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Small Animal Pets Learn Tricks From Owners Who Communicate And Bond With Them

Once you learn how to teach, you can train your ferret, rabbit, guinea pig, hamster, rat or other small animal pet to do tricks.

Marna Kazmaier
Posted: February 24, 2014, 5:05 p.m. EST

hamster eating lab block
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Some pets are motivated by food, others by praise and others by returning to their cage or hideaway.

Pet owners are training their small animal pets to do wonderful things. How do they do it?

Learn How To Communicate
Communication is the key to animal training. Small pets have ears and hear very well, they can and do learn words we teach them. Words, not paragraphs. Keep your cues/commands in a word and use the same word consistently. Keep the same word for the same action you want and use it each and every time.

Bond With Your Pet
Don’t just drop the food off in your pet’s cage and leave. Hand your pet a morsel of something really tasty, a very small piece. It might take one minute or it might take longer for the animal to take it from you. Don’t move your hand to follow the pet around the cage. Hold your open hand with a treat in your palm over the pet’s feed bowl. Talk softly. The first few times you might have to drop the item in front of the pet after a few minutes so that he understands "human hand = good things.” Say your pet’s name as you do this. This teaches your pet "human hand = good things,” as well as teaching him to come to his name when called.

If you believe your pet is ignoring your voice commands, do a quick check for deafness. While it is rare for small animals to have hearing problems, it never hurts to check. Test your pet’s hearing in a normal setting by dropping a set of keys on the table behind him or on the ground behind him. The animal may only move his ears or the sound may frighten him enough to jump. Be prepared for either. If the animal shows no response, try the test again in a quiet setting. It could be that in noisier households, the small animal is used to hearing such things. If you do not notice a change in behavior or posture after the "key test” in a quiet setting, consult a veterinarian.

Start Easy
Choose one trick or task to start training your small pet. You might find trick props in a child’s toy chest, at a neighbor’s garage sale, your local flea market or your own home. Use items that are safe and correct for the size of the animal. A mouse needs items that are much smaller than for a guinea pig. All props must be the correct size for your pet and stable enough to support the pet’s weight.

Start with an easy, little trick. One that any species from mouse to horse can learn and one she will remember forever is, "How To Open A Gift.” This trick is self-motivated. If you follow the easy, step-by-step information given here, your pet should learn this without even trying.

Use a box that does not have a lid and is about the same size as your pet’s food bowl. Set a treat in the box next to your pet’s food dish when feeding. When your pet takes the treat out of the box, say, "Gooooood.” Remove the box. Repeat this twice a day for a few days. Always say the word "goooood” each time the pet takes the treat. 

After your pet has caught on to retrieving the treat from the box, meaning she takes the treat straightaway, wrap the sides of the box with colorful paper or the color print from a newspaper. Repeat setting the box with a treat inside by the food dish; most pets will not even notice the box has changed. Now the fun begins. 

Take a piece of newspaper or tissue paper and wrap it around just the edges of the top of the box. Give a treat in this wrapped box, same as before, to the pet. This time give a verbal cue to the pet, I would use the words "It’s for you” and run them together to sound like one word.

The next day, make the opening a bit smaller by rewrapping the top of the box and extending the edges closer to the middle of the box top. Give this to your pet as before. Continue giving the box, but make the opening in the middle smaller each time. Finally, close the top with easily ripped paper and watch the animal "open a gift.” 

Note: I use the words "foryou” rather than "open,” because I also train my large and small animals in agility. The word "open” sounds too much like "over” to use that command. Always use words that do not sound alike when training animals. Follow the same rule as the old animal training advice: "Never name an animal Snow. It sounds too much like the word no, and when training it could confuse the animal.” When training, always articulate all your words.

What did your pet just learn from this trick? It learned to learn. What have you learned? Patience and tenacity. You learned that tricks when broken down into step-by-step tasks can easily be taught to your pet. Once you see your pet learn this easy trick, it will inspire you to take the time to train your pet other tricks, slowly, patiently and step by step. 

Expect Different Aptitudes 
Training/learning and abilities vary between the different species. Some species and/or breeding lines of species are shyer. If you were training for an agility course, a mouse would be the easiest of small animals to train. Why? Mice run along a wall (set up a board behind your agility equipment), and mice always take the same route. It is their instinct to run the same route along a wall, it makes them feel safe. So over and over a mouse will go right along, learn the course and stick to it. 

Guinea pigsferrets and some hamsters as well as a few rabbits, are food-motivated, which is a big plus when training. Many people train their food-motivated pet by having him follow the food from point A to point B. These greedy guys soon learn to perform the trick and get the treat. Gerbils love to jump and run, they also will work along a wall as a mouse does. So if you set up jumps, you will find with a little help the first few times, they are off and running.

To help the first few times, set up a couple of gerbil-sized jumps along a wall. Set the gerbil facing the jumps. Coax the gerbil along, first by calling him toward the jumps. If he does not catch on, use your hand cupped behind the gerbil to gently move him forward. If you need to, set his front feet up on the jump and wait. If he goes over the jump, and they usually do, praise. Repeat. If he comes backward, set his front feet back up on the jump and cup the behind of the gerbil, slowly and gently lift the gerbil up, the gerbil will go over the jump, praise the gerbil as if he did it all on his own. You should not have to repeat this more than three times. Most gerbils enjoy the jumps and will catch on very quickly. 

Dwarf hamsters love to run in their wheels. It is their instinct to run. In the wild they go several miles a day, every day. I have seen agility course setups for dwarf hamsters that have an exercise wheel at the end as the reward. 

Pet fancy rats are, in my opinion, one of the most fun species to work with. The reason? Their agility. Guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and others do not have the body types to be able to manipulate the many items that a pet rat can. Never try to teach a guinea pig, hamster or even a gerbil to walk a tightrope. But, pet rats are not only fun to watch doing this, they love it! I also believe that pet rats retain the knowledge longer and do not have to be reminded of how to perform tricks if you have not worked with them in awhile.

For many of the shyer species or lines of species, their training motivation can be their cage or a hideout. For example, if your sugar glider wants to get back to his cage, set it on the end of the table for back chaining. 

What Was That Trick?
How many tricks can you teach a small pet? It all depends on the time you spend with it, the pet’s abilities, your abilities and the props you choose. Some small pets can learn quite a few tricks and tasks, plus agility courses or mazes. Teach only one trick at a time. Wait until the pet learns the trick and does it well on command before teaching another trick. If you are consistent on cue words and if you have certain props from different tricks, your small animal could learn several tricks within a year’s time.

How long your pet remembers a trick depends on many factors: If you work with the animal often. If your pet has done the trick many times. If the motivation is worth the effort. If you do all three, your pet might remember the trick for a lifetime. 

For any trick to be trained or recalled, however, you must teach the pet in a consistent way. Don’t train a trick and put the pet back in her cage for a month and then expect her to come out of the cage and perform a little circus for your friends. 

The more tricks the animal learns, the more you ask your pet to perform them, and the more consistently you reward your pet for a good performance, the longer your pet will remember how to perform each trick.

The more time you spend with your pet, the more time you want to spend with your pet, and the more your pet will learn to learn and will respond to you. Training is really about a relationship between pet and owner, not about applause or showing off.

Keep It Fun, Keep It Safe
If after awhile your small pet seems to lose interest in training or performing, change your training techniques. Keep training safe and fun for your pet. If you train your pet on a table, set the table against a wall or put up a short fence of some sort to prevent your pet from falling. Small pets can even be trained inside a plastic storage tub or cardboard box. These containers also help ensure that the small pet does not escape, never to be seen again. 

Be sure that all of the props you use are safe. If you teach your pet to "Play a Keyboard,” desensitize him to the noise before your start the trick training. Hold the pet on your lap with the keyboard off to the side, every once in a while, sound a key. Move it closer to the animal each time you do this. This way, the first time the pet steps on the keyboard he will not be alarmed or even terrified by the sound. Do this with any props or equipment that make noise. All equipment/props should be the correct size for the pet you are teaching. Never use anything with sharp edges or areas for the pet to get stuck in. You should also keep in mind that your pet might urinate on the items, so don’t use anything that can’t be wiped off or is a family heirloom.

For more about training, check out the various agility pages linked to at Marna's website, click here>>

Like this article? Check out:
Ferret Training Basics, click here>>

Posted: February 24, 2014, 5:05 p.m. EST


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Small Animal Pets Learn Tricks From Owners Who Communicate And Bond With Them

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