Luna, D., González, C., Byrd, C. J. et al. 2021. Do domestic pigs acquire a positive perception of humans through observational social learning? Animals 11(1), 127.
Farm animals can perceive humans positively by observing another animal being positively handled. This study evaluated whether pigs acquire a positive perception of humans after observing either a high or low socially ranked conspecific receiving gentle handling. Seventy-five 21-week-old pigs were housed in 15 nursery pens (five pigs/pen) and randomly assigned to one of three pen treatments: Dominant Demonstrator Group (DDG), Subordinate Demonstrator Group (SDG) and Control Group (CG). Pigs from DDG and SDG observed a high and low socially ranked conspecific (“demonstrator”), respectively, while the demonstrator received gentle stroking and a sucrose solution for 10 min, twice a day for 5 weeks. Control group pigs received minimal human contact. Following treatment, the behavior and heart rate variability of non-demonstrator pigs were evaluated in response to a stockperson in an open-field test. Pigs from the DDG and SDG contacted the stockperson sooner (p < 0.001), spent more time investigating the stockperson (p < 0.05), accepted more stroking (p < 0.001) and exhibited a lower low/high frequency ratio (p = 0.015) compared to the CG. No differences in learning between the pigs from the DDG and SDG were found. These results suggest that pigs can learn to perceive humans positively through observational social learning, regardless of the demonstrator conspecific’s social rank.