By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Rats make wonderful pets, not only because they are extremely affectionate and form close bonds with their owners, but also because they are incredibly smart and enjoy learning.
These little furry rodents — who often get a bad rep because of their large teeth and long, hairless tails — are very social and love to spend time with their owners and other familiar rats. In general, rats are happier and less likely to become bored when they are interacting with their human caretakers or with other rat-mates. So, if you are considering a pet rat, you should plan to spend some time each day with him so that he is well-socialized and mentally stimulated. If you handle your pet rat every day and reward him with small treats, he will feel comfortable with you and will trust you.
In many ways, rats are like human toddlers in that they thrive on predictability; keeping them on a schedule they can anticipate (such as feeding them and taking them out of their cages at the same time each day) makes them feel safe and at ease. Once you have established this bond of trust with your rat, he will be more receptive to learning new behaviors. Once he trusts you, you can start the fun stuff: training him to respond to commands and to do tricks.
Motivating Your Rat to Learn New Behaviors
While rats of all ages can learn new behaviors, younger rats (under age 2 years) tend to learn faster than older ones. Thus, it’s best to start training your pet rat when he’s young, as younger rats seem to be more motivated to learn and more curious about their surroundings.
Rats are extremely motivated to work for food, so food is an excellent enticement when you are trying to teach your rat a new behavior. Rats are omnivores, eating both vegetable and animal protein, so there is a wide variety of foods to choose from to tempt your rat to learn simple commands. Little bits of pasta or cooked lean meat, pieces of unsalted popcorn, small bits of grape, a thin slice of banana, and blueberries are great treats to try. The key is to offer your rat several different types of food treats and take note of what he enjoys most. Then only offer these most favorite “high value” foods during behavior training sessions. Just like people, rats have distinct tastes; you just need to find out what your particular rat likes best and what will motivate him most.
Teaching Your Rat Simple Commands
Once you have identified a few foods your rat adores, keep a stash of them on hand and use them to teach him to respond to simple commands such as to come when his name is called, to stand up on his hind legs, and to offer a paw to shake. Be sure the rat hasn’t eaten recently so that he is motivated to work for food, and train only in a familiar, quiet room in which he is comfortable and that is free of distractions.
In general, the best way to teach a new behavior is through positive reinforcement — offering a reward for performing the behavior.
The Paw Shake
Initially, the rat may only perform a behavior that remotely resembles the desired behavior, such as lifting a foot when you are trying to teach him to learn to shake with his paw.
Teaching a rat to shake may start simply with your saying the word “shake,” touching his front foot, and rewarding him with a treat. Once you do this a few times, he will make the association between hearing you say “shake,” having you touch his foot, and getting a treat, and he will start to lift his foot to touch your hand as soon as he hears “shake,” in anticipation of the treat. At that point, you can raise the bar for getting a reward and not give him the treat until he actually lifts his foot purposely to touch your hand. Once he masters that, you can raise the bar even further and not reward him until he allows you to hold his lifted foot.
This positive reinforcement of a behavior close to the desired behavior is called the process of “shaping” an “approximate” behavior (touching a foot) until the approximate behavior becomes the desired behavior (lifting the foot and letting you shake it); then, only the actual desired behavior gets rewarded.
Responding When Called by Name
The same process can be used to teach a rat to come when he is called. You start by saying his name when he is in front of you and rewarding him with a treat when he reaches out to take it from your hand. Once he does that a few times, you start to say his name when he is farther away from you and comes to get the treat from your hand. Eventually, he will hear his name wherever he is and will come to you anticipating the treat. The idea is to reward him immediately as he reaches your hand and only when he comes right after you call him.
Standing “Up” (Standing on Back Feet)
Positive reinforcement also can be used to teach a rat to stand up on his hind legs. Start initially by saying “up” and holding a treat over his head. He will reach up to get the treat. Over time, say “up” and raise your hand higher above his head so that he actually has to extend his body up on his hind legs to reach the treat.
Ultimately, your rat will hear the word “up” and will stand up on his hind legs, anticipating the treat. The key is to be consistent and to immediately offer the reward after the rat performs the behavior.
This process of positive reinforcement of desired behavior can be used to teach rats any number of simple commands. Remember, however, that just like us, rats can be moody or tired and may not always want to be trained. Keep training sessions short, and if your rat isn’t interested in learning at any given moment, try again another time.
Move on to Games and Tricks
Once your rat has mastered the concept of performing new behaviors in exchange for rewards, you can progress from teaching him simple commands to training him to perform tricks such as jumping through a hoop, running up your arm to your shoulder, or racing through a maze.
The process of using positive reinforcement to teach a trick is the same as it is for teaching a simple command. It may take longer, however, for the rat to master a more complicated behavior than it was to learn a straightforward verbal command.
Jumping Through Hoops
For example, when teaching a rat to jump through a hoop (such as the rim of an ice cream container), you start by holding the hoop directly in front of the rat with one hand and a treat immediately on the other side of the hoop, so that the pet must reach through the hoop to get the treat. Eventually you move the treat hand back, away from the hoop, so that the rat has to actually step through the hoop to get the treat. Once the rat masters that, you can raise the hoop off the surface on which the rat is sitting, so that he has to jump up and through the hoop to get the treat. It can take weeks for a rat to learn to do this, but if you are patient and go at the rat’s pace, not pushing too hard and respecting when he has had enough, you can teach this trick and many others.
The ability to learn novel tricks like this demonstrates how interactive rats can be and why any rat owner will tell you that rats are truly unique, extremely intelligent pets.