Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Pigs Helping Pigs

This year, Long Island Pet Expo had a booth with potbellied pigs.  This is not unusual for a pet expo, but for some reason I got it in my head that one of them should be trick trained.

My dogs perform in a traveling sport arena called the Classic K9 show.  It includes high jumping, speed racing (over low jumps) and my border collie Til has his own freestyle frisbee show.  We travel all over the eastern USA, and are joined by local teams wherever we go.

Til performing at Long Island Pet Expo.

Some of the expos in Michigan have pig races, where they run around a track.  But I always had thoughts of taking one and training it to run the course in our show as my dogs do.  It may have started when Estephar my Chihuahua got her own pig costume.  Este can run the course, and she's pretty fast.  But she's only 6 lbs so a dog her size has limitations.  To exploit the inevitable breed discrimination that comes with a Chihuahua, I like to dress her up in glitzy outfits and spring her on the audience in the middle of our high speed division -- usually a bunch of border collies.  We play the "Rocky " theme as she skitters over the course in whatever garb she has donned, to the delight of the audience.  She's always a crowd favorite.

Este in her pig suit.

Anyway, back to the pigs.  Not surprisingly, pigs need rescue just like all other domestic animals.  They are abandoned, mistreated and even abused sometimes.   Janice, the thin, elegant lady running the booth for the Long Island Potbellied Pig Association, admitted to me that she was keeping 40 pigs at her house.  It was too many.  They really needed homes where they could get the love and attention they needed..  On Saturday I said maybe we could help the rescue, if I could get a pig to do a trick in our arena as an opening gag for the show.  She was very receptive to the idea.  "Pigs," she told me, "Are the fourth smartest animal."

Somewhere I had heard this.  I suspected the first three on the list were chimps, dolphins and elephants.  All animals can be trained to some extent.  Besides dogs, I had worked with horses, cats, a goat, and an arctic fox.  I'd always wanted to try pigs.  So I was assigned Will, who was one of Janice's favorites.  Will had found a home, but still traveled with Janice to serve as ambassador for other pigs who needed rescue.  At the request of Will's owners,  Janice had already taught him some cute things.  He could play a little piano with his nose, knock down some bowling pins, and turn in a circle.  I was very impressed because Janice didn't use a clicker.  She did a little targeting with her hand, and used Froot Loops as reinforcement.

It's like looking in a mirror!

I got my clicker and some Froot Loops and went to work with Will.  He was about the size of a large ottoman, probably weighing 300 lbs.  His face didn't have a whole lot of expression, at least in terms of what I was accustomed to.  Pigs eyesight is very poor, so I had to think about how to cue him.  He took the Froot Loops from my fingers none too gently with his raspy teeth, but at least he didn't bite down too hard.  As with most new subjects, I started out by just clicking and treating, to get him used to the sound of the click.  When he suddenly grabbed my fingers with a new urgency, I knew he was getting the gist of the click's message.

I taught him to start following me then, and eventually worked up to nudging his knee with my foot.  It wasn't long before he was kicking his foot out.  Soon he was volunteering all four feet, and the back ones too.  It wasn't easy to see his feet, since his big anvil-shaped head was in the way.  I had to bend over and look.  He would follow me around, squinting at me and flipping his nose up, like a nearsighted old man asking for a kiss.

The show was a success.  I had it arranged so that every time Will hit the keys on his little piano, "Beethoven's 5th" would boom through the speakers.  The audience howled.  Will performed all his tricks when asked, including the new foot-shaking. 

Later, when I ran Este in the show, she came out in her pig costume, just to remind the crowd of our Pig Cause.  They shouted in glee.

That night as we were packing up to leave, one of the pigs was left in a running car as his owner went to get something. When he came back, he found the pig, named Junk, had locked the door.  Junk was still inside the car with the engine running.  The police were called and by the time I got out there to gawk, there were four cops standing around the car trying to pry it open, while Junk leered at them from the front seat.  He honked the horn a couple of times, as if to tell them to hurry up.  I snapped photos and screeched with laughter.

Junk the Pig trapped in car.

Janice proved herself a good sport, as she laughed along with me.  "Where's your clicker now?" The pig's longsuffering owner tapped on the window and pointed at the door lock, begging Junk to unlock it.  Alas, no such luck.  Junk was having too good a time scouring the seats for chewing gum.  But finally the cops managed to open the door and Junk was liberated.

The car is no longer a Junker.

When Will performed his tricks yesterday for the audience, I told them the part about pigs being the fourth smartest animal.  I then added, "One of them locked himself in a car here last night.  And the owner was trying to get him to unlock the door.  Well, pigs are that smart!  He didn't get the door open, but he did take the car downtown for an oil change."

Will played piano and bowled for the audience, and I was happy to see him shaking his feet at them too.  I hope we helped raise some awareness for the plight of rescued pigs.  I don't know if we did.  But if 15 years ago I had known it was this easy to train a potbellied pig, I'd probably still be married.

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