Case Study #1
Behavioral History: Snaps, jumps, pushy & mouthy around people. Not fearful. Outgoing, assertive (scroll down for video).
Sprinkles is a 6-month old, 40 lb mini-pig. She is confident and outgoing towards people, however, she jumps, bites and nips. She was overweight and was being given a fair amount of people food (trail mix bars, sweetened cereal, etc) in addition to pig food. She clearly has 'spoiled-pig-syndrome', in that she thinks people are automatic food dispensers and has not learned proper boundaries and appropriate manners. She was obviously rewarded in the past (likely accidentally) with treats or attention when jumping or grabbing food out of hands.
Fortunately, while she has a lot of inappropriate behaviors, her owners never tried to correct them using aversive techniques like making her move, dominating her, or pushing her away (keep in mind, I truly believe there is NOTHING more damaging to a pig than pushing, making them move or dominating over them- I know many people will disagree with me!). With an assertive, outgoing pig that hasn't received positive punishment, I think retraining is a lot easier. She already associates people with food, is outgoing and isn’t fearful. Counter-conditioning a pig that has received positive punishment and has learned people are unpredictable (and pushy, scary and rude in the pig’s mind) is much more complicated.
Back to Miss Sprinkles. This is video taken over the course of 4 days, documenting how I use reward-based training methods instead of dominance theory, to work with pigs (Please note that I prefer NOT TALKING during initial training sessions. I think it just muddles the process and gives a false sense of accomplishment. The pig isn’t listening to me anyway- they’re watching my body language. So I stay quiet and focused, wait for the right behavior and reward immediately with treats. No talking at all!). So, if you look at the beginning of the video, you can see she has terrible manners. She jumps, noses way too hard (I actually had bruises on my legs- hence the boots!), snaps and is really mouthy (well, bitey, if we’re being honest!) when you put your hands near her face. I first need to decide her emotional state, in order to then figure out a plan of action. Is she trying to be dominant? Does she want to be top pig? Is she fearful and reactive? Doubtful on all counts. She is clearly excited to be around people (this is GREAT! We don’t want to suppress or discourage her outgoing personality!), but has definitely had these bad behaviors reinforced in the the past, either with food or attention. I believe that the WORST thing we can do is to use any kind of force or punishment with her. This no-no list INCLUDES shoving or physically pushing her down when she jumps, pushing her away when she noses too hard, swatting her nose or grabbing her snout when she snaps or bites, or using loud commands like ‘NO!’ (Please remember that pigs have incredible intelligence and are very curious! While humans explore and learn by touching, pigs use their snouts and mouths to explore. A pushy or mouthy piglet is often just curious or has received reinforcement of some sort that the behavior is acceptable—however, once I respond with punishment, it can turn into aggression). While I want to teach her that being mouthy or pushy isn’t appropriate, I want to do it in a positive way!
But don’t I need to correct her when she does something wrong? Yes and no. First, when we think of ‘correcting’ a bad behavior, we usually think of positive punishment (adding an aversive, like pushing the pig off, using a loud ‘NO!’,etc); more effective, and less damaging to the pig, is to use negative punishment (please review the Training and Behavior Basics page for an overview of operant conditioning)- that is, I will remove the reward in order to discourage the bad behavior. Before I get to that though, I want to instead focus on telling her when she’s doing something right. Pigs are smart, but they aren’t mind readers and they don’t inherently know the proper way to interact with people—if I am only focused on scolding them, they wont ever learn what they SHOULD do, and will end up terribly confused and frustrated. So using both treats and positive praise and petting, I will reinforce when Sprinkles is behaving in an appropriate manner (either sitting or standing politely), and when she does something wrong, I IMMEDIATELY stand up, freeze like a statue, and withhold ALL interaction (this includes talking!!). Eventually (actually very quickly), she gets the idea that jumping, biting, and other rude behaviors don’t get her anything that she wants, while sitting or standing politely get her treats and affection. I cannot emphasize enough that timing is everything and I must be 100% consistent. If, even only once out of every 10 times she jumps, I interact with her in some way (even just talking or physically pushing her down) she will learn that doing these behaviors DOES get her some form of attention (good or bad) and she will try again (more on variable reinforcement later).
So this video was taken over 4 days -- I did two 10-minute sessions per day, one session using treats as reinforcement and one session just using physical affection as reinforcement per day (Be aware that pigs live for food, and should learn early on that not every interaction with people will equal food! So I like to vary what reinforcer I use. However, because food is the most valuable reinforcer to a pig, I use this liberally when I am initially establishing basic behaviors). You can see that very quickly, she stops jumping, and within just a few days, I am actually able to handle her snout and put my hand in her mouth without her responding inappropriately. Also note her body language and behavior- she is not fearful or wary of me, and she is calm and relaxed, with a clear understanding of what behaviors equal rewards. Remember that I get the behaviors that I reward, so I am liberal in my rewards with good behaviors and am diligent in avoiding rewarding unwanted behaviors (even accidentally)!
Keep in mind this only works if I am 100% consistent. Learning theory tells us that whether we intend to or not, behaviors that are rewarded are behaviors that are repeated. Very often when someone says, "I only use positive reinforcement but my pig still misbehaves" if I look very closely, I will find accidental reinforcers keeping the bad behavior. Do the kids occasionally pet the pig when the pig jumps or pushes? Does a spouse occasionally toss a treat to the pig when the pig screams? If I am trying to give a pig a treat and he nips my hand accidentally, do I toss the treat on the floor so he leaves me alone? These actions all reinforce unwanted behaviors (A topic I will be discussing at length in the future is variable rate reinforcement and why it such a strong motivator for behaviors).
Training occurs at EVERY interaction, even outside of formal training sessions. If I insist on a behavior during training, but then occasionally reward without demanding that behavior at other times, I will have problems. This is one of the many reasons why I think outdoor pigs have fewer behavior issues- there is less chance for accidental rewards (crumbs dropped in the kitchen, sneaking dog food that's been left out, getting into the garbage, etc).
Imagine now that instead of positive reinforcement (treats and affection for wanted behaviors) and negative punishment (withholding treats and affection for unwanted behaviors), I used dominance theory or positive punishment with Sprinkles… Sure, she might learn that she shouldn’t jump or bite, but she will learn that it’s because bad things happen, she would likely become wary of people (and possibly fear-reactive and aggressive eventually), and we would undoubtedly suppress her delightful, outgoing personality. If for no other reason, it is much more enjoyable to have a pig that enjoys my company and not have them think of me as an unpredictable bully!
*Once again, please keep in mind… pigs are STRONG and can be dangerous. Some of the methods shown, like holding my hand intentionally in front of her snout, are only applicable in her specific case. If Sprinkles were any larger or were fear-reactive or aggressive, I would use different methods and start her training sessions through a fence or hog panel first, before progressing to full-contact sessions. Safety first! And as always, if you have a pig that is exhibiting aggression, please contact a certified behaviorist for help.*