The Porcine Phenomenon

May 11, 2021 | Animal Behavior, BARKS from the Guild, Training

By Lara Joseph

pig station training

Milo stationing: Pigs are intelligent animals who learn new things very quickly © Lara Joseph

As we all know, animals are fascinating, especially when it comes to their ability to learn and their individuality. I am attracted to intelligent animals who learn quickly and are able to change their behavior to get a new outcome, for example, the pig, the vulture, the parrot and the octopus.

I train many animals and am often asked to train pigs. The rate at which a young, healthy pig who lives in an enriched environment can learn often stuns people, including the professional trainer. This rate of learning coupled with his ability to manipulate his environment is also what contributes to problem behaviors in a bored pig.

It can be very difficult for intelligent animals to live in captivity and in close quarters with humans and an environment providing mental and physical stimulation is necessary to make it easier. This is known as an enriched environment. I have worked with several different shelter animals who have lived unenriched lives and, in my experience, pigs seem to rebound quicker from this than other species.

Milo is a Juliana pig. I have been training him since he was about 2 months old. He is now 8 months old and fascinates me on a daily basis. Because I have been training him from such a young age, he is used to learning and having his behaviors shaped. He has a solid recall. I can wait for him to be distracted before cuing him to come and he will turn and run to me as quickly as his little hooves can take him (see video of Milo demonstrating his recall skills).

Pig Trick Training

Pigs can be trained to carry out many behaviors that aid in their routine care. They are always food motivated, which is a big help. I have trained them to allow their temperatures to be taken (see Pigs at Work, BARKS from the Guild, January 2015, pp. 21-22). I have also trained them to put their heads into buckets to accept anesthesia (some of my clients have a veterinarian anesthetize their pig before trimming the hooves). Many other husbandry behaviors can be taught, making the pig’s life more stress-free.

Pigs can be trained almost any trick one can teach a dog. Pigs can easily outrun a dog so speed is not a factor. One limitation to keep in mind though is the difference in their physiology; a pig’s body is not a flexible as a dog’s.

I am constantly looking for more tricks to teach to pigs because they learn them so quickly. We have trained Milo in many agility behaviors. At the age of 5 months he attended his first teaching presentation with an audience of 200 people. Soon he will be helping me give a demonstration in front of a crowd of 3,000 people.

With a crowd this large, many behaviors will need to be trained. I know, however, from past experience with him that I can wait until about a week before the event to begin training him to walk through the crowd off-leash, give me a reliable recall, show several behaviors he knows and train a few he does not.

Pigs are excellent candidates to train tricks. They learn quickly and will easily repeat behaviors that result in desired consequences. I have observed that pigs tend to be very visual, so respond better to hand signals than to verbal cues. Training them using hand signals allows me to increase the complexity in their training, thereby providing them with more mental stimulation.

In this video you can see a few different behaviors. Milo has already been trained to do some of these behaviors. A few are new to him. I alternate cuing for the trained and new behaviors. I reinforce him each time he does the behavior I want because some are new and also because I was videoing this sequence. The bucket has a strong history of positive reinforcement. Because of this, he often returns to it.

You will see that I quickly decide to ask him to come to me on cue before he has the opportunity to return to his bucket. His carpet square also has a strong history of reinforcement. After coming to me on cue, you will see him quickly look at the carpet square when I ask him to return to the bucket but he goes to the bucket as cued. Good boy, Milo!

Training a Pig to Walk on a Leash

Milo has little experience walking on the leash and two of the times, in his recent past, he has had unforeseen, negative experiences when doing so. I have recently begun leash training again because we will be going out more now that winter has come to an end. Milo walks well with me without a leash but in order to safely walk in crowded places I need him to walk on the leash.

This video shows my second leash training session with him since his negative experiences. You will see me conditioning Milo to accept the leash. I am delivering high rates of reinforcement because I am counterconditioning his emotional response to the leash, which has been inadvertently conditioned to elicit a negative emotional response.

You will see I am delivering the reinforcer and then holding it back near my body. As training continues, you will see me fading out this behavior. You will also see me adding tension to the leash and reinforcing Milo for not pulling away from the tension (pigs tend to not like restriction, confinement or being picked up).

Milo has a strong history of being reinforced for walking right behind me when he is off-leash. With the last leash training session I conditioned him to walk next to me on a leash instead of behind me. I modified this behavior by placing a target stick in front of him and using the word “good” as a conditioned reinforcer (also called a bridge or marker) when his body position was in a heeling position. In this video, you will see me begin to fade out the target stick.

I really enjoy training pigs because of their wit and their eagerness to learn. I also feel a responsibility to present a delicate balance to audiences. While I want to impress them with the intelligence of pigs, I need them to be aware that these behaviors were taught by an experienced trainer. I always make sure they know about a pig’s need for an enriched environment and proper handling.

Pigs are prey animals; prey animals have an unconditioned flight behavior when startled. This is often misinterpreted and inappropriately explained using anthropomorphic reasoning. Pigs are often labeled neurotic or phobic. Neither is appropriate. They just need to be handled calmly and consistently and made to feel safe.

In this video, you will see me training Milo to remain still (not back up or look back) while I am taking off the leash. With more training sessions I will no longer keep my hand up in the air. Remember, Milo has had two very negative experiences with being on a leash. In one a dog chased him and in the other a truck came at us in way that felt threatening to him.

The trusting relationship I have built with Milo is the ultimate affirmation of force-free training. Experiencing this kind of connection with an animal is what makes pets such a treasured part of a family. Force-free training is what enables this connection.

I end this article with one final video of how Milo normally walks with me. I trained him to focus primarily on me. I did this for his safety. Pigs are an unusual pet. People want to touch, pet, hold and interact with Milo when they see him. Since he, like all pigs, is a prey animal, these encounters can quickly become unpleasant to him. He may even resort to aggression to escape the encounter.

I make sure to share these concerns with the public, who are often so awe-struck by Milo’s well-trained behaviors that they do not think about his needs. In addition to ensuring that outings are a reinforcing experience for Milo, this educates people about pigs. My hope is that this will make it more likely they will seek advice should they ever decide to have a pig as a pet.

Joseph, L. (2015, January). Pigs at Work. BARKS from the Guild, pp. 21-22
Video Milo Recalling
Video Milo Training Session
Video Milo Leash Training
Video Milo Heel Training
Video Milo End of Leash Training
Video Milo Goes for a Walk

This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp.24-26. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.

About the Author
Lara Joseph is the owner of The Animal Behavior Center, an international, educational center in Sylvania, Ohio focusing on teaching people how to live, love, and work with animals using positive reinforcement and approaches in Applied Behavior Analysis. She is a professional animal behavior consultant and trainer with a focus on exotics and travels internationally giving workshops, lectures, and provides online, live-streaming learning programs on behavior, training, and enrichment. Her focus is on behavior and training with all species of animals whether in the home, shelter, zoo, or educational ambassador.

She sits on the advisory board for All Species Consulting, The Indonesian Parrot Project, Collaboration for Avian Welfare, and is the director of animal training for Nature’s Nursery, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Whitehouse, Ohio. She is also the founder of several animal organizations for animal welfare and has much experience working with special needs animals.

She is a published author and writes regularly for several periodicals and also blogs for Deaf Dogs Rock. She has also been asked to co-author and is currently working on an international manual of animal behavior and training. She is a guest lecturer in Zoo Biology; Animal Nutrition, Behavior and Diagnostics taught by Dr. Jason Crean at St. Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois.