Solving Pig Handling Problems – Often an Inside Job



I just finished reviewing a pig handling training document for another organization. For years handlers have been told that changes in flooring and lighting, steps, ramps, drafts and any number of factors other than handlers’ actions, are the primary cause of pig handling problems. I used to believed that myself. But I don’t any more.

It doesn’t matter what task we consider: sorting or loading market hogs, moving sows into farrowing pens, moving slaughter animals to the stunner… we can find handlers who manage the tasks with absolutely ease while other handlers struggle in the exact same conditions.

We do handlers a disservice by focusing on external conditions instead of handlers’ actions:

– handlers are often helpless to change the external conditions

– minor changes in handlers’ understanding and actions can often improving their  performance and job satisfaction tremendously

– handlers often push harder when they anticipate a problem – which is self full-filling

– we end up spending mental and physical resources on stuff that doesn’t matter – so much


EXAMPLE: A frequently asked question:

What about that last pig that doesn’t want to leave the pen?

In Video 1, if the handler had gone in on the left side of the pen her bubble would have pulled pigs towards the opening into the alley. At :10 we drop to 1/2 speed. The handler crowded in on the last 2 pigs = increased pressure. Watch how the pig on our right responded at :15 as the handler moved the paddle across behind it.

Handler pressure pulls pigs’ attention. Pigs need to get release from a handler’s pressure so they can shift their attention away from the handler to follow other pigs.

The more scared pigs are the more closely they want to watch us and the more critical it is that we give them release.


Video 1


The handler increased pressure when she needed to release it. Her moving paddle also pulled the pig’s attention.


My original intent was to end the post here until a fit of curiosity got me wondering what happened before that pig turning back at the gate. Here’s the video run slow speed and backwards.


Video 2:


The pig that turned back was paying closer attention to the handler, hesitating and looking back more than the other pigs. We can’t see what happened in the corner as the handler approached but whatever it was had our little guy upset right from the start.



Our “problem pig” didn’t turn back because it didn’t want to leave the pen, didn’t like the alley flooring, had wind in its face… or because it didn’t like the company of its buddies.

Our “problem pig” was scared to take its attention off the handler. It circled back to get release – something the handler could have done for it by simply allowing it more space and time as it approached the gate.

Every pen you empty will have a last pig so what are you going to do about it? Are you going to fight with it or are you going to give it the time and space it needs to leave?

The presence or absence of a board is another whole discussion. As with all hand held tools, boards can be used in ways that create more problems than they solve. Many handlers use boards as bulldozers to override the pig responses they create by working too close and not giving release from pressure.

And back to handler training: most handlers don’t have the needed authority to smash concrete, move walls, or calm the wind but they are capable of doing the harder work of changing their minds and breaking old habits – if we’d just quit distracting them with excuses.


That’s it for this time.


Take care

Nancy Lidster


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