Often a simple reason why an earn-everything program fails is that we don’t fully grasp the depth of the program. The point of earning everything is that the pig must earn everything in order to learn self-control. We tend to think that pigs only need to earn food. While that may be one of the strongest motivators for a pig, there are certainly other things that a pig might want, like getting let out of a crate, going outside, coming inside, and getting affection from his owners. For a pig to truly learn to exhibit good behavior all the time, we must insist on good behavior before giving the pig ANYTHING that he wants.
Frequently, accidental reinforcers come into play too… we might consistently demand a behavior when we intentionally give treats or to let the pig outside, but maybe the pig is still sneaking into the dog food sometimes, stealing treats or somehow receiving other accidental reinforcers of unwanted behaviors that undercut our efforts to reinforce good behaviors. If Pig learns that he can get things occasionally by being sneaky or pushy, Pig will learn to be sneaky or pushy. Once we realize this though, these are generally easily correctable mistakes with a learn-to-earn program. So why do we still see such rates of failures with these programs?
Less obvious, and more interesting, is that sometimes we may fail to recognize the total behavior pattern... we not only fail to replace a behavior, but we inadvertently reinforce over-excited, anxious behaviors as well. Let’s say I am having trouble with my pig; he nips, jumps and whines to try and get food from me. I realize that I have accidentally been rewarding these unwanted behaviors and so I decide to correct the problem. I’ve gone online, read that the solution is to make Wilbur do a trick, and now I’ve taught Wilbur to ‘spin’ for his dinner. Dinnertime comes around and Wilbur is whining, nosing at my legs, and maybe even jumping on me while I’m preparing his meal. I ask him to spin, he does it quickly and so I think that I can give him his meal. The problem is that the ‘trick’ hasn’t taught Wilbur how to behave; to him, the way to get a meal now simply has several steps and goes like this— 1)-whine frantically, 2)- jump up, and 3)- spin! He has simply tacked on spin to the end of his mealtime shenanigans—I am left frustrated – and he doesn’t understand that what I actually wanted to do was to REPLACE the bad behavior. Especially if the pig already has a lot of bad habits, just teaching him a simple trick will not eliminate behavioral issues, nor will it automatically teach him to be calm and well mannered. Many of us have, or have seen, pigs that frantically run up and go through a frenzied routine of tricks (often over, and over, and over…), hoping that one might lead to a reward. These pigs might have learned to perform tricks to earn their meals, but that doesn’t mean they understand that what we actually want is calm, composed behavior.
This problem tends to lie in our inherent perception of what a ‘trick’ is. When we think of teaching an animal a ‘trick’, we almost always think of something like a parlor trick - sitting, shaking hooves, or spinning in a circle. Especially with pigs, more often, what we actually WANT to train is calm, well-mannered behavior. We might not equate lying calmly in a bed with performing a trick—but for our purposes, there is often no better ‘trick’ behavior to teach a pig in order for him to earn a meal. The specific trick is not the point of a learn to earn program, self-control is!
Compound that with the fact that many pigs display anxious behaviors due to other factors that must be simultaneously addressed, and you can understand why learn-to-earn programs so frequently fail.
Teaching a pig to earn everything that he wants can be a valuable tool for pig parents- however, it can take a significant amount of time and careful planning to actually successfully change behaviors, and an earn-everything program is only a part of the puzzle to successfully managing a pet pig. In order to have the best chance at success, we must first understand why earning everything so frequently fails.