By Lara Joseph
Mini, pocket and teacup are all adjectives used to describe pigs and are specifically designed to impart a certain image to any potential pet pig owner. What might one think of when one hears the word “mini?” ‘Something weighing under five pounds’ might come to mind, or ‘something that fits into a purse.’ While both considerations might be correct, when referencing a pig, they will only be accurate for about two months.
What happens then, when the pig gets bigger than five pounds? Along with these misleading descriptions, the internet is now awash with behavior advice that will make any trainer or behavior consultant who practices learning theory cringe.
Side Effects of Aversive Training
The growing list of Facebook groups for pet pig owners includes many pages focusing on mini and pot bellied pigs. It was while browsing some of these pages that I first became aware of a popular new “technique” known as Move the Pig (MTP). In a nutshell, this entails walking up to a pig who is sleeping or resting and forcing him or her to move. MTP allegedly makes the pig learn that the owner is the “top” or “dominant” pig. Support for this method is, sadly, overwhelming.
On a more positive note, the positive approaches for changing animal behavior employed by force-free trainers and behavior consultants are just as effective when used on the people who promote the above techniques. The majority of our work in this respect involves showing the owner or caretaker how to fluently apply our methods to the animal in question.
Thus, after becoming aware of some of the methods being recommended for pigs, some of my peers and I immediately started to share our videos featuring force-free methods on social media. We also started sharing our concerns about the side effects of using aversives, force and coercion to control behavior. Although we were met with some resistance, the support was overwhelming in the main.
A few years ago, it was suggested that I contact a very popular pig trainer for advice on working with large pigs who were showing signs of aggression such as biting, lunging, charging and head swinging. The trainer told me to punch the pig in the nose.
I asked if this was a one-time solution or something I would have to continue to do (although, obviously, I would never use this approach). I was advised I would probably have to continue using this method indefinitely. I shared my concern about using a positive punisher that was not going to change the pig’s behavior and was told there was no other option.
I recently talked to representatives at another nationally known pig shelter, who suggested I pick up the 100 pound pig and bite his ear. I was told this mimics how pigs “show dominance” with each other. Obviously our concerns with these approaches are many and, unfortunately, it does not end there.
I recently watched a YouTube video by a well-known pig breeder that was receiving a lot of support on Facebook. The video demonstrated how one should jab the pig in the back of the ear whenever he lunges or bites. The person in the video said it worked and that she had only had to do it twice. Her pig, apparently, has not bitten since.
We made notes throughout the video and then began shooting our own video showing alternative approaches to modifying this same behavior. Our videos have already been posted online and we are ever more intent on sharing alternative solutions to these punitive and painful techniques.
Using aversives, force and coercion can work… but they are not without their consequences. This is the message we are sharing and will continue to share on social media.
What happens when the pig breeder’s mother tries using her hand to pet this same pig? Will the pig generalize the jab to all hands and all people? What happens when a child comes into the house to pet the pig? What happens when the grandfather comes over to walk by the pig while he is resting after the caretakers have been using the Move The Pig “technique?”
Pigs are strong. Pigs are very fast and can outrun many dogs. Pigs are also prey animals and often have to rely on increased aggression to protect themselves.
Signs of Fear
Almost all aggressive behaviors I have seen in pigs have started out with the pig defending himself from humans or another animals.
The signs of fear are subtle and the aggression that follows is preventable.
Signs of fear include freezing, the tail stops wagging, the ears move forward to listen, the hair stands up on the back of the neck, a distinctive squeal, and the pig turns to look from his side.
But these signals can indicate more than fear. Once that human or other animal reacts to a lunge by jumping back, the pig has learned this behavior works and that it serves its purpose. If that lunge did not bring as successful a result as the pig intended, maybe a bigger more forceful lunge will do the trick next time.
Educational Juliana Pig
Milo is the educational Juliana pig we work with at my training center. He is featured in many videos on the aforementioned Facebook pages showing how to get a rock solid recall as an alternative to MTP.
We let Milo show other pig owners how a station (teaching an animal to target to an area and not move until cued to do otherwise) can become very reliable and bring desirable results as an alternative to jabbing the animal in the back of the ear or punching him on the nose.
In our videos we also show any mistakes we make in our training sessions and what we do to counterbalance the experience. Encouragingly, the viewers have so far provided extremely positive feedback to this. In this way, we will keep spreading the word and educate current and future pet pig owners about force-free training methods.
This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, pp.19-20.
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About the Author
Lara Joseph is the owner of The Animal Behavior Center LLC, in Lambertville, Michigan. She is also the Director of Avian Training for a wildlife rehabilitation center where she focuses on removing stress from animal environments. Lara is a professional member of The Animal Behavior Management Alliance and The International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators.