Next Generation Cattle Behavior and Learning – Showmanship

By: Don Höglund DVM


Part 1 - How Animal’s Learn During Human and Animal Interaction – May, 2021

Part 2 - Example Practical Application - Safe and Humane Haltering, Leading, Tethering


(Caption: VT dairy science students posing with their show case of trained heifers. Virginia Tech 2017. Source Don Höglund.)

“Just because you don’t intend to teach [livestock] something doesn’t mean that you won’t; and…just because you are not aware of having taught [livestock] something doesn’t mean that you didn’t.”                                           

             ~Paul McGreevey.


Part 1 - How Animals Learn During Interaction with Humans


Success in working with dairy cattle is not related to the intelligence or lack of it on the part of the animals. It really depends on the animal’s ability to try behaviors until something works. The process of getting an animal from point A to point B can be a distressful, reactive, trial and error attempt in which 

the human finally lucks out at getting the job done, or it can be a low-energy and efficient experience for the human and the animal(s). Which it is will depend on the human’s understanding of how an animal perceives its world, how animals learn from their experiences, the relative importance of its social peers, how innate reflexes and reactions are prompted, and what motivates the animal to freeze, approach, escape or avoid threats, and develop habits.[i] In other words, the human and animal relationship is about behavior and how behavior emerges and changes. Changes in animal behavior are principally about animal learning and it is evolving right before your eyes and ears.

Cattle do not read, speak or understand languages. Instead, learning comes through experiencing their environment by virtue of their five senses. Cattle try behaviors when interacting with humans, objects, or other animals. In realistic terms, handlers do not know the total living history of any creature and subsequently cannot know the entire learned behavior portfolio of any animal. What handlers CAN know are the species-typical behaviors of cattle and their current behavior. Humans can learn to recognize cattle learned behaviors, as well. We will discuss how to recognize those behaviors in a moment.

During the handling of cattle, the animal is responding to and learning from real-time handler presence and action in any given environment. The result of the interaction is referred to as an experience(s). The heifer’s response to her present experience is likely based on her past experiences and her genetics. After all, her working memory is a product of her genetics and what she learned and remembered along the way. That is practical information for present-day handlers to know. Calm and consistent handling throughout her early lifecycle can help present handlers and show-persons with an animal that is calm and consistent in behavior later, during show-training, in pens, on pasture or in the parlor. Current handler behavior helps shape how cattle respond to humans on into the future.

Ultimately, handlers get what they help create in cattle behaviors. We all do. An example surfaces when we aim to train show heifers to stand posed without constantly fidgeting but we continuously grip (re-grip) the show halter or stand too close to her head. Cattle naturally have poor ability to focus, visually, on any object within a half-meter of their eyes. Yet, during a show, handlers continuously stand in that visually challenged zone. Often exhibitors are frustrated when that animal’ continuously moves back or away from the handler. The cow is simply trying to reestablish better vision on the handler. Desired show behaviors include an alert yet calm animal, head-high and forward, nose-extended, spine straight and elongated, a balanced frame with legs appropriately positioned, ears and eyes forward, and breathing normally. How about we help her do that? See photo 1.


Caption, Photo 1: Conditioning a show animal to proper head carriage, pose and leg positioning. Source: Virginia Tech.

For a second example of producing useful and reliable future cattle behaviors, see photo 2. Teaching fresh heifers to always face the parlor prior to milking is a learned and desired heifer behavior during her production life.

3Caption photo 2: Virtual Farm Tour. Always face the parlor. With written permission.

A final example is this: all dairy animal handlers appreciate an animal that stands calmly during life-cycle events, such as artificial insemination, palpation, ultrasound, when receiving injections of any kind, and during milking.

All of these desired behaviors – show handling, facing the parlor, standing calmly - can be taught to cattle if handlers learn how cattle learn. And yes, methods and techniques must be practiced in order to develop consistency handler to handler and within the same human over time.

Innate cattle behaviors - defined

Anything that a human can observe, inside or outside of the animal’s skin, is defined as behavior. We have to be able to observe the movement, response, or the biology in order for it to be considered behavior.[1] Some behaviors come hard-wired in the creature and are considered innate. Other cattle behaviors appear to be learned. Defending against threats, taking advantage of nutrition opportunities, balancing fluids and electrolytes, regulating body temperature and reproducing are five innate survival behaviors. In fact, all organisms, from the single-celled all the way across the Animal Kingdom to humans, must be capable of those five behaviors in order to survive. Observable innate survival behaviors, (i.e., reflexes and reactions; suckling, freezing, running, jumping, kicking, and breeding) are not originally a product of learning, but can be supplemented by learning. Innate survival behaviors come with the animal and that is why the animal can exhibit them.

[1] Notice that we did not include animal instincts. Instincts are now considered innate complex global-organismic responses that all members of the species gender exhibit, (i.e. elk bugling, spider web-building, & feline arching or stretching). Instincts do not change over time. Cow mothering is considered an innate survival behavior and is not necessarily an instinct. The higher up the animal is in the Animal Kingdom, the less-likely the species is to have identifiable instincts. Perhaps laying front-end first and rising hind-end first could be in the differential list for bovine instincts.


Chart 1. Categories of cattle behavior. There are innate and learned avoidance behaviors.

When cattle run, kick, or face handlers in desired pose is often a product of learning. When they display these behaviors is important during animal training (conditioning or learning for show or milking). Who could have guessed that such a short word (when) would have such an enduring effect on human and animal interaction? Learning, and when it happened, is the central component of safe and efficient handling and training of all agriculture animals. In fact, this is true of all animals including the human animal. See chart 1 for “Categories or taxonomy of overt (aka observable) animal behaviors.” 

To make the point practical, here is what may seem a silly question for you to consider: “Why do cattle run, jump or kick?” Why do they sometimes stop, shake their head and ears, and perhaps turn back and even challenge you. If you ask those questions from any one person or of any group of cattle growers you will likely get many different opinions (and even certainties) as to why cattle do these things. Listen to your own explanations.

That question has but one answer. Cattle run because they can. They kick because they can. They don’t fly, because they are not fitted with wings. The most important part of the question is rarely discussed. That question is: WHEN did the animal run or kick. When the heifer runs can likely reveal to handlers what prompted the animal to run. That can help handlers avoid teaching cattle to run in the presence of humans, in show, or near the parlor. See photo 3.


Caption photo 3. Cattle run, jump and kick because they can. When they do it is the most important part. Source: public commons Internet.

Learned behaviors can and often do supplement or override natural behaviors. For instance, allowing a calf to suckle a handler’s fingers often leads to head-butting when the fingers fail to release milk. Teaching the heifer to suckle (an innate reflex) the handler’s fingers (learning) can lead to head-butting (when a natural survival behavior is coupled with learning that fingers do not yield milk). When suckling fingers doesn’t yield milk calves often treat the handler just like they treat their mother: rudely. Learning supplemented an innate behavior (suckling) and can lead to head-butting. Simultaneously, hutch life learning, like finger suckling or hand feeding by bottle, teaches heifers to face handlers for all things nutritional. About two years later, the entire life’s-work of the milking animal is designed to have the animal face AWAY from the handler. Consider that - milking, injections, headlock needs, palpation, ultrasound, artificial insemination, transport loading, and moving cows between pens or pastures all require the cow to face away from the handler. See photo 4.


Caption photo 4: A calf suckling fingers. What happens when she finds no milk in those fingers? What happens when later in life we want her to face away from us?

Learning in cattle - defined

Learning is defined as the process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something.  In dairy cattle, this will take the form of a relatively permanent change in response occurring as the result of an experience. The process of learning in animals has been studied for many years and the basic concepts that apply to humans, horses, and swine also apply to dairy cattle. Differences in sensory perception, previous experiences, and genetic influences do result in variations between species, but the various species have much more in common than not. There are different types of learning (although characterized differently by different researchers) and it’s important to know how to use them in safe and efficient handling. See table 1 for detailed explanations of some pertinent associative types of animal learning. These are the types of learning that handlers encounter on-farm and in show animal training.

For more information on Animal Learning and how to efficiently use the Humane Halters©®™ method, and for education modules, workshops for educators, students, 4 H and FFA kids, and producers, contact or or visit;