Labeling Behavior as a Personality Trait: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 2

This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Read Mini Pigs and Aggression: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 1

I previously wrote a post about why it is important to think critically about the pet information you read, listen to, or put into practice. This week we are going to dive deeper into what the “Move the Pig” program recommends and why it can cause issues for pig owners.

“Move the Pig” States “Pigs Are Dominant”

The program labels pigs as being “dominant aggressive.” In doing so, it instructs owners to take action based on this premise.

Why is this dangerous?

Many people use the word “dominance” without having a science-based definition of what it is.

When owners use the word “dominance,” what they are aiming to describe is how the animal behaves, but also their personality.

“Pigs are dominant. I had a very dominant female pig. She was the boss, alright. I had to show her who the real boss was!”

Let’s stop right there.

“Dominance” in Animal Behavior is a dynamic, not a static way of being.

Dominance is not a personality trait. Rather, it describes a behavior or subset of behaviors. Just as passive aggressiveness is dynamic in humans; even if you are someone who displays bouts of passive aggressiveness, you also have times when you are not passive aggressive.

In other words, it describes behavior, not the individual. “Pig are dominant” is not describing a behavior; it aims to describe an entire species of animals.

When you are trained in Animal Behavior, you are cautioned to avoid words (like “dominance”) that do not objectively define the behavior.

Why?

Because this leads to all sort of assumptions that can influence the way you treat the presenting condition. In other words, we want words that are observable and measurable. Instead of an umbrella label like dominance, describe what you actually observe.

Example: That child was a brat (This tells us nothing about what the behavior is or WHY it could be happening).

Change it to: That child hit his mom with a closed fist while yelling at her when she took a step back.

You can see the first example makes assumptions. It does not describe what the behavior is. If we aim to modify behavior, we must define it.

This is important because in many cases of “dominance,” it is actually not dominance.

What the pig owner may mean to say is that the pig is actually biting, pushing, or chasing. Now we can talk!

Once we know what the behavior is, we can move to figuring out the function. Function in Animal Behavior is the reason an animal performs an action, a motivator of sorts. It is very important to NOT memorize solutions to behavior problems.

Move the Pig: “When your pig pushes you, push back and take a step toward them.”

Every animal and person is different, so may also be their behavior’s function.

I discuss the importance of understanding function before treating behavior in this YouTube video:

Labeling behavior as “dominance” is easy because it seems intuitive to draw correlations between the animal’s evolution and their behavior. However, this is analogous to saying “Humans are cheaters because we had to be that way as hunter-gatherers.” It’s not that humans can’t cheat, and it is not that dominance doesn’t exist, but rather take a look at the cognitive distortion you may be making.

Humans cheat because there is a function driving that behavior. If you want to change cheating (or any other maladaptive behavior), you can’t label all kids who copy another child’s homework as “cheaters” and assert yourself as “dominant” by getting in their face. The child copied another child’s homework because he wanted to get a good grade, or finish the assignment quickly, or get attention from the teacher because he hasn’t been getting any outside of school. Animals are no different.

Avoid Labeling a Behavior as a Personality Trait

Science-based behavior modification aims to treat the underlying skill deficit, not just the symptoms.

This may seem like a nuance, but it is an important distinction to make before we go about changing a person’s or animal’s behavior. Labels can cause us to:

  • Incorrectly guess the animal’s motivation
  • Pigeon-hole ourselves into a set a “solutions” that we associate with that label
  • Decrease or lose rapport with the animal or learner
  • Put into place a training plan that actually makes the problem worse

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

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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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Labeling Behavior as a Personality Trait: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 2

This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Read Mini Pigs and Aggression: Why You Should NOT “Move the Pig” – Part 1

I previously wrote a post about why it is important to think critically about the pet information you read, listen to, or put into practice. This week we are going to dive deeper into what the “Move the Pig” program recommends and why it can cause issues for pig owners.

“Move the Pig” States “Pigs Are Dominant”

The program labels pigs as being “dominant aggressive.” In doing so, it instructs owners to take action based on this premise.

Why is this dangerous?

Many people use the word “dominance” without having a science-based definition of what it is.

When owners use the word “dominance,” what they are aiming to describe is how the animal behaves, but also their personality.

“Pigs are dominant. I had a very dominant female pig. She was the boss, alright. I had to show her who the real boss was!”

Let’s stop right there.

“Dominance” in Animal Behavior is a dynamic, not a static way of being.

Dominance is not a personality trait. Rather, it describes a behavior or subset of behaviors. Just as passive aggressiveness is dynamic in humans; even if you are someone who displays bouts of passive aggressiveness, you also have times when you are not passive aggressive.

In other words, it describes behavior, not the individual. “Pig are dominant” is not describing a behavior; it aims to describe an entire species of animals.

When you are trained in Animal Behavior, you are cautioned to avoid words (like “dominance”) that do not objectively define the behavior.

Why?

Because this leads to all sort of assumptions that can influence the way you treat the presenting condition. In other words, we want words that are observable and measurable. Instead of an umbrella label like dominance, describe what you actually observe.

Example: That child was a brat (This tells us nothing about what the behavior is or WHY it could be happening).

Change it to: That child hit his mom with a closed fist while yelling at her when she took a step back.

You can see the first example makes assumptions. It does not describe what the behavior is. If we aim to modify behavior, we must define it.

This is important because in many cases of “dominance,” it is actually not dominance.

What the pig owner may mean to say is that the pig is actually biting, pushing, or chasing. Now we can talk!

Once we know what the behavior is, we can move to figuring out the function. Function in Animal Behavior is the reason an animal performs an action, a motivator of sorts. It is very important to NOT memorize solutions to behavior problems.

Move the Pig: “When your pig pushes you, push back and take a step toward them.”

Every animal and person is different, so may also be their behavior’s function.

I discuss the importance of understanding function before treating behavior in this YouTube video:

Labeling behavior as “dominance” is easy because it seems intuitive to draw correlations between the animal’s evolution and their behavior. However, this is analogous to saying “Humans are cheaters because we had to be that way as hunter-gatherers.” It’s not that humans can’t cheat, and it is not that dominance doesn’t exist, but rather take a look at the cognitive distortion you may be making.

Humans cheat because there is a function driving that behavior. If you want to change cheating (or any other maladaptive behavior), you can’t label all kids who copy another child’s homework as “cheaters” and assert yourself as “dominant” by getting in their face. The child copied another child’s homework because he wanted to get a good grade, or finish the assignment quickly, or get attention from the teacher because he hasn’t been getting any outside of school. Animals are no different.

Avoid Labeling a Behavior as a Personality Trait

Science-based behavior modification aims to treat the underlying skill deficit, not just the symptoms.

This may seem like a nuance, but it is an important distinction to make before we go about changing a person’s or animal’s behavior. Labels can cause us to:

  • Incorrectly guess the animal’s motivation
  • Pigeon-hole ourselves into a set a “solutions” that we associate with that label
  • Decrease or lose rapport with the animal or learner
  • Put into place a training plan that actually makes the problem worse

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