Pet Pigs Seek Attention From Humans As Much As Dogs Do Until A Puzzle Comes Along

It turns out pigs are puzzling pros. Daria Pinska/Shutterstock

Rachael Funnell 17 Jul 2020, 15:22

You might bat an eyelid if you saw someone walking down the street with a pig on a leash, but as it happens these traditionally farm-dwelling animals behave much like dogs when domesticated. New research published in the journal Animal Cognition has found that pet pigs will interact with their humans in the same way dogs do when relaxing, but the difference between the two animals becomes evident when they’re faced with a problem-solving exercise.

There are countless videos on the Internet that show why dogs have earned the title of man’s best friend. Their capacity to interact with humans is seemingly unparalleled in nature but as it turns out domesticated pigs aren’t far off and so researchers at the Department of Ethology at the Faculty of Science, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest (ELTE), decided to test how far this human dependency trait stretched in pigs compared to dogs.

After launching the Family Pig Project in 2017, where micro pigs were raised in family homes in a similar way to dogs, the researchers were aware that these animals were fond of interacting with humans in neutral situations. They decided to test how far the pigs' human dependency stretched by observing how they interacted with humans when getting stuck halfway through a puzzle. Dogs, when faced with the same conundrum, are known to repeatedly look to their human companions in order to seek help and reassurance when stuck, but they’re one of the very few animals known to do this.

"Similarly, socialized wolves and cats communicate less with humans than dogs in the same problem-solving context, but maybe it is because wolves are not domesticated, and cats are not a social species,” explained Paula Pérez, a PhD student from ELTE,  in a statement. “So, we designed a study to compare dogs' behavior with that of another domestic and social species, the pig.”

"Excuse me ma'am but could you show me where the puzzles are?" Eotvos Lorand University / Paula Perez

The micro pigs, which are one of the more popular breeds among domesticated swine, were put to the test using the “unsolvable task paradigm”. This involves an animal facing a problem that it can solve, in this instance an easy-to-open box containing a treat, which is then altered to become unsolvable. When the box was first presented but contained no food, both dogs and pigs performed similar human-oriented behaviors. Once food was thrown into the equation, the pigs got to work much faster solving the box to access the treat compared to dogs, possibly due to their better manipulative capacities as highly intelligent animals (although don't underestimate dogs).

The real difference shone through when the task became unsolvable. Dogs would give up quickly and return to human-oriented behaviors, meanwhile, the pigs were hellbent on solving the puzzle. The pigs were much more determined and far less interested in the humans once an obstacle got between them and their treat, which researchers say may reflect their predisposition to solve problems independently. That’ll do pig, that’ll do.

The study is the first of its kind to put dogs and pigs to the test in problem-solving situations and its findings show interesting similarities between the two unrelated animals in their capacity for engaging with humans. The researchers say dogs’ natural dependency on humans is part of the key to their success as domesticated animals, but who knows? Maybe Babe was a documentary after all.

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