It’s common to deride people as “sheep” as a way to say they don’t have independent thinking skills. And it’s true that sheep are herd animals with poor survival skills.
Sheep are not intelligent animals like wolves or dolphins. This is because they are overly reliant on shepherds for protection after millennia of domestication.
Domestication has meant that sheep have had all their food, shelter, and survival needs provided by humans. This has dampened their survival skills.
However, sheep have a range of alternative survival and social skills related to “sticking to the herd” that allow them to stay safe.
How Intelligent is a Sheep?
A sheep is about as intelligent as a cow or other farm animals that have not got complex survival skills but can still navigate their surroundings using cognition.
They’re smart enough, for example, to learn how to bypass an electric fence, which is something they can learn through experience. Some studies have even suggested that sheep can learn using audio cues.
Related: Are Sheep Friendly with Humans?
What does the Science Say?
A study conducted in 2010 showed promising signs that sheep are more intelligent than we give them credit for.
It showed that sheep can respond to olfactory and visual stimuli and learn through those sources. They also have some capacity to learn using auditory cues.
This sort of research shows that sheep might be intelligent. While they might not be the most intelligent animal in the world, they have some important cognitive capacities.
There’s also quite a lot of anecdotal evidence about the smartness of sheep and their intellect. One source tells how sheep have the ability to learn through their previous experience. For example, they learned how to overcome an electric fence without getting hurt.
In addition, sheep also have good senses of smell and eyesight, which help them to think. For instance, they can easily smell the type of food they’re going to eat to make judgments about whether to consume it or not. They also can see in a 320-degree manner, which is not something that many animals can do.
Can Sheep Feel Emotions?
Several scientists and studies have confirmed that sheep can sense emotions and can even read cues from the faces of humans to determine the faces of anxious sheep and even the faces of humans.
This study was conducted by a team of researchers who showed sheep images of other sheep. The research showed that sheep were able to recognize the faces of at least 50 other sheep several years back, which shows that sheep have a good memory and also a good learning capacity.
Another admirable trait that many people don’t know about sheep is that they can visibly express their emotions. For example, when a sheep is depressed, it will show visible signs of depression, such as hanging its head and avoiding contact with other sheep or positive actions that might help it.
And if you’re someone who owns sheep or if you know a farmer that owns them, then you’ve probably already seen or heard that sheep have their individual characters. No two sheep are the same and they all have their nuances when it comes to character traits and their behavior, which shows signs of intelligence.
All of these studies and pieces of information tell us that sheep are far more emotionally intelligent than we give them credit for. They’re not just followers and they have cues that show emotions to the rest of the world, while also being able to remember the faces of other sheep.
Sheep are Herd Animals – Does That Mean They’re Dumb?
While sheep might not be as independent or curious as goats, they are certainly not dumber or less intelligent than similar herd animals like cows.
People believe that because sheep stick to their herd and don’t like to move individually means that they’re not very smart. But sticking to a herd is actually a smart move. It helps them to be protected through safety in numbers.
Sheep don’t have many natural defenses and don’t have tools to deal with other aggressive animals. This is partly because we’ve evolved them to be defenseless. In this context, sticking to the herd is their best bet.
Sheep rely on other members of the herd to provide protection for each other, which is a sign of social intelligence.
A sheep will become agitated and unhappy if it gets separated from the group. They have a strong instinct for staying in the herd and like to feel safe that way. But this doesn’t mean they’re not smart because they follow other sheep; it’s just that they use this method to survive.
Are Sheep Intelligent Socially?
If there is one area of intelligence where sheep excel, it’s social intelligence. Sheep prefer to stick with their herd and have emotional attachments to the group.
Each sheep also has its character and sheep can recognize faces of sheep in the past, which are all indicators of a good level of social intelligence.
Ewes, in particular, are more sensitive to the faces of other sheep, especially lamb faces. They will instantly recognize the needs of the lamb by looking at its face, which allows it to raise its lambs more positively.
In addition, sheep also have a social structure that they stick to. Rams tend to be more dominant and will sometimes fight other rams for dominance, but ewes are quite gregarious and will rarely enter conflict with another sheep.
Despite the popular belief that sheep are not very smart, sheep do have some social intelligence. Their intelligence is seen through their ability to learn and remember the faces of other sheep.
However, as domesticated animals, their instincts have become dull. Through the generations, we’ve bred sheep to become docile and uncritical. They’re given food, safety, and shelter by humans, and so they don’t need to exercise their brains much.
As sheep have evolved as domesticated animals, they’ve learned to stay in herds and follow others to seek safety. They have learned that sticking with the herd will mean they stay safely close to their shepherd and, therefore, find safety.
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