The Behavioral Science of Aggression: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 3

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Read Mini Pigs and Aggression: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 1

In my post Labeling Behavior as a Personality Trait: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 2, I discussed the importance of understanding WHY an animal behaves the way they do (also known as the “function” of a behavior), and we dispelled the myth of aggression and dominance.

The Move the Pig Program aims to offer a solution to aggressive behavior in pigs. The solution offered? “Get control of the pig’s feet.”

Aggression and Behavior

Let’s take a moment to talk about aggression. Aggression exists for two main reasons (an exception would include neurological behavior disorders):

  • In order to gain access to something; or
  • In order to escape something.

If a pig is presenting with aggression, let’s get curious about what happens before and after aggressive incidents. Is the pig attempting to take an item or piece of food? Is the pig trying to get some room on the couch? Is the pig chasing the dog? Each of these examples can be placed in the category of access or escape. In other words, the pig is motivated to get something or avoid something.

If an animal has reached a point in its behavioral repertoire of exhibiting aggression, you can bet that (aside from neurological reasons) this behavior has been working for the animal! From their point of view, why wouldn’t they bite? It’s gotten them what they needed, and they do not yet have another way to make such a request.

Problem With Removing Control

The last thing we want to put a learner through when they are aggressing is the feeling of having less control (i.e. taking hold of their feet). This is detrimental for four reasons:

Reason 1: It does not teach the pig what you want them to do instead of the maladaptive behavior;

Reason 2: It decreases rapport with the animal, as you are now the person who takes away their choices and control of their body;

Reason 3: It can lead to dangerous fallout. The animal can learn (through classical conditioning) that you touching them, approaching them, being in a certain area, being around a particular animal, etc. means they lose something. It’s a sloppy way to train because we cannot control what conclusions the animal draws from this use of punishment.

Remember, punishment is defined as “something that decreases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future.” Picking up the pig’s feet means decreasing the chance that they can move and aggress.

Reason 4: Numerous research has shown (both in humans and animals) that the use of physical force/corrections in behavior INCREASES the learner’s aggression. Makes sense, right? I pick up your feet, you don’t exactly enjoy that, so you let me know (i.e. you aggress).

The “Move the Pig” program states that existing recommendations for training pigs “pertained more to dogs.” In other words, they suggest that such methods used with dogs cannot be used with pigs. Let’s delve into this.

The Mammalian Brain: Animal Behavior and Training

Divided into two major sections, the “lizard brain” (including the Limbic system) and “cerebral cortex”

The cerebral cortex comprises the frontal lobe where learning takes place.

Frontal Lobe Brain Gif Animation

Frontal Lobe – by Polygon

The lizard brain manages the limbic and autonomic nervous system, regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems (fight or flight).

Limbic System Brain Reference

Limbic System by Blausen.com

Exciting news? Pigs have these two major brain sections, just as humans do…. and dogs, and cats, and cows, and… all mammals.

This means that the way a pig learns (through classical and operant conditioning) is the very same way you learn. Your brain is comprised of the same neural structures and you respond to your environment by learning the effect of consequence.

Pigs use their frontal cortex in the same way to make distinctions about their environment. Note that pigs also have the same brain mechanisms as us that help them avoid pain and seek pleasure. Dogs do as well, along with cats, and cows, and… Well, you see where I am going with this.

“Move the Pig” program states that “If you control their feet, then you control their mind.”

Do you really? Let’s say I take your feet in the presence of something that is particularly triggering for you—public speaking. Do you now have a different emotional state? I bet you do, and I bet it’s not a pleased one.

The point is, as adult humans it’s easy for us to put animals or children in certain physical postures or positions – we are stronger or more able than them. But this does not change (what we call in animal behavior a “conditioned emotional response”) how the animal or child feels in their mind. No matter how much we want it to.

So how do you we change the minds of animals and people? The number one way – give them choices. In college, a professor told me something I will never forget, “The most stressful event or occurrence for any organism, from plankton to humans is the perception of not having control.”

In behavior modification, we always want the learner to feel that they are safe. Think of yourself, would you learn Calculus better in a stressful or relaxed environment? Brain studies show you will actually engage your frontal cortex more when cortisol levels are low. Picking up pigs’ feet increases cortisol levels (one of my focuses during my degree was studying the role of cortisol in moving horses’ feet). Guess what conclusion we found? It is stressful for them.

Moving away from punishment is hard! Most of us are addicted to it. But with some effort you can be more productive and give yourself a better chance to modify maladaptive behavior.

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I am an animal trainer and owner of Bark and Soul. I have guided hundreds of people to new, empowered and educated relationships with their pets through my science-based and heart-centered approach. I earned my degree in Biological Psychology with an emphasis in Animal Behavior from UC Davis and worked in veterinary clinics, shelters, farms and sanctuaries before opening my own practice. My unique approach integrates the latest research in the fields of psychology and mindfulness studies.

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The Behavioral Science of Aggression: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 3

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Read Mini Pigs and Aggression: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 1

In my post Labeling Behavior as a Personality Trait: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 2, I discussed the importance of understanding WHY an animal behaves the way they do (also known as the “function” of a behavior), and we dispelled the myth of aggression and dominance.

The Move the Pig Program aims to offer a solution to aggressive behavior in pigs. The solution offered? “Get control of the pig’s feet.”

Aggression and Behavior

Let’s take a moment to talk about aggression. Aggression exists for two main reasons (an exception would include neurological behavior disorders):

  • In order to gain access to something; or
  • In order to escape something.

If a pig is presenting with aggression, let’s get curious about what happens before and after aggressive incidents. Is the pig attempting to take an item or piece of food? Is the pig trying to get some room on the couch? Is the pig chasing the dog? Each of these examples can be placed in the category of access or escape. In other words, the pig is motivated to get something or avoid something.

If an animal has reached a point in its behavioral repertoire of exhibiting aggression, you can bet that (aside from neurological reasons) this behavior has been working for the animal! From their point of view, why wouldn’t they bite? It’s gotten them what they needed, and they do not yet have another way to make such a request.

Problem With Removing Control

The last thing we want to put a learner through when they are aggressing is the feeling of having less control (i.e. taking hold of their feet). This is detrimental for four reasons:

Reason 1: It does not teach the pig what you want them to do instead of the maladaptive behavior;

Reason 2: It decreases rapport with the animal, as you are now the person who takes away their choices and control of their body;

Reason 3: It can lead to dangerous fallout. The animal can learn (through classical conditioning) that you touching them, approaching them, being in a certain area, being around a particular animal, etc. means they lose something. It’s a sloppy way to train because we cannot control what conclusions the animal draws from this use of punishment.

Remember, punishment is defined as “something that decreases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future.” Picking up the pig’s feet means decreasing the chance that they can move and aggress.

Reason 4: Numerous research has shown (both in humans and animals) that the use of physical force/corrections in behavior INCREASES the learner’s aggression. Makes sense, right? I pick up your feet, you don’t exactly enjoy that, so you let me know (i.e. you aggress).

The “Move the Pig” program states that existing recommendations for training pigs “pertained more to dogs.” In other words, they suggest that such methods used with dogs cannot be used with pigs. Let’s delve into this.

The Mammalian Brain: Animal Behavior and Training

Divided into two major sections, the “lizard brain” (including the Limbic system) and “cerebral cortex”

The cerebral cortex comprises the frontal lobe where learning takes place.

Frontal Lobe Brain Gif Animation

Frontal Lobe – by Polygon

The lizard brain manages the limbic and autonomic nervous system, regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems (fight or flight).

Limbic System Brain Reference

Limbic System by Blausen.com

Exciting news? Pigs have these two major brain sections, just as humans do…. and dogs, and cats, and cows, and… all mammals.

This means that the way a pig learns (through classical and operant conditioning) is the very same way you learn. Your brain is comprised of the same neural structures and you respond to your environment by learning the effect of consequence.

Pigs use their frontal cortex in the same way to make distinctions about their environment. Note that pigs also have the same brain mechanisms as us that help them avoid pain and seek pleasure. Dogs do as well, along with cats, and cows, and… Well, you see where I am going with this.

“Move the Pig” program states that “If you control their feet, then you control their mind.”

Do you really? Let’s say I take your feet in the presence of something that is particularly triggering for you—public speaking. Do you now have a different emotional state? I bet you do, and I bet it’s not a pleased one.

The point is, as adult humans it’s easy for us to put animals or children in certain physical postures or positions – we are stronger or more able than them. But this does not change (what we call in animal behavior a “conditioned emotional response”) how the animal or child feels in their mind. No matter how much we want it to.

So how do you we change the minds of animals and people? The number one way – give them choices. In college, a professor told me something I will never forget, “The most stressful event or occurrence for any organism, from plankton to humans is the perception of not having control.”

In behavior modification, we always want the learner to feel that they are safe. Think of yourself, would you learn Calculus better in a stressful or relaxed environment? Brain studies show you will actually engage your frontal cortex more when cortisol levels are low. Picking up pigs’ feet increases cortisol levels (one of my focuses during my degree was studying the role of cortisol in moving horses’ feet). Guess what conclusion we found? It is stressful for them.

Moving away from punishment is hard! Most of us are addicted to it. But with some effort you can be more productive and give yourself a better chance to modify maladaptive behavior.

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