I’ve been working with companion pigs for years, and I find them endlessly fascinating. Pigs are still increasing in popularity as household pets after the “mini pig” craze started up about 30 years ago, in part because they make captivating video stars that people love to watch and share on the Internet. Unfortunately, many of the videos well-meaning friends tag me in give me cause for concern. The behaviors I see these pigs practicing are, to my professional eyes, potentially dangerous and indicative of a stressful situation for the pig, and often for the other animals in these videos as well. I’d like to illustrate this with a recent popular video I was tagged in on Facebook:
This entire interaction between the piglet and the American bulldog puppy consists of defensive behaviors on the pig’s part. Coming up on hind legs is something they do when they are fighting each other. The piglet may not be deliberately performing them as defensive behaviors at this young age, but they are nothing a pig does in natural play with other pigs.
The pig’s grab and shake of the puppy is not normal play behavior. Pigs wouldn’t normally do that with each other because they don’t have enough loose skin to grab.
The piglet is getting into a higher state of arousal as the interaction goes on, and you see her shake it off at the end, just as a dog would shake off an uncomfortable interaction.
The puppy may think this is all in fun, but is practicing dangerous behavior with the piglet. As the pig gets bigger, stronger and pushier, bites are going to hurt and probably result in injuries. The dog will have no choice but to tell the pig to back off in a way the pig won’t understand—escalating through showing teeth, to growling, lunging, and eventually biting. If this type of interaction is allowed to continue for a long period of time, the pig will most likely become defensive and then begin a fight for her life, which she will almost certainly lose.
At this point in the interaction, there isn’t any aggression on the pig’s part. However, as a pig behavior consultant I can see that it has the potential to become a disaster. This is because the pig is being allowed to practice behavior like climbing on the little girl, biting her hair, and generally getting pushy and up in the little girl’s face. Once the piglet gets bigger and tries doing these things, they will likely accidentally injure the little girl and then will be told “no” and possibly punished. In my experience, pigs don’t like to be told not to do something they are doing, and most especially something they’ve practiced for a while. The pig is likely to react to a sudden strong verbal interrupter like a yelled “No!” with aggressive behaviors like a head swipe and possibly a lunge or bite.
As a pig behavior consultant, I’d urge all prospective pig parents who see videos like this one to read about pig behavior, health, and welfare. I’d like them to talk to people who own pigs about the challenges they face, and ask them what they wish they’d known before they adopted their porcine family member. And, I’d like them to consult a behavior specialist as soon as they see anything concerning or confusing, before the behavior gets to be a habit for the pig. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned over my years of living and working with companion pigs:
- Socialize, socialize, socialize! And not just going places—personally I want as many people as possible cueing my pig to do things. I want my pig thinking the entire world knows the rules he lives by, so he doesn’t ever try to push people around.
- Teaching a pig impulse control with as many people as possible is vital to prevent behavior problems. Teach them to wait for the reinforcers they want. Impulse control needs to be a way of life for pigs and their human families, so the pig learns not to be pushy—to force themselves into a person’s space—just because someone might let them. Frustration tolerance is another important part of teaching a pig to fit in with a human family. Nobody wants to end up with a pig that screams or bites when they don’t get what they want, so I have clients teach their pigs to wait for reinforcers, and to only reinforce behaviors that are not accompanied by displays of frustration like screaming.
- Pigs can be very territorial. I’ve found that if a pig is allowed to chase even one person out of their house, or up onto a couch or counter, they are much more likely to develop a tendency to try to chase strangers or family members they don’t like.
- My approach to preventing and modifying problem behaviors is to teach alternate behaviors. Differentially reinforcing alternative behaviors to the ones that are causing concern for the pig’s owners is a good strategy because pigs will work for food almost anytime, anyplace. Teaching the pig which behaviors will get them what they want is much more successful than ignoring or attempting to punish inappropriate behaviors. I have found that the latter strategy ends up in a battle of wills more often than not. I’m not saying they can’t be told “no”, or in some way indicate what they are doing is wrong, but that void then needs to be filled with an appropriate behavior.
- Pigs are highly intelligent and creative thinkers. They will try a behavior at a low intensity to see what happens. If they find the behavior rewarding and nothing happens to prevent it, the behavior may increase in intensity, frequency, and duration. That is what most of my clients—and what the pig owners in the video—don’t notice, and it’s what gets them in trouble. I often find clients claim they have no idea where an aggressive, territorial, frustration-based behavior came from, and that it happened totally out of the blue, but as I talk to them they realize that the pig has done smaller versions of the behavior all along, just not often enough, intensely enough, or long enough for the clients to have perceived it as a problem.
Living with pigs and dogs
Many of the most alarming aspects of social media videos involve interactions between pigs and other household pets, particularly dogs. Pigs and dogs can live happily together, but the human family members need to be mindful of the potential for problems and take appropriate precautions. Dogs are predators and pigs are prey; no matter how well they get along in the confines of a house, once in a yard a running pig could easily spur a dog into chase behavior. This would cause the pig to squeal, further intensifying the dog’s hunting instinct. Initial canine-porcine introductions should be done through a fence or ex-pen to see how the dog responds, but also how the pig responds. If the pig is fearful, the last thing you want to do is put them together, because the pig will probably run, provoking the dog to chase. If there is any sign of aggression from the dog, I suggest management with strict supervision of every interaction, a muzzle for the dog, and a counter-conditioning protocol for both pig and dog so they can learn to associate each other’s presence with good things.
This doesn’t mean pigs and dogs can’t get along! My first pig did great with all but one dog he met, and he met a lot of dogs. The one dog he didn’t do well with showed too much interest, so they were kept separate and the dog wasn’t allowed to return to my house. Being prepared to be flexible, to put management in place when necessary, and to recognize when a cute, social media–worthy behavior might become a problem further down the line are all really important skills for pig owners to learn.
Laura has been training pigs and dogs since 1989. After graduating from Moorpark College with a degree in Exotic Animal Training and Management, a family in Santa Monica contacted her about training their pig. He became the first of many, and now she offers in-person and web consults for pigs from all over the world. Laura has also given talks to a local pig club where she covered everything from the basics, like putting on harnesses, to severe aggression. Laura lived with a pig for many years until he passed away, and recently she adopted another pig from a shelter. Follow their adventures on Facebook and Instagram!