Why train your rats?
Rats are intelligent animals that enjoy interacting with their owners. In the wild, rats are problem solvers - they learn quickly and this is one of the features that has made them so successful. Domestic rats need to use their brains to be truly happy - training helps to prevent boredom and builds the bond between you. Training should be fun for you and your pets and makes their lives more interesting and exciting. In my experience, my rats love being trained and offer lots of behaviours to see if I am pleased. And remember that while you might think you are training your rats, they probably think they are training you!
What can you train rats to do?
Anything they are physically capable of. Your rats’ repertoire is only as limited as your, and their, imagination! From techniques to help you win agility competitions, to fun activities to help show your friends and family how intelligent rats are. I try and avoid using the word ‘trick’ when talking about training any animal. I use ‘activities’ instead as I try and train my rats to do things inspired by behaviours that they naturally possess. For example, I had a rat who tended to stand up when she wanted to be picked up - from this, I trained her to stand on command and wave her forelegs to say ‘Hello’. A rat who tends to grab hold of your fingers is a good candidate for training to ‘shake hands’. If you have a rat who likes carrying things and stashing food, you could train them to put a mini-basket ball into a hoop. Watch your rats and see what they enjoy then think about how you could adapt this. You can easily train a rat to follow a target or do certain tasks in order.
Can you train any rat?
Different rats have different strengths, physically and intellectually; remember that all rats are individuals. I am currently training an 18 month old rescue buck who had been unhandled for over a year, and started clicker training with a doe when she was 3-and-a-half - she enjoyed her training sessions until the day she passed away, aged 4, and learned several new activities.
However, before training, there are some prerequisites. First and foremost, your rats must be completely comfortable with you. This article isn’t about training your rats to be used to handling (see here for information about taming rats) and presumes they are already comfortable being handled and out of their cage with you. It also presumes that you have a safe area to free-range your rats. You must also be calm, patient and creative. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t go according to plan and don’t focus on the end result - training your rats isn’t about the end result, but about enriching their lives and building your bond. The activities you can share with others are just a bonus.
Things to remember
The most important thing to remember is to keep training sessions short and regular. A rat will learn far more in two 10-minute sessions than one 20-minute session. Rats tend to be constantly on the go - don’t worry about this - just train your rats when they want to play with you. I always let my rats have a good run around and playtime before starting training. I also make sure my rats also get cuddle-time and plenty of playtime as well as training time. I do feel though that my rats see ‘training time’ as part of their playtime, albeit more guided by me.
Another factor when training your rats is that their physical capabilities will change over time - as rats age they may no longer be able to do the activities they used to, but might still be desperate to please you, so do be prepared to adapt activities as they get older. Their attention span and stamina will also change with age - very young rats shouldn't be expected to concentrate for too long. Never, ever force your rats to do anything.
So how do you train a rat? Well, there are lots of different methods of training but I firmly believe that the only ethical way is using Positive Reinforcement. Positive Reinforcement simply means rewarding the behaviour you want. You don’t punish the animal for doing the wrong thing or not doing anything. You simply ignore undesirable behaviour and reward desirable behaviour. Punishment has NO place in training - punishment makes animals stressed and a stressed animal will only be thinking about how to escape from the situation, not about what you want them to do. If your rat seems to be getting stressed or upset, STOP. They will no longer be learning. Remember too that you can only train for as long as your rats want to.
“What’s my motivation?”
In order to use Positive Reinforcement, you must know how to reward your rats. What do they like? One thing I have learned is that my rats are much more likely to enjoy training (and stay interested far longer) when the rewards are constantly changing. A bit of cereal, a lick of nutrical, a scritch, a blob of yoghurt, a little piece of fruit or vegetable, the opportunity to clean your teeth... if your rats enjoy it, it makes a good reward. I try and use healthy treats when I do use food and also give them in single-mouthfuls. I sometimes reward one of my rats with a belly-kiss which she loves, another doe loves her cheeks rubbed, and my rescue boy Jack sometimes gets a series of kisses on his back which makes him brux and boggle and lick like crazy!
I also say “Good Jemima!”, “Good Lily!” really enthusiastically when rewarding my rats (substitute your own rats’ names of course) - I use clicker training but I feel that rats are very motivated by making you happy, so tell them how clever they are. Really make a massive thing about rewarding your rats verbally -one of my former rats used to get very excited when she got a round of applause - she knew it meant she’d done something very clever and made me happy and she would go pinging around in circles. I always use a verbal reward AND a physical treat or rub or kiss, I never leave out the verbal reward. Some clicker trainers advocate using the clicker only, but I find that my rats respond to my voice.
I use clicker training. A clicker can be bought very cheaply at most pet-shops (you just want a normal dog training clicker) but a great alternative is a mini-jam-jar or baby-food-jar with a ‘pops-up when seal is broken’ lid. These can be quite loud so if this is the case, muffle the click a little with your hand.
I begin by training my rats that ‘click’ is good. First I click well away from the rat so that they aren’t scared of the sound. I’ve not yet had a rat act scared of the click but if I did, I’d start by clicking in a neighbouring room and then running through and rewarding my rats in the cage together so they could build up their confidence of the noise.
I start with one rat outside at a time - I click then say “Good boy/girl so-and-so” and immediately give a reward. ALWAYS give a reward whenever you click. ‘Click’ means “Yes! That is good and I am going to reward you” I keep doing this regularly for a few sessions until my rats are happy with this. I then run through the same procedure with each rat one at a time. You are establishing what the clicker means. I’ve found that my rats very quickly learn that not every click is for them and once I’ve established what the clicker means, I start using it during group playtime. I click and verbally reward at the same time for this reason - I am using the rats name so they know who the click was for. I am sure my rats have learned this very quickly as the rat who earned the click will bounce up to me to get their reward while the others carry on playing. You don’t need to point the clicker at the rat - I keep mine hidden in my pocket when it’s being used.
One of the first things I train my rats to do is what I call target training. I made a special target by fastening a ball to the end of an old feather toy (that had long since lost its feathers!). I lay this on the floor in the rat room and sit by it. Whenever my rats came near it, I clicked and rewarded, saying “Good so-and-so!”, giving a HUGE verbal reward when one of the rats touched it. Rats are so curious, this took less than a minute (a new object in the room is always worth investigating!). Pick the target up once the rats have sniffed it. If a rat comes straight back before you get chance to remove the target - click and reward them again, differently. They are learning that “If I touch the target, I get a reward”. Then I held the target up so that to reach it, the rats had to stand up. My rats very quickly came back to sniff it some more. If your rats hold their heads up to sniff it, but don’t actually touch it, click and reward. They are offering a behaviour towards the one you desire so tell them they are good. Whenever they get closer to touching it, click and reward them. Once they actually reach up to touch it, click and reward very enthusiastically. Do this a few times and then add the instruction “So-and-so touch!” (I am putting an exclamation mark on the end to indicate that you should say this with a cheerful, happy voice) whenever they are near the target then click and reward. Soon you will find them running to touch the target - climbing up your arms to reach it, standing on your head, shoving each other out of the way... once they have learned to touch it on command, don’t reward them if they touch it without the command.
Once they have learned to touch the target reliably, you can start to command them ‘follow’ to follow the moving target in a similar way. Click and reward them as they follow the target closely and allow them to touch the target at the end of the ‘follow’. Start with quite a short ‘follow’ and allow them to touch it quite soon. You can build this up gradually. Once your rats can follow the target for a short distance, you can start to add obstacles that they must climb up, over, under or through.
You might find other ways of training your rats though so if it works for you and your rats, enjoy it!
An example of training an activity
Lets say you want to train your rat to push a mini car around.
- First of all, you would reward your rat whenever he goes near the car.
- Then reward whenever he touches the car, using the touch command.
- Then encourage him to push the front or back (maybe add a tiny bit of something tasty to give him an idea where to push) adding the command ‘So-and-so push’ (or anything you find suitable). Click whenever the car moves ever a tiny bit (even if sideways!).
- Work gradually and cheerfully, over several sessions, and build up until your rat will push the car around.
- You could use a similar method to train you rat to pull something around with a string such as a toy train.
Throughout all of the training, you’ll probably find your rats do lots of things you weren’t expecting. Rats are intelligent and creative and once they’ve learned about rewards, they’ll do all sorts of things to get them and make you happy. Don’t ignore this because you wanted to work on one thing - you might want to train your rats to fetch but they want to concentrate on pulling the curtains! Well, why not change your plans and train them to do something that involves tugging some fabric - perhaps pulling something around, pulling some fabric to ring a bell...
One of my rats learned quickly that the clicker was great fun and will bring it to me. She then figured out that it was a great game to steal the clicker from my pocket while I was talking to another rat and run off with it. She loves being chased! If your rats offer you behaviours, reward them (unless they are undesirable because they’re unsociable, destructive or dangerous) and think how you could develop the activity.
The golden rule of training is that your rats must enjoy it. The whole object of training is to stimulate your rats and develop your bond. Keep this goal in mind and you will not go far wrong.
Author: Katie Dorr