the Madurai) have been bred specifically for fighting, so aggression, in this case, becomes genetic.
What if the goat headbutts my child? Teach young children not to enter the goat’s pen without supervision. Children often run toward cute animals, startling goats into headbutting. Teach children to respect the animal’s space. Older children can be taught how to train goats not to headbutt with a spray bottle.
What if another goat is being headbutted? Usually, they’ll sort it out, especially if they have enough space, but if it continues, you’ll have to separate the goats. Over time you may be able to reintroduce the goat into the herd. Ensure this is done gradually rather than instantly.
What if my dog is being headbutted? Immediately separate the dog from the goat. Goats belong in their own exclusive outdoor pen, not sharing a backyard fence with pet dogs.
Will a disbudded or polled goat headbutt? Yes, even a goat without horns will headbutt. The only difference is that when a hornless goat headbutts, the damage inflicted is minimized. Disbudding isn’t a guaranteed method of preventing headbutting.
Shouldn’t I flip the goat over on its side? No, this is an old-fashioned “solution” that usually makes the problem worse since it instills fear in the goat rather than respect and may even aggravate them even more.
What if I’ve tried everything, but my goat still won’t stop headbutting? Sometimes goat owners must make a difficult decision in the case of a perpetually aggressive goat. When all other measures have been taken, you may have to rehome the goat. But, let the new owners know about the problem.