Rodents such as rats, mice, degus, gerbils and ferrets are popular low-maintenance pets that are commonly used as starter pets for children to teach responsibility, empathy and caregiving. A rodent may not seem like an animal that can easily be trained as they are viewed as vermin when not domesticated. In reality, a rodent is easier to train than a cat or dog and they respond extremely well to a normal trick-reward system. Here’s some very easy tricks people of all ages can train most rodents to do within about 1-2 weeks.
Basic tricks are very easy and require just a minor time investment. These rodent tricks are perfect for young children who have a new pet rat, mouse or other small rodent. Hamsters can be taught these basic tricks but plan on doubling or tripling the training time due to their stubborn tendencies.
Rats, mice and other small rodents can learn how to clap very quickly because they will do it any time you offer them a treat anyway. To see the clap in action, hold a small treat such as a seed or sliver of fruit above your rodent’s head. When the rodent reaches up for it, pull the treat slightly away and their front paws should come together. This is when you praise the rodent with a “clap” in a nice, soothing tone. Pull the treat away 3-5 times so the clapping motion is repeated. After 3-5 “claps” give the rodent the treat. This can be repeated multiple times per day for maximum training. After 5-14 days your rodent friend will clap whenever you say “clap” 3-5 times without even offering a treat. This is a very popular and cute trick that young children especially love and is a guaranteed favorite if showcasing rodents and their tricks at a school presentation.
The easiest way to teach a rodent to jump is to place the rodent on your lap with one leg positioned higher than the other. Lead or set the rodent onto the lower leg and hold a treat on the higher leg. The rodent will naturally jump to the higher leg 99% of the time to reach the treat. You’ll see them lean back on their hind legs and that’s when you say the word “jump”. After each successful jump, raise your high leg a couple of inches and repeat. Many rodents will learn the word jump after just a couple of days and when you say “jump” they should jump onto a nearby object or simply jump from one side of their cage to the other even with no treat involved.
Litter Box Training
This type of training isn’t terribly exciting and won’t get a lot of oohs and aaahs at a presentation or animal event but it will save you some trouble with the day to day care of your pet. Rodents of any age can learn this behavior within 1-3 weeks. Mice, rats and ferrets pick it up especially fast. Designate one corner of the animal’s enclosure as the “litter box” and place an item there that can be easily removed. A small piece of ceramic or very hard plastic works great. Every morning, check the enclosure for droppings and simply scoop them up and place them into the desired area. Repeat this a few times each day and within 2 weeks, your rodent will only potty in that area. This makes cleanup a breeze and saves on the amount of bedding you’ll have to buy.
Advanced tricks are more time consuming than basic tricks but the payoff is much greater. If you’ve ever seen a movie where you’ve been amazed by the seemingly complex routines and tricks a mouse or rat has done, this is your chance to do it yourself. A clicker is the best way to accomplish advanced tricks because the clicking noise reinforces a very particular behavior the rodent is doing. This could be something as simple as standing on their hind legs to running an obstacle course. If you don’t have a clicker, you can make a clicking noise with your mouth.
Believe it or not, fetch is very easy for a rodent to learn. What you’ll need is a very small rodent toy or cat toy. You want to make sure your rodent can easily grasp it in their mouth so something made of canvas such as a catnip toy works very well. The secret to fetch is to put something on the toy that your rodent friend can’t resist but won’t make a mess. Cutting a slit in a canvas toy and putting a small bit of peanut butter inside is a sure thing.
The first step to fetch is chasing the toy. Sit on the floor with the rodent on your lap. Introduce the toy in front of the rodents nose so it gets a good whiff of the hidden peanut butter. Gently toss the toy about 2 feet away and “click” with your mouth or the clicker as soon as you release it. The rodent may take off after the toy immediately but typically it will sniff around on your lap and eventually discover the toy in the next 1-2 minutes. When your rodent picks up the toy either with paws or mouth, reward it with a tiny bit of peanut butter from the toy itself and say “good boy”. Gradually decrease the amount of peanut butter inside the toy until there is none at all. This process can be done in one sitting as long as your rodent cooperates. You can spread this process out over 2-7 days as needed but you have to make sure your rodent will run directly to the treat-less toy before you continue.
The hard part comes next. You want the rodent to return to you WITH the toy, after all, fetch without the return is just “chase”. Odds are your rodent will take the toy and run off with it hoping for a treat inside. When this happens, return the rodent to your starting position and start again. Your rodent should stop AT the treat and that’s when you use the clicker again. The rodent will fidget around and sniff but should remain where the treat is.
To complete the fetch, you will have to reach out, grab the toy, click your clicker, then pull the toy back to you. The rodent will follow because it already knows a treat comes at the end of this process. Now it’s treat time. Keep the treat small for now and stick to the peanut butter theme. You will need to repeat this entire process between 50-100 times but don’t get discouraged. Each time you toss the toy you click. When the rodent picks up the toy, click again. The rodent WILL associate the toy returning to you with the reward. This part of the training can take a long time if you only do it for 10 minutes each day. The more time you put in, the faster your rodent learns.
Once your rodent learns this trick, you won’t need to include the reward process and can substitute any small item for the canvas toy. Pens, bottle caps, cat balls with bells and even coins can be part of the fun fetch routine. Many people won’t believe you have a fetching rodent and will insist on proof. This is a great part of any presentation as you can ask the audience if they think a rodent can fetch like a dog.
Routines and Obstacle Courses
If you’ve already taught your rodent to fetch, they already have an understanding that the clicker means they’ll get a reward. This makes more difficult training much easier. Using the fetch method you can easily create an advanced obstacle course or desired routine for a rodent to perform. The key is to break down the obstacle course into very small sections. If there’s a maze followed by a tunnel then a jump, you will have to train the maze first, then the tunnel, then the jump all separately then try combining two parts, then add the third. This can be a long process but with the clicker, your rodent should respond very well. With enough patience you can even have a mouse that rolls along on a spindle like The Green Mile.
Tips and Considerations
Hamsters are very stubborn and difficult to train. They can pick up the litter training easily but they don’t like to jump and can bite more often than rats, mice and gerbils.
Ferrets are much larger than rats and mice and you’ll need a lot more room to work with but will follow the same routines.
Make sure all other family pets are secured far away from your training area.
Don’t overwork your rodent. While they pick up on training relatively fast, they will get sick of training and resist. When they aren’t cooperating, give them a few hours or even a day off.
Gerbils and Degus are amazing jumpers. If you plan to include them in a presentation of some kind, make sure they are contained with a lid. They’ve been known to jump up to 4 feet in the air and higher and it’s very difficult to locate them in a school gymnasium full of children.