How I Used Pigs to Teach People About Training Dogs

How is a pig like a Border Collie? Casey Lomonaco answers the riddle at the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants conference in Rhode Island, and recaps the event for our readers!


My friend and colleague Katenna Jones, director of education for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), recently asked me to come to the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) conference in Rhode Island and teach Treibball to rescued potbellied pigs. Now, I am not a pig trainer, and these pigs were not clicker-savvy or trained, so I thought about saying, “Sorry, NO WAY.” But instead I said, “Let’s do it!”

While I’m a seasoned conference-goer, this was my first IAABC conference, so I hit the road bright and early, a bundle of excitement and nerves. I was looking forward to presentations from some of the best behaviorists, veterinary behaviorists, and behavior consultants in the business, including Dr. Sophia Yin, Dr. Susan Friedman, Barbara Handelman, Brenda Aloff, Irene Pepperberg, Emma Parsons, and Julie Robitaille. Unlike APDT, IAABC has divisions focused on training a variety of species — mainly horses, cats, dogs, and parrots. These people understand that the laws of learning transcend species boundaries, and that with a little tweaking, the same techniques you use to train your dog can be used to train any animal capable of learning.

When I received my swag bag at registration, I looked over the conference agenda and immediately felt there was a significant chance of dying and/or passing out on the spot. I was so nervous at the thought of presenting alongside many individuals who can rightly be credited for making me the trainer I am today. These people are my training heroes! It was a little overwhelming — and more than a little exciting — to be surrounded by so much knowledge and talent.

The next day, I met the first of my students at the trade show: Ariel, a 35-pound pot-bellied pig. Since she was immediately sociable and exceptionally curious, I introduced myself with a clicker and a handful of unflavored popcorn. Quick as a whip, Ariel was targeting my hand with her snout. The sounds she made while eating immediately reminded me of my Saint Bernard, making me feel right at home.

We had a lot of fun together in this short training session, but I didn’t want to monopolize her time — Ariel had legions of people vying for the opportunity to share popcorn and scratch her, and I didn’t want to keep a young celebrity from the crowd of quickly gathering fans. I knew we’d have more time together later, but it was funny to see Ariel come up to me, hopeful with a wagging curly tail, each time I passed the Potbelly Manor trade show booth, as if to say, “Hey, I remember you! When can we play that game again?” With a smile and a treat, I promised her, “Soon!”

While we’d originally planned to work with three pigs, one of them unfortunately became ill the week before the conference. I asked about my other learner, Olive, and learned that she was significantly bigger than Ariel, at more than 200 pounds. We would meet on Sunday, the last day of the conference, during the hands-on training portion, which featured “positive training” techniques like clicker training, classical conditioning, counterconditioning, and desensitization for species including tortoises, armadillos, crabs, and rescued bunny rabbits.

I was a little nervous as I set up the room for the animals, but upon meeting Olive, I realized that I loved her every bit as much as Ariel — she was bright, curious, and certainly willing to do just about anything it took for some yummy treats (we had Cheerios, carrots, grape tomatoes, grapes, animal crackers, and piggy kibble to work with). She soon settled in nicely. I’d asked Katenna to bring a few old towels and blankets; we hid treats under them so the pigs could have a nice foraging outlet while we humans chatted.

I quickly went through my PowerPoint presentation, which began with a few confessions:

  • I’m not a pig trainer
  • I’m awful at PowerPoint
  • This presentation isn’t actually about Treibball

Once I’d gotten those formalities out of the way, I told my audience I’d understand if they left. Most of them laughed, but they all stayed.

Video of PotbellyTreiball courtesy of Eric Goebelbecker of Dog Spelled Forward

Because I only had about forty minutes to work with Ariel and Olive and because they were not clicker-savvy, there wasn’t enough time to turn them into the IAABC version of Babe. Perhaps calling it Treibball was false advertising — in the time we had, I took a different angle on the topic, that play and providing outlets for natural behaviors (foraging in pigs, herding in Border Collies) reduces stress, makes animals more adoptable, and helps them stay in their homes. Play also facilitates social bonding, and is an indicator of an animal’s comfort level in his or her environment. If you have a pet who doesn’t like to play, you can train play as a behavior! People who play with their animals regularly will rarely seek new homes for them.

The key concept in my seminar was this:

Unemployment + Unnatural Environment = “Victims of the System”

Barbara Handelman, head of the IAABC’s horse division, addressed the same point in a lecture earlier that day, where she discussed the highly unnatural environments horses live in and the physical, mental, and emotional side effects. She also recommended mental stimulation, enrichment, and enhanced social contact as possible solutions.

“Pet” animals of many species are thrown into unnatural environments without healthy outlets for natural drives, and then are deemed “bad” and rehomed when they are driven to destruction or behavior problems due to boredom, understimulation, frustration, or depression. What we think of as “bad” behaviors for dogs — or pigs — are most often normal behaviors, and are in no way problematic to the animal engaging in them. (I discussed this in much more depth in “The Myth of Normal Dogs” a couple of years ago, which may well be my most popular Dogster post ever.)

Giving animals a job that is important to them, and realizing that animals have passions and preferences, is critical to helping them stay in homes. You need to replicate, as much as possible, the opportunities they’d seek in their natural environment, to help home actually feel like “home.” Providing appropriate play opportunities allows your pets the opportunity to abandon themselves to joy!

By the end of the training session, Ariel and Olive were pushing popcorn tins around their enclosures with abandon, playing with some dog toys you all may recognize (Kibble Nibbles, Kong Wobblers, Nina Ottosson DogTornado, etc.). My hubby even drilled holes in the popcorn tins so Ariel and Olive could go home with them and use them as food-dispensing and foraging toys.

Do you live with or train species other than dogs? If so, how do you provide acceptable outlets for natural behaviors? Tell me all about it in the comments.

Until then, as always, happy training!

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