Tonawanda News

September 18, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Farm animals can be trained, too

By Kenny Coogan
The Tonawanda News

— Whole breakfasts can be made out of farm animals, yet there is a disconnect between the farm and the table.

Sausage, milk, scrambled eggs and bacon all come from farm animals. According to the Humane Society of the United States 95 percent of all the animals with whom humans interact are animals that are used for meat, eggs and milk. Today starts National Farm Animal Awareness Week.

The third week of September has been traditionally NFAAW, which was first started by the Humane Society in 1993. It was created to direct attention to the harsh conditions and growing animal welfare concerns associated with factory farms.

To find out more about factory farms, I am sure a quick online search will give you more than enough information to turn you vegetarian or vegan. I, on the other hand, want to use this column to talk about training farm animals and how I learned how intelligent they are.

In the critter companion world I believe it is common knowledge that pigs are smart. A few years ago I was able to train two Berkshire pigs starting when they were piglets.

Berkshire pigs are a rare breed of pig that was first produced in the county of Berkshire, England. They are said to be one of Britain’s oldest pig breeds dating back to the 18th century.

We acquired Dwight and Jim — I was a huge fan of the television show “The Office” — when they were around 30 pounds each. They were maybe a month old and within 180 days they gained an incredible 210 pounds, which means once they are born they can gain more than a pound a day. They are usually butchered at this time, but the facility I was at was going to keep them until they lived out their lives in their comfortable barn.

We fed them standard piglet chow, found at all major farm feed stores, but for treats they were quite picky. They were not the biggest fan of vegetables or fruit, but we did find that they enjoyed fruit-at-the-bottom yogurt. We mixed Cheerios in with the yogurt to increase the volume of the treats. This allowed for longer training sessions. In addition to the food, they also seemed to enjoying rub downs. This was where I could give them lots of scratches on their head and neck and they would freeze as if they were in a state of nirvana.

We started by training them how to target. This was done by adding a tennis ball to the end of a PVC tube. Every time they touched the ball they received a spoonful of yogurt. Soon we increased the time required for them to target to the ball before their delicious snack was delivered. Training sessions become very messy, very quickly. Pigs salivate often when creamy, sweet yogurt is involved.

After they were trained to target, we were able to train them to spin to the right, turn to the left, stand inside a hula-hoop on the ground and jump — walk really, they were 200 pounds — through the hoop. The nice thing about it was that anyone could hold the target pole and they would follow it. This allowed us to talk to visitors about animal training and show them how to move over a 200 pound pig from one stall to the pasture back to a holding area on their own will. No coercion necessarily. They were doing it all voluntarily.

Another group of farm animals I was able to train was four sheep. We trained them to perform the same behaviors as the pigs, in addition to giving kisses and jumping over hurdles, just like a dog in obedience class. Having a sheep put its muzzle on your cheek or forehead was precious.

The best comment I heard over and over again from guests was that they were so impressed by the training that the farm animals were exhibiting. Many times they would say that these animals were better trained than their own critter companions at home. This week I hope you celebrate farm animals who display not only intelligence but affection.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.