UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
Jelly Bean stood proudly on top of the straw bale – the queen of the mountain. She and her siblings were rooting around in the straw with a new sense of urgency, as if they must destroy the bale before some fast-approaching deadline. They periodically emerged to peer up at me, their heads adorned with straw and their eyes filled with a sense of purpose, ready to take on the world. The horse stall that is their temporary enclosure seemed vast a couple of weeks ago, but it seems to be shrinking as fast as the piglets are growing. The straw bale was the last frontier of the stall, and the piglets are ready for a new expedition.
Nora and I have been trying to prepare the piglets for a successful exploration of the ranch,
starting with harness training. Once the piglets were comfortable wearing their harnesses loose, I adjusted each harness to the correct size for each piglet. The piglets let me buckle the pink and blue straps around their bodies while they scarfed treats, and they didn’t seem to mind wearing the harnesses afterwards. Next, Nora and I attached the leashes and started leading the piglets around the stall. To keep the piglets focused on us, we used random reinforcement, meaning that we would reward them at random times so they knew they would eventually get a treat for doing what we wanted, but they couldn’t predict when. The piglets quickly learned to heel alongside us like well-trained dogs, eagerly anticipating their treats.
Now that the harnesses are adjusted correctly, it seems unlikely that the piglets will slip out of
them, but what if they do? How would we catch a slippery piglet running loose on the ranch and
spooking the horses? The piglets could probably be lured with food, but they’re afraid of being
restrained or cornered. So I decided that before the piglets’ first big adventure on the ranch, we
should train them to enter a crate, just in case. I started by using treats to lure them into the crate and then phased out the lure. As soon as all four hooves were in the crate, I would press the button on my clicker to make a satisfying “click,” and then offer a treat. The piglets have learned to associate the click with food, allowing us to communicate more precisely which behavior earned them the treat. Although a word, such as “yes,” can sometimes be used in place of a clicker, the click is distinctive, unlike the river of meaningless words that flows from our mouths, into one large, perky ear, and out the other. Now the piglets eagerly hop into the crate, so in the unlikely event of rogue piglets, we’ll bring it out and hope that food is more appealing than freedom.
Once the piglets were comfortable walking on a leash and entering a crate, they were almost
ready for their big adventure. But there is another challenge they might encounter: enthusiastic
people, eager to pet the adorable creatures they’ve been gazing at longingly through the bars of
the stall. The piglets’ first outing will be early in the morning before horse riding lessons start to prevent them from getting mobbed, but there might be a few people around. Nora and I have
been spending more time just sitting with the piglets, and they’ve become increasingly comfortable with us. Romeo and Care Bear have both discovered the joy of belly rubs. Now it’s
time to socialize the piglets with other people, so I asked Jessie, the Horse Whisperer, to join one of our training sessions. I rewarded the piglets for approaching her and letting her pet them, and they quickly figured out how to earn treats. Socialization will be an on ongoing process as we train the piglets for therapy work, but they seem prepared to meet new friends.
The piglets are ready. They walk well on a leash, they eagerly enter a crate, and they’re getting
used to new people. As I watched Jelly Bean shove her large, exuberant snout into the straw, I
tried to imagine what it might feel like to experience the flood of new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that are waiting for her. For now, she is the queen of the straw bale, but soon she will be the queen of the entire ranch.
Green Care Blog
Here you can find blog posts from each Green Care Lab intern. We'll be talking about our research process, the benefits of Green Care therapy, and sharing pictures of our work. Follow along with us!