Keep in mind that pigs are incredibly curious. They are extremely intelligent animals with an EXTREMELY LIMITING body-shape. They don’t have hands, arms or any other means of investigating like we do. Even dogs and cats have enough mobility in their front legs to reach their face and head. Pigs aren't so lucky... most pigs can, at most (barely), reach their chin with their front hooves. They have poor eyesight and so can’t necessarily rely on vision to investigate things either. What they do have is a snout and mouth. Don’t assume that every snap or bite is aggression-based or because a pig wants to dominate you. Pigs use their mouths and snouts for MANY different behaviors. Using punishment in many instances only makes a pig more nervous and anxious and can lead to significant behavior problems down the road.
Back to that snapping, swiping, biting piglet...
Let’s consider a couple of scenarios:
Scenario A: You’re resting calmly in bed, and you’re almost asleep. You feel something brush against your face. What do you do? Maybe you reach up with your hand to see what it is, or brush it away. You realize it was just a stray hair, and so you brush it away, or ignore it, and go to sleep. No big deal. You investigated, found it was nothing to worry about, and went on with things. The next time you feel this sensation, you just ignore it- you know it’s just a hair, nothing to worry about!
Scenario B: Let’s say piglet is in bed. He is too cute, and you want to pet him while he’s lying there! Who can resist that adorable little baby?! You reach over and touch his face, and he whips his mouth around and swipes at you. WHOA! Why did he do that? Well, remember, piglet doesn’t have hands. He uses his mouth to investigate things. He’s a pig- having a person touch his face while he’s sleeping is NOT something that pigs are born expecting. That’s a new thing for him and he’s curious and maybe a little nervous! If we proceed by gently and slowly desensitizing him to this, he will likely learn that having people touching/petting him is really great and relaxing.
Okay now let’s explore these slightly different scenarios:
It’s scenario A again. You’re calmly resting in bed. You’re almost asleep and you feel something brush against your face. You go to brush it away – well, guess what – it’s a spider, and it bites you as you touch it! YIKES!! It startles you and also hurts! Now you’re nervous and anxious the next time you lay down. How will you react the next time you feel something brushing against your face? Will you assume it’s something benign and ignore it? Probably not… You’ll likely react even more aggressively, jumping up and swatting at it because you are anticipating a negative experience, and are worried you might get hurt again! It's important to note that EVEN IF it isn't a spider next time, you will likely assume that IT COULD BE - one bad experience will change how you react to that sensation for a long while in the future, even if next time it IS only a stray hair brushing your face.
Okay, lets go back to Piglet. Piglet is relaxing in bed. He feels something touch his face, and tries to grab it with his mouth to see what it is. You respond by punishing the “bad” behavior by swatting him on the nose, scolding him, or kicking him out of the bed. Well, now Piglet has learned that something touching his face when he’s in bed, means that something bad is going to happen, much like the spider in the previous scenario. Can you really blame Piglet for preemptively biting more aggressively the next time you try and touch his face? Remember how you reacted after you were bitten by the spider?
My preference for dealing with this behavior is twofold: first, I simply ignore it. If Piglet is doing it because he’s curious, eventually he’ll get used to it and won’t bother investigating. Secondly, I work on generally desensitizing the pig to having his face touched. I start by giving the pig a belly rub, and then working up to the jaw line. Once Piglet is okay with that, then I begin touching the cheek/snout area. I continue to progress (at the pig’s comfort level) to the nose & mouth. It may take only a few sessions or it may take a few weeks. Don’t rush it. It’s important for a pig to accept having his mouth inspected, and having his ears and eyes checked and cleaned, and if he associates those things with pleasant activities like belly rubs and scratches, he’ll be much more willing to allow it. If he expects punishment when people are touching his face, he will react accordingly by being defensive.
Remember that because pigs have such a limiting body and must use their snouts and mouths to do nearly everything, it's incredibly damaging to immediately label any and all biting or swiping behaviors as 'aggression' and/or 'dominance' related. Consider the many other things a pig might be attempting to do when they utilize these behaviors. Responding with punishment may take a perfectly innocent, investigatory bite and turn it into a truly defensive, aggressive bite the next time. Of course, force-free training does NOT equal permissive parenting, and I never allow biting behavior to continue, regardless of the reason. A careful understanding and thoughtful response, rather than a reactionary punishment, can go a long way in building a trust-based, positive relationship between a pig and his human.
Happy pig parenting!