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Reinforcing Red River Hogs

Reinforcing Red River Hogs

Reinforcing Red River Hogs

Written by Kelly Davis, Zookeeper

I'm one of four keepers that work with our red river hogs. Did you know that hogs are an extremely intelligent species? We have three females that enjoy participating in their own health care through our training program! This program is based on the operant conditioning method by using positive reinforcement.

Operant conditioning with positive reinforcement means that we ask for a specific behavior; then, the animal has the choice to do the behavior or not. If they do the behavior, we immediately "bridge" (give a signal that the behavior was correct), then provide them with something reinforcing (positive/good). This encourages the same behavior when we ask for it again in the future. 

Red river hog Stella up close

Up close with a Red River Hog

They also have the choice not to participate and leave. Through this training, our hogs have learned many different behaviors, such as laying down, voluntarily allowing keepers to trim their hooves, getting weighed, and sometimes drawing blood and receiving vaccinations.  In most cases, special food items are the reinforcers for our animals. However, our hogs love belly rubs, and we have been able to incorporate this as one of their reinforcers for behaviors.

Red river hog training Kelly Davis

Belly rubs in training

The laydown behavior is an incredibly important exercise for the hogs to learn so we can use safe practices while providing health care.  It allows us to do multiple behaviors while the animals are relaxed and in a position to where possible injury to the keepers is minimal.  Stella, our largest hog, is the newest to learn laydown behavior. First, we started with any time she had her forehead close to her stall door. We would scratch the top of her head. This quickly turned into any time we placed a hand on the mesh; she would lean into the door for a head scratch. From there, we would start to scratch her belly using a wooden back scratcher. The belly rubs felt so good; she would lean into the door and slide to the floor to lay down. This is what we wanted to capture. 

Red river hog belly rub

Red river hog training

We kept the hand on the mesh as a physical "cue" for the behavior while asking her to "lay down." It didn't take long for this piggy to pick up on this. Now, almost any time we approach her stall door, she will present her head or belly for some rubs. Who doesn't love a good belly rub??