Who is the Boss - Your Guinea Pig or You?

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Mar 10, 2009
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Coventry UK
This text is part of an article I have written for Guinea Pig Magazine issue 47 (November 2018). It is the propriety of GPM and is being shared on here with the magazine's permission. Guinea Pig Mag

Dominance and hierarchy: Who’s the boss?

Guinea pig society is based on inclusion into a group that is strictly hierarchical. Inviting new piggies into your human led group by fondling the ears gives them firstly a friendly sense of belonging but also makes it clear right from the start who’s the group leader – and by our sheer size, this is expected to be us, anyway.

Many interactive problems and annoying behaviours stem from the fact that we pamper and love our piggies unreservedly, but we omit to put our relationship into a social context that is understood by piggies. In turn they will start to fill the vacuum with increasing demands to explore the limits and work out a hierarchy in which they will come top. In that respect guinea pigs resemble dogs, who equally need this sense of belonging and a place in the hierarchy.

It is actually amazing just how effectively and easily you can sort many issues like skin tweaking, teeth chattering, treat pestering etc. by copying how a group leader deals with a naughty youngster. Instead of expecting your guinea pig to work out why you try to frighten them by shouting for no obvious reason or give it a tap on the nose or worse (nothing of which actually makes sense to a guinea pig), you tell your piggy that while you love them, they are naughty and misbehaving and you are not appreciating it. No force needed…

Firstly, you assure your guinea pig that you appreciate and love them as part of the group you are leading by fondling the ears and stroking around the eye. Then you gently force the chin up, asserting your authority. Tell them again that you love them and always end with a gesture of love. You may need to repeat this, but piggies catch on quickly.

Many of the people (including our magazine editor) have found that they have a much happier and much more loving relationship with their special piggy thanks to clarifying their relationship. You can call it ‘piggy whispering’ if you wish to!

By the way, ‘no’ and ‘leave that alone’ don’t exist in the guinea pig world. You need to physically remove or block anything a guinea pig loves to pull, tear or eat, from plastic to wallpaper. In this respect guinea pigs are like toddlers – they find every dodgy area before you and the less you want them to go there, they more they’ll do it. The only successful way is to remove the bone of contention or block access since what carries the scent of one piggy is bound to attract others!
This can also include bar biting, which in the Tribe has become an official position that is handed down from one piggy to another through the generations; the same as Main Food Wheeker for the Tribe is a job taken up on behalf of the whole room (which identifies as a bonded colony with its territorial under-groups) and is generally passed on when the piggy dies or a louder new Wheeker for the Tribe arrives.

Attention seeking: How your piggies train you!

Guinea pigs are past masters at working out very quickly which buttons to press to get that extra treat or middle of the night attention!
It is all too easy to give in just once, and then all too quickly always.

It can be very tough, but necessary to ignore these behaviours and to walk away, despite the ensuing protest or cold shoulder treatment. If you want to cure a well-established habit, then it is going to be a few somewhat unpleasant days and rather bad nights for you trying your best not get up when there is a riot in the cage! Ideally you use a period where you do not have to go to work/school or move your piggies to another room than your bedroom to deal with any middle of the night disruption.

But guinea pigs are not stupid; they tend to stop with any behaviour that doesn’t get them what they want pretty quickly. Of course, it is much easier to stop as soon as you realise in which direction things are heading. For most of us it is however a lesson we have to learn the hard way because our little fur balls have the cute appeal and use it ruthlessly!

Anyway, all of this still gives you and your guinea pigs plenty of scope to enjoy and suffer the richness of a loving bond that is based on mutual respect and understanding, from exchanging piggy kisses to being at the receiving end of piggy displeasure if you have actually dared to leave your pampered ones for a holiday or family visit – no matter how well they have been looked after in the meantime…
And it definitely leaves plenty of space for individual quirks as your bond develops and deepens over time. Guinea pigs are such great communicators; we can do worse than learning from them!
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