Train a Pig? You Can — And You Should!
Believe it or not, pigs can benefit tremendously from training. Training can help channel a pig’s natural behaviors into acceptable outlets and teach behaviors that can make everyday life simple for the pig and his people.
“Training a pig is very similar to training a dog,” says exotic animal specialist Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM. “They’re so smart that if you give them the time, they can really learn just about anything.”
Left to their own devices, though, pigs can be challenging and destructive to live with — which is why training is so important.
Pigs Are… Well, Pigs
Dr. Hess advises providing structure and reward-based training from the start. Older pigs can learn new tricks, but ideally, training should begin when your pet is a piglet.
“I can’t tell you how many times pigs come into their vet appointments dressed in bonnets and riding in strollers,” she says. But, she cautions, it’s important to resist the urge to treat a piglet like a baby. “They don’t stay a cute seven pounds forever. They change very quickly and get big fast!”
Teaching your pig simple behaviors becomes especially important when your pint-sized piglet has grown into a full-sized porker. “Before getting a pig, it’s important you know what you’re getting into,” Hess advises. Pig owners need to be prepared for the pig to be “very strong, very loud and potentially very destructive.” She recalls pig owners who were at risk for eviction after noise complaints from neighbors or who were dealing with damaged carpets and woodwork inside their homes.
“They’re the right pets in the right circumstances if you have enough space and time,” Hess says. “But they can’t be left alone in the house for a few hours without entertainment, as a cat might be.”
Pig owners will need to give their pets ways to channel instinctive behaviors in constructive and acceptable ways.
“Pigs love to root and dig,” Hess says. “Without a space to do it in, they’ll dig up your floor. Kiddie swimming pools filled with paper bags, blankets and stones (larger than the pig’s mouth so that they can’t be swallowed) let the pig do what they like to do in a way that works in the home.” Food puzzles, such as a ball the pig can roll around with his snout, can also help to create a more natural foraging opportunity.
What to Teach Your Pig
The idea of training a pig may seem daunting, but Hess says it’s very much like training a dog. “They’re just as smart — if not sometimes smarter — than dogs.” A pig can learn many of the same things a dog can, including sit, stay and come when called. Many pigs can also master tricks like spin or play dead.
But just like with dogs, pig training is more than just teaching tricks. Among the most important thing a pig can learn is to walk politely on a harness and leash. “It’s not necessarily an innate behavior for a pig to know how to walk on a leash,” Hess says. “You have to teach them.” Walks are an important way pigs receive needed exercise and enrichment. Walks also help to maintain hoof health by naturally wearing down hooves.
Training is also a useful way to prepare your pig to be handled, which is important for grooming and veterinary care. Early training can accustom a pig to procedures like hoof trimming and veterinary exams. Pairing different types of handling (like touches and lifts of the hoof) with treats increases the likelihood of having a calmer, more cooperative pig during procedures.
How to Train Your Pig
Training a pig is far less complicated than might be expected. Like other animals, pigs learn best with positive-reinforcement training. For anyone who has trained a dog using treats, pig training is a relatively easy transition. A clicker or verbal cue, like “yes,” can be used to mark desired behavior. Follow the click or cue with a treat to reinforce the desired behavior.
“Food is an important training reward for pigs, but they do tend to get fat,” Hess cautions. She recommends using small pieces of veggies or fruit as rewards. Reserving these special treats specifically for training can help to increase the pig’s motivation. But keep servings small: A little piece of carrot or apple goes a long way.
Non-food rewards can also be used. “Petting and praise are big rewards for many pigs,” Hess says, “especially if it’s done on favorite scratching spots like on the head around their ears. If a pig has favorite toys, like a ball or ring toys, these can also be saved to use as rewards in training.”
The key to getting training buy-in from a pig is making the training high-value in the pig’s eyes.
“Training has to be made worth the pig’s while or chances are slim they’ll do it. Pigs are notoriously stubborn — very stubborn,” Hess adds. “They’ll train if they’re interested. You really have to make training worth it for them to want to do it.”
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