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Let’s call this Training Week. Pigs learn fast.

It’s very much fun to be doing actual training with the critters. Pigs learn really fast, and Tethys is eating cookies within touching distance already, so I’ve moved on to teaching her to recognize her name. This is an easy process: I say her name, then I give her a cookie. She’ll probably have it down by this weekend.

The head of a pig, obviously quite close to the camera. She is mostly black with a white stripe on the left side of her neck and another right between her eyes. Since this is the alt text, we'll pretend the picture isn't a little blurry.
Tethys eating a cookie right by my feet!

Janus is taking a little longer learning to approach, but he’s getting there! The difficulty of pigs of course course is that while they’re smart as hell, they’re not naturally inclined to listen to human voices and watch human faces like dogs are. Selective breeding makes an enormous difference in animal behavior, really, and nothing will make that more clear than playing training games.

The Soays present an even bigger conundrum: I’m still looking for an easy reward that they find meaningful. The ewes Lady Jane and Gwendolyn are easy: they want me to go away. So I walk up as close as they’ll let me, stand for a moment, tell them “Mamogion da!” (Good ewes! In Welsh) and then turn and walk away. I’ve successfully halved their flight distance using this and grain. The wethers however are much more human-social, yet not big on cookies.

The back of a little brown sheep's head, showing off the elegant sweep of his black horns. He is eating pelleted grain ration from a black rubber dish and studiously ignoring the animal cracker in the center of the same dish.
Reuben says cookies just aren’t that interesting.

They are enthused about the little bit of sweet feed they get, but it’s really difficult to use that in discrete chunks as a reward. I may end up making little wodges of oats stuck together with molasses and baked dry to try. Even if the sheep don’t eat them, the goats most certainly will, so they won’t go to waste!

Meanwhile Sebastian is learning to target and touch my open hand, which is a necessary first step to teaching him to lead with a halter instead of his current behavior when I try to lead him, which involves bracing his legs and becoming immovable.

A mahogany red goat with black horns, black stripes on his face and white poll, ears, and nose stretches up to touch my my hand with his nose.
Sebastian will target all day if your hand smells of cookies.

Sebastian has really mastered cookie Zen, which means he gets to move on to things like targeting and learning to wear a harness. His half-brother Sanglant is still really struggling with the idea that to get the cookie, you shouldn’t try to get the cookie. Every fiber of Sanglant’s curious and determined goat brain wants to treat my hand like a puzzle toy, but he’s finally beginning to back off and accept that only through patient waiting will cookies come to him.

The one thing I don’t have pics of, because I need to enlist my husband, is teaching Ella the American Blackbelly ewe to do classic obedience healing. She’s been offering it voluntarily for a few months when I have the grain scoop, so I figured why not work on putting it on cue? Hopefully I can get pics in time for Friday’s post!

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Training games are the same, no matter the species

I’ve used various elements of Sue Ailsby’s Levels for dogs for more than a few years now. They will helpfully give you a structured way to teach your dog a bunch of very useful life skills. Recently, though, I’ve been using them on goats, who can use many of the same life skills, like “not being an obnoxious shit if a human is holding food”.

Using cheap cookies and my voice instead of a clicker, I’m particularly working on Food Zen. Some goats are catching on quite quickly that backing off makes a treat appear. Other goats are a little slower. The best goats, of course, are the ones who are already polite (and get lots of cookies for that).

A mahogany red goat with white ears and nose and a heavy sprinkling of white hair throughout her coat nuzzles at my hand while watching my face.
Siri tried biting my hand and that didn’t work, so she shifted to gently nuzzling my hand. But no treats appeared until she broke contact with the treat hand.

I need to keep working on it, but Siri grasped pretty quickly that standing at a polite distance and looking at my face got her cookies. Sanglant, on the other hand, just could not believe there wasn’t a way to brute force getting a cookie. He tried many, many ways to get my hand to open, but none of them involved NOT trying to maul my hand for a cookie. He’ll get it eventually I’m sure, but meanwhile Sebastian is highly amenable to positive training so I’m going to start teaching him to work in harness and do silly tricks.

The other animals that need training are the mini pigs Janus and Tethys. They’ve settled down around us a lot but still won’t approach, which is no good when they’ll eventually need routine care. So right now I just sit still and wait, and if they approach voluntarily within five feet I start gently tossing cookies to them. It took about two cookies apiece before they were standing about four feet away, so I gave them another couple cookies and ended the session. Tomorrow they’ll have to come closer than four feet, and so on until they will eat cookies from between my feet. I probably won’t teach them to take cookies from my hands since pig teeth are sharp and I don’t want to have to teach them Cookie Zen later!

Once the pigs are approaching confidently, it will be time to teach them basic skills like letting us examine their hooves and run our hands over them to check body condition. Pigs are clever beasts so I don’t expect it to take long if I let them lead the way and tell me what they’re comfortable with.

I’ll also be working with the Soays in the same way just as soon as I discover a reward they find meaningful.

Using positive reward systems to train various species is a lot of fun because of the cooperative aspect. Prey species like goats and sheep aren’t particularly amenable to harsher methods since it takes very little stress to kick them over into fight-or-flight responses. While you can get results from punishment-based training methods with some species, there’s not a lot of joy in hurting an animal until it does what you want.

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Sheep smarts, a brief follow-up

Yesterday morning we went out to find that Frankie, a goat wether, had broken off the ends of his Stick of Shame and had his head stuck in the hay feeder. Again.

Right next to him was Reuben, the friendlier of the Soay wethers. Reuben’s horns actually have a wider spread than Frankie’s and more of a hook, so I was pretty sure Reuben was stuck, too. But as Daniel and I approached to wrestle Frankie out of the hay feeder, Reuben nonchalantly maneuvered his horns backwards through the gap and wandered off.

So in terms of spatial awareness and the ability to problem-solve, at least one sheep in this world is smarter than two of my goats (Thea also periodically gets her head stuck).

A small reddish brown moderately woolly sheep stands sideways to the camera. He is looking back behind him, so we see the right side of his body but the left side of his face.
You win this round, Reuben. That’ll do, little man.

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How smart are sheep?

When I asked on Twitter for my followers to inspire today’s blog post, two people almost immediately wanted to know: are sheep as stupid as people think they are?

All five Soays march toward me in a determined fashion, led by Urdo the wether.

It’s a little bit of a complicated question. The short answer is no, sheep are in their own way bright and curious creatures, if flighty as hell compared to goats. Sheep can be trained, and while a flock is at first glance a mindless mob, there’s actually some really interesting social dynamics going on.

But they’re not, y’know, geniuses. Let me demonstrate with an anecdote. Periodically when we’re moving fences, a couple Soays escape. We’ve set up a sheep trap consisting of a 4 foot tall puppy exercise pen with a dish of grain in it and a long string attached to the door so it can be closed from a distance. Inevitably (and quite quickly now that they know about the grain) if I sit quietly on the milk stand, the escaped sheep will walk right into the sheep trap and I will pull the door gently shut behind them.

This trick wouldn’t work on goats. A goat would remember where the door is and charge it, and given that I’m holding it shut with tension on a long rope cobbled together from pieces of baling twine, the goat would escape. The sheep, however, totally forget where the door was and spin in confused circles, so we latch the door, lean over and grab the sheep, and take them back to the flock. It works every time, and in fact the more it happens the easier it gets, because the escaped sheep beeline for the trap and its dish of grain. Supposing I did manage to trap a goat, they’d never set foot in that pen again. Goats have great memories and hold a grudge; sheep brains seem to be easily short-circuited by a pan of sweet feed.

At the same time, none of the Soays have ever gotten their horns caught in the hay feeder, whereas any goat that can get their horns through it will, and then will forget how to get their horns back out, leading to us taping a Stick of Shame to them to prevent them getting trapped.

Frankie, a brown and white wether, has a Stick taped across his horns and extending three or four inches out on each side. He does not ahead to be amused.

So the question of sheep intellect isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Certainly they are smarter than people think they are, but a really bright sheep still isn’t all that smart. But they are curious, gentle creatures, and a pleasure to keep.

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A Paradigm Shift to Conservation Breeding

Previously in my livestock endeavors, I’ve been making specific selections for traits (or collections thereof) that I really like in animals, as farmers have been doing for millennia. So I’ve bred for goats with nice, moderate conformation; good hooves; feed efficiency; and milk production. I’ve turned the chickens loose to free range and selected for hardy, wily birds that reproduce well. I’ve selected rabbits for those that thrive in a colony situation on a varied diet.

But then came the Soays. The gene pool is so limited, globally, that if breeders were to start selecting for conformation, or wool production, or meat, or whatever, that we would quickly and disastrously run out of genetic material to work with. This is especially true in the US, where the original population of Soays was just six sheep. Although the gene pool has been augmented since the original herd by imported semen from the UK, we’re still working with a severely restricted gene pool, a tiny slice of an already small pie.

An elegant Soay ewe, long-legged, lean, and small compared to modern sheep breeds. She has a warm brown-auburn fleece, small horns, and dark patient eyes.

Breeding Soay sheep therefore becomes an entirely different game: preserving the genetic legacy of each healthy animal. You might cull for health, but not for color or conformation or quality of wool or fast growth. Instead of looking at fleeces, you’re looking at pedigrees, trying to find the furthest outcross available to you.

A sad knock-on effect of this from my point of view is that small flocks like mine can rarely keep a ram more than two years. As soon as any of his daughters are retained, a ram needs to move along to spread his genes elsewhere. So while I do adore my ram Ferrington, he won’t be here for the long term like the ewes and wethers.

Ferrington stands side-on to the camera. He has a heavy body, a mahogany fleece, and a long black ruff of guard hairs on the front and back of his neck. His horns are exactly what you think of when you think of ram horns. His face is black, with white under the chin and striking white eyebrows, and he has a Roman nose.

It’s an interesting mental shift for me from selecting for production to preservation, but very rewarding work. I spend my time studying pedigrees of the three Soay flocks nearest to me, looking for someone who might have a ram for me in 2017, and balancing distance against the genetic diversity of my flock. Someday maybe I’ll be able to import semen to artificially inseminate my own ewes, and more actively contribute to helping preserve these tiny woolly jewels.