When we talk about dominance aggression in pigs, there is often a combination of traits that seem to lend to this description easily. These pigs usually seem confident and will actively approach people, only to charge, snap or bite at the last moment. It's easy to assume this type of pig must be dominant, because a fearful pig certainly wouldn't actively approach a person, would it? Well, probably not. But what about a conflicted pig?
Let's say I'm a new pig parent. I've done my homework and have read that pigs, because they are herd animals, often try to become dominant towards people or other pets too. I've been told, too, that in order to avoid this problem, I need to be 'top-pig' in our relationship, and so should randomly show dominance or make him move out of my way.
Because I want to do my best to be a good pig-parent, I start utilizing these techniques - maybe even before I see any signs of bad behavior. That should allow me to build a strong relationship with my pig right from the start, right? So why do so many pig-parents who utilize these dominance-based techniques have so many instances of aggression develop in their pets? Perhaps they aren't 'good enough' or 'convincing enough' as top pig? Consider though, that often even success with these techniques means a never-ending cycle of needing to 'show' the pig every now and again who is boss. After all - if we assume that it's just in a pig's nature to try to become dominant towards people; indeed, we WILL need to spend a lifetime occasionally battling the pig for dominance.
...and why, then, do many people who have never used dominance-based techniques have perfectly lovely pigs who don't bite or charge or exhibit other unwanted behaviors? Did these folks just get lucky? Or is there another explanation for it?
First - Let me state plainly: Using dominance-based techniques doesn't make someone a bad pig parent, and it certainly may work for some. Pigs are difficult, smart, and challenging and there is no one right way to parent (whether it's pigs, dogs, kids or anything else for that matter!). We are all just trying our best to keep our porcine-friends happy and healthy. And none of us bring a pig into the house unless we genuinely love them and enjoy their company. But therein lies the key to perhaps understanding why unwanted aggression is so often labeled as 'dominance' when in fact, I believe it is often conflict- related aggression instead. After all, it's very easy to see how these behaviors could seem dominant. If pig actually approaches you and then bites, he's obviously not fearful, right? Perhaps, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the pig is displaying dominance-aggression either.
In the typical house-hold where dominance-based behavior modification techniques are utilized, and where aggression develops (either before or after these techniques are employed), I tend to see this type of scenario:
-Pig loves his owners, as pigs do- we all know that pigs form very strong bonds with their people. Pig loves to have people give him belly-rubs and learns to approach them for treats, food and affection. Pig being a pig though... he does still get into mischief. And many of us are accidentally inconsistent with training. Maybe sometimes begging is ignored or punished, and maybe sometimes it earns a (dropped) treat.
-Once Pig starts misbehaving, his owners often double-down on showing dominance or maybe just begin utilizing dominance-based techniques or punishments to try to stop pig from getting into trouble. They randomly move the pig around, perhaps even barking at him, stomping their feet randomly, etc, if he doesn't move immediately when they want him to; or swat him on the nose or yell at him when he is misbehaving. So now for the pig, laying in bed may either earn him a belly rub or it may mean getting randomly kicked out of said bed.
So... how does pig know at any given time whether you're *nice-person who wants to give him a belly rub* versus *unpredictable-person who is chasing him out of his bed*?
Pig still VERY MUCH loves his people. He's just very conflicted. He approaches you because he likes you, wants a belly rub, etc (or maybe because he's been inadvertently taught that begging equals treats)... but because he is conflicted and confused about what type of treatment may be coming his way - he reflexively bites or snaps once he gets to you- just in case you were going to do something he deems unpleasant like show dominance or punish him instead of giving him affection or treats.
We have seen this with many pigs, but one particular long-term resident here comes to mind: The pig in question was surrendered because he was large and INCREDIBLY aggressive. He had bitten multiple people and drawn blood. He is ALSO incredibly outgoing and is the first one to run up to new people. These two behaviors combined seem to shout 'dominant', right? A very large, confident pig who runs up to people and then bites and snaps?
Well, in his case - he's actually not 'dominant' at all towards people. He just LOVES people. He was well socialized as a piglet. But he was also spoiled rotten and started biting when he wasn't getting his way. Once the previous owners started using dominance- based techniques, he became uncontrollable and dangerous. But because at one time, he had positive relationships with people, he still actively sought people out. However, once he reached them, his brain would start screaming something like, "wait! stop! They're going to do something unpleasant!" and then he would lash out, just in case...
Many years later- he is a dream. He doesn't receive any aversive measures here (he also isn't spoiled! Remember, PREVENT problem behaviors first!). He doesn't bite, charge or snap at people, and hasn't for many years, despite us not using dominance-based training methods. If he was truly 'dominant', we wouldn't have just been able to stop using dominance-based training methods.
But he, like many pigs, wasn't trying to be dominant... he was just conflicted.
Of course, once a pig has started biting or showing other signs of serious aggression, it's not so simple to resolve. In this particular case, it included significant outdoor time & mental stimulation, a very structured routine including NO accidental reinforcement of these unwanted behaviors (not through the use of punishment, but rather through modifying the environment so that the pig didn't have access to things that caused the problems, like being underfoot while people were eating... and actually in the beginning, he was kept away from all people except for very controlled interactions so that he couldn't practice those unwanted behaviors), and counter-conditioning new, appropriate responses to people along with being VERY consistent in never using aversives or punishment. This pig needed leadership, for sure - but he also needed to learn that he could CONSISTENTLY trust that any interactions with people would be positive or neutral. The appeal of dominance-based methods is that they are *fast*; show dominance and the bad behavior will stop, often very quickly. Unfortunately, from my experience, in actuality, it's a very short-term solution and the aggression almost always comes back even more severely down the road.
Inconsistant interactions with our porcine friends often lead to inconsistent behaviors from the pigs themselves. Pigs thrive on consistency, both in routine and in their expectations of how people behave toward them. A well-mannered pig is often simply the manifestation of a combination of a consistent routine, the prevention of unwanted behaviors before they happen, and a firm understanding of expectations - both of the behaviors expected of the pig, as well as the behaviors that the pig can expect from his humans.