In 2009, American scientists were wowed by the incredible intellect displayed by a rat named Hobbie-J. Dubbed the smartest rat in the world, she was able to find her way through mazes by memory and recognise patterns in her environment. Though Hobbie-J had some scientific help becoming so brainy (she was part of an experiment to develop dementia-fighting drugs), there’s a reason why rats are often selected for intelligence-related experiments. As any rat enthusiast knows, these animals pack a lot of brainpower despite their small size – it’s part of what makes them such great pets. Unlike other small furries, rats are capable of learning how to use a litter tray, respond to their name and perform tricks with relative ease. As with dogs, you can train rats to respond to clickers and brief verbal commands. Spending some time teaching your rat new tricks will be stimulating for both you and your pet, plus help build up the bond that makes keeping a rat so special. Read on to learn more about how to get started teaching your rat new tricks.
Being intelligent creatures, rats do best in an environment that offers plenty of stimulating activities. Foster your rat’s brainpower by offering varied toys and puzzles, like mazes, from a young age. Also make sure that you keep your rats in pairs or small groups so they don’t get lonely and bored - a happy rat will be more receptive to training and play. The more time you spend interacting and bonding with your rat, the more likely you are to earn his trust – an essential first step towards training.
Rats are highly adaptable and display tremendous ingenuity when it comes to finding their next meal. For that reason, rats are easily incentivised by food, and they can safely eat a huge range of fruits, vegetables and animal by-products. Take the time to learn your pet’s favourite treats. For example, try offering peas, blueberries or bits of carrot as these are less likely than fattier foods to cause excessive weight gain, but will still hold your rat’s attention. Once you’ve found the perfect reward and built up your pet’s trust, it’s time start training. Here are some easy tricks to get started with:
You will need to practice each of these tricks several times each day to keep them fresh in your rat’s mind. More complex actions like hoop-jumping, litter training or coming on command are also possible but take lots of practice and patience, so be sure to give your pet plenty of rest between training sessions and take care not to overwhelm him. Start slowly and you’ll be more successful. Always use positive reinforcement to reward good behaviours – never try to punish your rat or scold him if he doesn’t cooperate.
You may have seen trainers using clickers to help dogs respond to commands. They work the same way for rats, and while not essential, can help reinforce your pet’s understanding that he needs to perform a task in order to be rewarded. You can also use a bell for this purpose, but try to choose one with a soft tone as rats have excellent hearing – you wouldn’t want to hurt his ears! You will first need to condition your rat to associate the sound of your clicker with rewards, so start by clicking as you offer treats to your rat. Then work your way up to simultaneously clicking and treating in response to a certain action – it could be sniffing, jumping, yawning…anything! Your rat will quickly catch on and have fun “working” for his nibbles. After you have finished conditioning your pet, you’ll be able to start using it to teach him new tricks. Use clicks and treats to tell your rat he’s on the right track - for example complicated tricks can be broken down into steps, making it easier for your rat to learn a sequence of actions that make up one trick.
Rats will be able to best learn new tricks when they are young (under two years old), but if your pet is still healthy, enjoys learning and earning treats there’s no reason why you can’t continue to teach him through his twilight years. Older rats may have shorter attention spans and will be less inquisitive about the world around them, but interactive play can help keep them spry. Training time is also a great way for you to keep track of any changes in your rat’s health. No matter what your rat’s age, it’s important that you are patient and don’t overstimulate him. Older rats are more sensitive to this, so try to keep your training sessions short and be sure to offer plenty of breaks. Try to keep training fun for your pet at any age and you’ll be much more likely to reap good results.
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