Thursday, March 31, 2011

Litter Training Your Pig

"Training" is kind of a misnomer when it comes to pigs and litter boxes. What we are actually doing is using a combination of management and natural pig behavior to increase the probability of your pig eliminating in an approved area.

Management Is Everything

If your pig urinates or defecates in places you would prefer he not, take a look at your home and how it is set up. Does your pig have too much access to areas where he might eliminate (if so, use puppy gates or ex-pens to close it off)? Is he unsupervised (a supervised pig is a safe pig!)? Is his litter box large enough (he must fit into it, right?) Clean enough? Accessible enough?

Work With His Natural Behavior

Pigs often urinate while they are drinking.
Pigs prefer to not defecate near where they eat or sleep, and do seem to prefer to defecate outdoors, in the same general location. Use this information when planning a litter station. Tofu has unlimited daytime access to a fenced yard large enough for both rooting and pooping.

Tofu's Yard

Smitty Pan
 For indoors, I use a "Smitty pan" see photo on the left (who knew there was a name for those plastic pans that go under washing machines?)

Four large puppy pads covers the pan nicely
I line this pan with puppy training pads. I buy mine at Costco-$15 for a box of 100. You can use newspaper alone, but I found that the newspaper was not absorbent enough and I had to empty the litter pan of collected urine that had seeped through. NOT fun getting it through the door and then finding a place to pour it out.

Cover the pads with newspaper-keeps my pig from shredding the pads and I can layer newspaper again and again and use the same four puppy pads for a good twenty four hours.

I have a horse stall pad under the tray just in case of spills
 Place the water dish in the corner and done!

Perfect size!

A word about training and your pig

Before Tofu came to live with us, I had read lots of articles about pot bellied pigs. Many articles included warnings regarding pig "misbehavior", like:
  • you must show your pig who is boss or he will walk all over you
  • pigs are stubborn
  • pigs are smart and will look for ways to outsmart you
Well, I am not so sure about that. For years I have heard the same warnings about dogs, horses, donkey's, and goats.
    What IS "Misbehavior"?

    Behavior is behavior. It can be increased or decreased. Pigs (and dogs, donkey's, and goats!) "misbehave" because that behavior is being reinforced in some way. A good example is that of a well fed dog who counter-surfs when left alone. The dog has learned that yummy food is easily accessed when no humans are in the room to scold him.

    Watch Your ABC'S!

    A-antecedent (what happened)
    B-behavior (what the animal does in response)
    C-consequence (what the pay off is)

    So, using this model, let's say:

    Your pig sees you (A)
    He then squeals (B)
    You feed him (C)

    As you can see you have likely just reinforced your pig to squeal for food! In fact, every minute of every day you are teaching your pig something, whether you wish to or not.
    The good news is, this formula can be used to increase desired behavior, too. Any behavior (desirable or undesirable) that is rewarded is likely to be repeated.

    But Chris, You Have a Good Natured Pig. Try Working With A Not-So-Nice One!

    Again, behavior is behavior. Not-So-Nice-Pigs have learned to react to their world differently than easy going pigs, that's all. If those not-so-nice methods do not work for them any longer (and as long as the behaviors are not self-reinforcing), they will eventually extinguish by themselves. Now, obviously I am not talking about pigs who have have learned that BITING makes the scary human go away-for any pig that has reached this level of fear I recommend a qualified animal behaviorist's advice. Common sense, people!

    So What Do You Mean?

    Using our squealing pig as an example, let's say that you STOP feeding when the pig squeals. If the pig is using the squeal as an outlet for frustration, that behavior has become self-reinforcing and it will likely not stop on its own.

    So Then What Do I Do?

    You must then replace that behavior with another in order to decrease it. If the pig squeals as a signal to you to feed him alone (and not just to make himself feel better-see above regarding self-reinforcing behaviors) and you don't feed him, he will go through a period in which the squealing will (for a time) get even LOUDER ("Hey! Don't you hear me?!") This is called an "extinction burst".

    Human Analogy of An Extinction Burst

    Think of how you would likely react if your up until now very reliable car will not start tomorrow morning. Would you turn the key once and say "Oh well. Car won't start. Ho hum"

    Of course not! You would try the key again. And again. And again and again, until you finally throw your hands in the air and shout "AAAAARRRGH...stupid CAR! Why won't you START?!" You might even hit the steering wheel in frustration, right?

    Eventually the anger and frustration wold pass and you would begin to look for a logical solution. If you never repair the starter, you may go back to your car and try starting it again a couple of times over the next few weeks/months/days, but eventually you would give up completely.

    When we witness our pet going through an extinction burst we first of all do not recognize it for what it is because it stresses us out - no one likes to see their pet uncomfortable. We react to this outburst by thinking "Stubborn PIG-stop squealing!" It is a tough period of adjustment for both you and the learner, but...

    This Too Shall Pass

    Now, it is very important that during that period of extinction and afterwards that you never, never give in and repeat the reinforced behavior. If you do, you have just taught your pig that he must squeal for _____ minutes now, in order to get the food (or, reinforcement).

    Do not learn this the hard way, trust me!

    And granted, pigs, people, and dogs have individual personalities. Some are more easy-going than others. BUT-this I know for certain:

    If you respect your learner (that means being aware of what frightens him-a frightened animal may bite-that is normal behavior), and you control all of the resources, and you are very careful about what behaviors you reinforce, you stand a good chance of having a well mannered pig. This, of course, assumes that your pig is in sound physical and mental health. Undoing years of poor training and unpleasant associations is not an easy task, to say the least, and a pig in pain due to illness or injury can be expected to be a bit cranky (just think how nasty a simple cold can make us!)

    Happy Training!

    Friday, March 18, 2011

    It's not WHAT you say...

    The Dog Team

    The sled dog team came racing down the trail, tails high and heads up. Rounding a corner, the lead dog on the left suddenly veered toward a clump of bushes that looked like a million other bushes flanking the trail.  They were in fact the same as all the other bushes except these particular bushes only seconds earlier held a group of rabbits busy nibbling at the tender branches. Before they felt the vibrations in the earth from the approaching dog team, that is.

    The dog dove into the bushes, nose first, only seconds too late for a bunny snack. The musher quickly hit the brakes. "NO" he cried out in exasperation. "Leave it! Eh-eh!" he continued as he strained to keep the entire team from disappearing into the brush, or worse, tangling the lines.

    Satisfied that there were no bunnies to be had, the dogs swung back onto the trail, panting happily. The rest of the team followed, those who missed the excitement straining for a quick sniff as they ran past.

    No, darn it!

    "No!" we cry "Eh-eh!" But what do we mean? Of course, we mean "STOP what you are doing right now whatever it is, wherever we are!"

    The problem is, this is not so much a task as it is a concept. One that requires the ability to generalize. Easy for humans, not so much for dogs. Add to this the "should" factor ("My dog should do what I say when I say it") and you have set the stage for a huge misunderstanding between species.

    We place such importance on "words" we forget that for a dog, they are just "sounds". Of course, dogs can and do learn to pair a few words with their meaning. Just ask anyone who must spell the word "walk" around their dog! But concepts...concepts are a whole other level.

    Please. Are you trying to say I can never say "no" to my dog!? Get REAL, Lady!

    Consider this analogy: Let's say you teach your dog to use a soda machine located in a hotel lobby. If you then take him to a soda machine placed outdoors, he will have no clue how to use it-everything about it has changed because the context changed.

    For most humans this change would be no problem.  This ability to generalize is such second nature that it never occurs to us that dogs cannot do this as well as we can, if at all.

    To top it off, in most cases what we ask of them is so foreign to their world that it requires a great deal of concentration to get it right even under the best of circumstances. Add distractions, or change the context, and the meaning is quickly lost. And don't forget that the delivery method we use (words) to communicate our wishes is and always will be a second language to this species, canis familiaris.

    Our response to any non-compliance from our dog is usually to speak louder, or more forcibly, or to repeat again and again what we are trying to convey. We rarely stop to consider that it may not be the messenger, but the message that's the problem.

     But I know he knows this!

    The dog, upon hearing our sounds (Eh-eh! or "no!"), will generally offer an appeasement gesture, perhaps lowering his head, blinking, and turning away. This is polite dog behavior amongst normal dogs when faced with conflict. We see this behavior and think to ourselves, "Okay, he understood me. Message received loud and clear. I know this because he lowered his head and looked ashamed. I have therefore chastised this dog. Now he knows to not _____ (insert behavior here)

    Well...I'm not so sure.

    What you certainly have done is to interrupt his activity and elicit a response. However, do not mistake that response for proof that he understood your words!
    In fact, his response more likely has little to do with your words and everything to do with their tone. Yes, he is avoiding conflict but he does not know the reason for the conflict, nor must he in order to react-this, again, is normal polite dog behavior to offer an appeasement gesture when faced with conflict.

    Well, then what the heck are we supposed to do?!

    Drop the "no's" and "eh-eh's" when training. Decide what you want your dog to do, and train for it, rather than trying to teach a negative ("I don't want my dog to _____")


    "I do not want my dog to jump on people when greeting them"

    Changes to:

    "When greeting people I would like my dog to first sit, then sniff their hand when offered"

    Can you see how much easier it is to teach the behavior once you define it? Of course, we are human and of course there will be times when we yell  out "No!!!!!" in frustration. The point of this article is not to have you create some fairy tale world drenched in rainbow sparkles, garden gnomes, and cotton candy. The point is to get real about what your dog can and cannot do, and what works best and what is a waste of time.

    The world I live in is much easier to deal with if I am realistic. Learn from my mistakes, people! I would hate to think I make them all for nothing :)

    Happy Training!

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011

    It Clicked!

    Sometimes I wish I had a video camera recording every moment of every day. Most of the time, significant moments slip by under our very nose, their life changing importance going unrecognized until we later have time to single them out and say "Yes, that is when it happened". Rarely are we are lucky enough to witness a moment of significance as it occurs. Last night was one of those rare occasions.

    Tofu and I had begun to work on some tiny thing...a little rubber ball I brought out and thought I might click him for rolling around.  His nose connected with the ball~click~treat. Then again. 

    THE Moment

    Suddenly Tofu stopped.

    He became very still. No grunting. He looked at the ball. He deliberately touched it with his nose~click!~treat. He looked at me. Then back at the ball. Touch~click~treat.

    In that exact moment: He. Got. It.

    'Target' practice
    It clicked.

    In the great grand scheme of things, this is probably a very minor, some may even say insignificant moment in the world.

    But consider, if you will,  what just happened...this pig and this human-two very different species- were suddenly speaking a common language.

    At that moment, Tofu understood that HE was making the click happen.

    This event brought to mind a story about one of my favorite childhood heroes, Helen Keller.

    Remember the story of the water pump? It still gives me chills. Anne Sullivan, tired and at the end of her rope, yet still determined to teach the "unteachable" blind and deaf girl, marches her to the water pump and begins to spell the word "water" again and again into the reluctant, struggling Helen Keller's palm. Helen is fighting to get loose, when becomes very still as recognition dawns.

    At that moment Helen Keller "got" the connection between the word being spelled in her hand and the flowing liquid. Click!

    Okay, so maybe you have to be an animal training geek to see the connection between the two events. But honestly, I see similarities between that story I read so long ago and Tofu's "a-ha moment" of last night.

    Helen Keller had lost both her hearing and sight by the age of nineteen months. Her world was reduced to one of scents and sensations. Her only means of communication, before Anne Sullivan came along, were simple gestures: push to go away and pull to come. Then, Ah-ha...this means "water"
    and everything changed. With one simple 'click' a new world opened.

    Of course, Tofu is limited in what he can learn. He is, after all, a pig. But his 'click' was no less significant to his personal learning process. He has now "learned to learn".

    Take a look at this video. Watch carefully. You can see Tofu deliberately listening to the cues and actively participating: Link To YouTube Video

    This tiny step is such a huge beginning- for both of us. Where will it take us? I can't wait to find out!

    Happy Training!