Dana's My Coach

Find your game… play… repeat.

How to Train a Rat and What That Tells Us About Ourselves

For their 4th birthday, my twin sons asked for a pet. I told them they were too young to take care of a pet. They asked how old they needed to be. “Ten,” I told them.

Well 6 years went by fast!

Even though their 10th birthday fell in the middle of almost 7 weeks of travel, they still remembered the promise! Within a day of our arrival back in Austin, they insisted we go to the pet store. We came home with Jacy, a Dumbo rat. It’s easy to see by the picture where the name of her breed ‘Dumbo’ comes from.

We agreed on a rat because our research told us that rats are very, very smart and you can train them to do many things.

Jacy small

Based on this information and on movies I’ve seen, I had very high expectations. For example, cooking gourmet French food, talking and operating heavy machinery are just some of the things rats can do…in the movies.

We got Jacy home and in her cage and found some YouTube videos about training rats. I clicked on a video about how to train a rat to do the laundry. “Here we go!” I thought as I clicked ‘play’.

But the video we saw showed a rat picking up little pretend rat socks in his teeth and putting them in a little tiny pretend washing  out of cardboard. Disappointing! I don’t want a rat to do pretend rat laundry, I want a rat to do real human laundry!

So we clicked on still another link how to train a rat to pick up peas underwater. In the video the rat swim underwater and gathered up some peas. I couldn’t think of a useful application for this, but my boys assured me that if anyone ever spilled while eating a bowl of peas in the bathtub it would be handy.

It was starting to look like our rat may not be as useful as I’d hoped. Finally, we started brainstorming about more useful or at least fun things to teach the rat to do. For example, do stunts while driving their remote control cars. That’s fun right?

But we agreed the first day with us was not the best time to begin the stunt-driving training. In fact, all of the videos emphasized the most important step in training your rat is to gain its trust. How you do that is by holding it gently and lovingly and letting it have positive sensations with you. Sounds a lot like people! Have you ever tried to train your kids or spouse or a group of people at work when they don’t trust you, or worse, each other? It just doesn’t work.

So how do you train a rat? You train them the same as humans. Activate their trust by letting them feel safe with you and then reward them with treats so they have positive associations with you. Those two steps are necessary before the rat can begin to learn new behaviors.

Conversely, a rat will almost never bite, unless it has been taught to do so. The only rats that bite are rats that have been in a hostile or aggressive environment that required biting behavior. This behavior in rats can be unlearned but only after establishing trust, pleasant sensations and lots of repetitive reward of the desired behavior. Again, very similar to training humans! No wonder they used rats in so many social/psychological experiments to learn about human behavior.

Once trust and pleasant sensations (play and treats) are associated with you, tricks like fetching, jumping over hurdles, and yes perhaps driving stunt cars are possible.

And, if you are training humans, the list of tricks they can do is almost unlimited. Just remember, keep the trust by being loving and gentle and associating pleasant sensations (play and treats) as you are training.

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