A common problem that pig owners face is a pig that becomes defensive – barking, lunging and perhaps snapping. It can occur in a variety of situations, but frequently happens when a pig is lying in his bed, so for now, let’s consider that scenario. Let’s remember too that any behavior that is being repeated is a behavior that is (somehow) being reinforced.
“But” you say, “I certainly don’t reinforce this behavior!”
Is it happening repeatedly? Yes?
“But” owner A says, “I don’t give the pig treats for that behavior!” …
“But” owner B says, “I punish him so he knows he shouldn’t do that!” …
“But” owner C says, “I simply ignore it!” …
Surely ONE of those actions should stop the behavior, shouldn’t it? How is it possibly being reinforced with such different responses from each of these owners?
Stay with me… first let’s throw out our human-centric definition of reinforcement. Now let’s head back to Animals 101: Survival Adaptations. Defensive strategies to be exact.
Defensive strategies are just that: behavioral adaptations that keep an animal alive. They can be numerous and varied: there are many different strategies that an animal might use depending upon a variety of factors. One such defensive strategy that is fairly common is actually a two-step plan, of sorts. First, the animal bluffs to try and fend off the attacker: with pigs, this starts as barking, grumbling and charging. The pig might puff up his mohawk, hold his ears out forward, stand with stiff legs, chomp his teeth, etc. He’s trying to look big and bad… “I’m not worth the effort, go find something else to eat!” If that fails to get rid of the threat, at this point, the pig has to make a decision – he will either stand his ground, and try to fight the offender, or he will flee. The end goal is the same for either strategy: SURVIVAL. For now though, we don’t actually care WHAT strategy the pig utilizes. What we do care about is the WHY. Defensive strategies are crucial to an animals’ survival. If a pig feels under threat and resorts to defending itself, the only thing we need to ask ourselves to determine if the behavior was reinforced is this:
Did the pig survive?
I know, I know… it all seems a little, well, dramatic. Of course we know our pet pig isn’t in any danger when he’s lying in his bed. That doesn’t mean he does, though. When an animal, especially a prey animal, feels threatened and resorts to defensive behaviors, instinctually, that animal is fighting for his very existence. Defensive behaviors are incredibly powerful because they serve the most basic function: to keep an animal alive.
Pig is in his bed sleeping. I hear the phone ring and walk by the bed quickly, and Pig startles awake: he barks out of fear. Well, I’m just answering the phone, so I just keep walking, ignoring Pig, and go about my business. I might say to myself, “Well, Pig was scared, but by ignoring that behavior, Pig will see that I’m no threat, so the behavior will stop”. Maybe not though: In Pig’s mind, his BARKING coincided with my leaving his area, therefore, I have just reinforced that behavior. He employed a defensive strategy when he was startled, and he survived. Pig: 1 – Scary thing: 0
(This is similar to a dog that barks defensively at the mailman… it gets reinforced because the mailman comes to the house, the dog barks, and the mailman leaves. The dog goes, "YES! I scared him off!" The dog gets a nice dose of reinforcement every. single. day because the mailman always comes to the door and ALWAYS leaves).
How about this instead:
Pig is sleeping in his bed. I go to sit down with him to give him some affection. He startles and snaps at me. I go, “what a jerk pig! I was just trying to pet you!” So I punish him by confronting him until he moves away from me and backs down. I win, right? The pig will realize his bad behavior got him punished, wont he? Well, not exactly. In Pig’s mind, he just utilized a different strategy, flight, when he realized he couldn’t win the confrontation. Though the defensive strategy is different, the purpose is the same: to survive.
Pig: 1 – Scary thing: 0
In EITHER situation, the reinforcement isn’t something external, like a food reward. The reinforcement is the pig’s continued existence. These defensive behaviors become deep-seated and difficult to extinguish, because anytime he feels threatened and resorts to these behaviors and lives to tell the tale, he is receiving reinforcement of said behaviors.
Is it hopeless then? How on earth do we sort behavioral problems like these where reinforcement is something like survival? Well, first, again, let me say that problem behaviors are complex and no two situations are the same. A behaviorist or trainer can be invaluable in helping to determine the triggers and to develop a plan of action. Counter-conditioning and desensitization might be helpful. Teaching alternative behaviors that are incompatible with the unwanted behaviors may also be an important part of solving the problem. A primary goal with any behavior modification plan though, is generally to prevent the behaviors from happening so they aren’t being reinforced. If I have a pig that snaps when I am five feet away from him, then even before I decide HOW to fix the problem, I first make sure I stay SIX feet away. That way Pig doesn’t get a chance to practice those unwanted behaviors so that they aren’t accidentally being reinforced. Then I can go about developing a plan to actually work through the problems. But an important first step is always prevention.
If a behavior is rooted in fear (which is often the case with prey animals like pigs), then figuring out what reinforces that behavior can be elusive. It behooves us to understand the critical role that defensive strategies play in a species’ evolution, and why these adaptations are so strong. These adaptive responses don’t just disappear simply because we bring a pig into our home and provide food, shelter and a warm bed. The sooner we understand these types of problem behaviors, the sooner we can find a way to resolve them.