Pigs are highly intelligent, easy to train, and so much fun! More people than ever are buying miniature pigs. and more cities are allowing them to live in homes as pets. Just as we deal with the apartment-dweller who purchases a Belgian Malinois puppy after seeing the movie Max, these first-time pig owners are seeing online videos, falling in love with the cute sounds, color patterns, and behaviors of piglets they see running around on the screen, and thinking they are adorable and will fit right in with their dogs, kids, cats, and so on.
But what happens with pigs in the city? Their biology and ethology can cause some problems in a home environment. Pigs are a domesticated herd animal as well as an omnivore—they are meant to move all day searching for food. Domestic pigs were bred to gain weight quickly and easily as a food source for humans. They root at anything that smells good, so yards can easily be torn up, landscaping destroyed, and mud pits around irrigation created within mere hours for a smaller pig and within an hour for a larger pig.
Many owners watch their sweet piglet turn into a hormone-ridden monster when they hit sexual maturity. They can become aggressive and pushy. Additionally, many owners do not realize that their beloved pig, while now potty trained, lacks the proper mental and physical stimulation because they live indoors with no outlet for their natural behavior. They will root and tear carpets, baseboards, cupboard doors, and walls. A pig left alone in an improper environment can do far more damage in two hours than most dogs can get done in four to six hours.
However, not only do new owners face problems finding good resources for behavior, training, and enrichment help, many unscrupulous people are taking farm pigs (those that grow up to be 300 pounds or more) and selling them at days old as “mini pigs.” People realizing that their pig is not what they paid for, is not like a dog, and has challenging behaviors that they have no experience with and don’t know how to handle do not always know where to turn.
Bad advice for new pig owners
Pig owners facing such problems might try a barrage of internet searches to “fix” their pig’s aggressive behavior, where they’ll read every piece of advice you can think of, from reasonable to completely bizarre! They can even find people who claim to be pig training experts condoning the use of shock collars on pigs to stop their bad behaviors. The advice on offer varies from reasonable to useless, and even unsafe. Pigs are very emotional creatures and can become extremely aggressive and dangerous if they are threatened and feel they need to fight. Pigs are also loud! When they are startled, protesting a perceived wrongdoing toward them, or unable to access what they want, they can scream. Anyone who has been in a house with a pig that screams knows there’s no stopping the neighbor’s finding out about the new arrival!
Training pigs and dealing with pig behavior issues is mostly about connecting with the owners and teaching them about proper environmental management and enrichment, and providing appropriate outlets for the pig’s natural behaviors and drives.
Pigs need the right environment. They do not cool themselves by sweating, so they need access to mud or air conditioning to keep cool. They also cannot heat themselves, so they need access to shelter and heat in certain environments. Pigs also need social contact: Many owners do not realize that a happy pig is a pig who grows up with at least one conspecific friend. It is a pig who has a safe yard to play in and destroy in order to obtain mental enrichment. Just like dogs, a lot of pig natural behaviors involve locating a food source, getting the food out of the environment, and eating it. Many tools we use for foraging in dogs such as the Kong Wobbler, Dinosaur Egg, Squirrel Dude, The Mushroom, etc., are excellent ways to feed a pig. These tools give pigs a reason to move around and use their intelligence, which helps to stop boredom-related behaviors.
A huge obstacle to happy pig families is owners not realizing that the canine-swine dynamic can cause problems for both species. Dogs and pigs must be supervised at all times. Dogs are group animals and predators; pigs are herd animals and prey. Pigs establish a pecking order using social dominance and will fight to determine who is above and below them in the pecking order. Fighting can occur not just with other pigs, but with their humans, as well as the dogs in the home. Unlike dogs, pigs are constantly looking to advance themselves up the pecking order and can decide to head swipe, charge, and nip even their best dog friend. A pig will start a fight with a dog, but the dog will end it. Pigs lose ears, parts of their face, tails, and sometimes even their lives from fighting with dogs they have lived with for years and years.
Owners of pet pigs need their pigs to follow and understand verbal cues like come, stay, and leave it, as well as learn behaviors like polite walking on a leash and going in a crate.
The main difference when it comes to training pigs and dogs is that pigs absolutely must have a marker (clicker or verbal). This lets them know the exact moment they reformed correctly and that the food has been earned. Pigs can become easily frustrated, or misperform by mistaking the process of being rewarded as part of the required behavior for attaining the reward. An example of this is teaching a pig to sit. If a pig sits and the owner says, “Good job!” and the pig stands up as the owner reaches for the treat, the pig can easily come to believe that sitting and then standing is what they need to do to earn the treat. When you use a clicker or a verbal marker, and you have properly conditioned it, the pig knows when their bottom hits the floor and they receive the marker, that is how they earned the treat.
They have almost no impulse control without training, so sometimes teaching things like “leave it” and “wait” should be prioritized above anything else so that the pig can be more easily controlled within the home. If you have never worked with a pig before, there are rescues all over the country that would love to have you come out and spend time working hands on with their pigs, learning techniques and gaining understanding about their behavior.
Adding pig training to your dog business
Adding pig training to your business can not only help build your business, it can also help mitigate the number of pig and dog injuries, reduce the number of pigs in shelters, and help create a community education source for current and prospective pig parents to start them off on the right foot. At this point in time there is no certifying body for pig training or behavior. I am currently on a mission to change this and have connected with some amazing people in the pig world, many of whom are pioneers in the understanding of pig body language, communication, and learning. I personally have had four pigs in my group obedience classes (not together with other pigs—they generally do not enjoy meeting new pigs) with dogs of all ages over the last three years and I currently have about 25 pig behavior clients. We work on mental and physical enrichment, meeting their needs, manners training, and educating owners on nutrition and safety.
Adding pig training can be a great business move—you’ll be tapping into a very underserved niche—and it can also be a wonderful way to help prevent the already excessive number of pigs in shelters and rescues from increasing.
Tabitha Davies is a certified dog trainer and an IAABC Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant in Palm Springs, California. She has a wonderful son with Asperger’s and one new tiny human on the way. She has been training for over 15 years and has four of her own dogs (all rescues), three rescued horses, a chicken named Karma, and a pot-bellied pig called Gwendolyn. She thoroughly enjoys spending time helping dog and pig parents coexist happily with their non-human pets, and empowering them to educate their community.