Let Rats Decide

Wait a minute! I thought this was Eileenanddogs! Well, just for today, it is Eileenandrats.

I write a lot about dog body language in this blog.  I discuss letting animals have a say in how and when they are handled and touched. I talk some about how to perceive their answers through observation. And I have shown, in my most popular post of all time, dogs communicating “yes” and “no” about whether they want to be touched. It’s a mini lesson about body language as well as a proposal that we let the dogs decide whether they want to be petted.

So you can imagine I was delighted to come across Gwen Lindsey’s work on rat body language and giving rats the chance to say yes or no to handling or other actions. She discusses the issues on this page, Let Rats Decide When, and has a lovely video on the same topic (embedded below). Gwen is the owner of the website JoinRats.com, a site that is chock full of advice for people who have rats as pets.

Small Animals

Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.
Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.

In the dog training community, it is still a fairly foreign idea to let dogs have a choice about being handled. They are legally only property, and to some people that seems fine and natural. Others of us don’t think it is fine, but even so, can still carry around the underlying assumption. It can be hard to shake off.

So if it’s that way for dogs, what might people’s attitudes to very small pets be? Not only are most of them much easier to force our will upon, simply because of their small size, but they don’t have the historical partnership with us that dogs do. And I think most people have kind of a rough assumption that any pet smaller than a cat doesn’t have much of a personality, and that we just don’t need to concern ourselves with what they might want.

I hope Gwen’s video can persuade people otherwise. It certainly was a revelation to me, seeing how her rats interacted with her. It’s the same difference that crossover dog trainers start to see in their dogs. I have always loved my dogs, thought they were brilliant, and appreciated their personalities and quirks. But they blossomed after I started to use positive reinforcement and desensitization/counterconditioning to “converse” with them. It added a new dimension to our relationships, and added freedom to their lives in ways that were visible in the smallest elements of their body language. 

I had pet rats in my teens and twenties. I was very fond of them, and good to them.  But at that time no one talked about enrichment or training for small animals. I know that my rats associated me with good things, but I could have built such a better life for them, and had such a better relationship, had I known then what I know now. They could have blossomed. too. Ahh, for do-overs. 

For now I hope some of you out there will enjoy, as I do, the happy, trusting rats in this movie.


Link to the video for email subscribers. 

I know there are some folks out there (and rats or other small animals) whose lives will be changed if they see this video. So please feel free to share it, either directly from this URL or by sharing this blog.

Gwen has tons of great information on pet rats on her website but is also revamping a lot of things right now. Another really nice page of hers for rat owners who are new to training their rats or enriching their lives is Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Rats Trust.

I bet some of you have a lot of questions. Gwen can be reached by email here, and will also answer questions in the comments section below.

I am hoping to find some rattie lovers out there among my readers!  

Coming Up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

10 thoughts on “Let Rats Decide

  1. Wonderful piece on rats and small animals. I’ve had rats’s as pets all my life and I’m 57. I’ve always worked with them and tried to read theyr body language. the video showed me a few things i was missing. i always appreciate others input, you can’t have too much knowledge.Thank you

    1. Thanks, Rachel! I’m super glad this was helpful to you. I know Gwen will be pleased. I’m learning a lot about rat body language, too.

    2. I’m glad you liked the video as well, Rachel. Thanks for watching it. And Eileen thank you so much for your blog on the subject. Your site has been an inspiration to me.

  2. Fun timing for me! I just went through something similar with my gerbils. I got them about three weeks ago because for Karen Pryor Academy you need a “second species” to train. Everything I had read and been told was to take them out and handle them often and they would learn to love it.

    But they did not seem to me to love it. They seemed to me to be way over threshold. They wouldn’t eat, and they scurried around the way prey animals do when they’re searching for cover. They also ran and scurried for cover when I picked them up.

    So, after a week, I started classical conditioning — put my hand in the tank and then gave them food or hay or a new cardboard box, etc. (They get a ton of enrichment. It’s so much fun to watch them shred and climb and such. Also the sand bath is so fun.) I put what I thought were their favorite foods in my palm, and they eventually learned to climb on to eat them. I also learned who liked which thing best. They each have different preferences. After a couple of days, when I put my hand in, they’d come running, doing a gerbil version of CER.

    Then I switched to operant. I started clicking and treating them for two paws in my hand, then sitting in my hand, and now I’m working up to lifting my hand with them sitting in it. Ivan is my overachiever. I can lift him and he will calmly and happily continue eating his pumpkin seed. Skinner will climb in my hand readily but is not yet comfortable with the movement. I haven’t taken them out of their cage for about 10 days except when I clean it once a week, which I do by having them climb into a cardboard carton and lifting that out. I think they are much happier and more relaxed. And so am I. 🙂

    1. That is so cool, Sharon! I really really REALLY hope we get to see a picture of Ivan and Skinner on your shoulders! When they are ready and happy with it, of course!

    2. I, too, love hearing about your training experiences with gerbils, Sharon. I don’t know gerbils but I have one kind of relevant story. I adopted a rat from someone who, like you, too, and then completed, the KPA training. Of course I wished she could have kept the rat, and gotten her a buddy, but in lieu of that I was happy to adopt her. To my surprise the rat was extremely unsocialized – had pretty much not been touched or handled. That taught me a lot about the importance of DS/CC for rats and any pet, really. You can imagine I did a huge amount of work with the rat so that in the end she became very touchable and was eager to be held. So I’m so happy to hear you’ve done some DS/CC with your gerbils. If you aren’t already planning this, I hope you can do lots more, because you may find the gerbils get even more human-friendly. I’m sure there are gerbil yahoo or facebook groups as resources for what kind of socialization is possible.

      1. Hi Gwen.

        Yes, although it wasn’t a carefully planned out DS/CC, it pretty much had that effect. They were not scared of my hand in the beginning — they were curious and would come check it out — but were scared of it if it moved toward them to grab them. So, just by CC my hand’s presence and getting a positive CER with it, I was basically doing DS/CC to being picked up.

        But then I switched to operant, clicking for climbing on and for being lifted. Of course, Pavlov is always on your shoulder (or in this case, in my hand, as Ivan-the-Gerbil’s last name is Pavlov!) but anyway, the CC is coming along for the ride because of the positive associations.

        I had a breakthrough with him tonight. I was lifting him up more each time, and then the last time I did, I clicked and realized I didn’t have any pumpkin seed pieces ready for him (and he will ONLY work for pumpkin seeds! Skinner is not as picky), so I just put him down in the bag of pumpkin seeds on the counter, and he ate one, relaxed and happy! It was a jackpot for him because he got a whole seed instead of a little shred. That is the first time he has eaten when out of his cage!

        You know when you have those moments where you’re like, “OMG, training works!?” It was one of those.

        I think eventually I’ll teach them a nose target, which should be easy because they’re very nosey/oral, and then I can do some agility with them. 😉

        Eileen, I’ll see if I can get someone to take a picture of me holding them in my hand. They are now so enthusiastic about getting into my hand that they will climb over each other to get in my hand, so I can hold both at once. It’s really funny and cute. It would be good to get some video of that! LOL

  3. Hi Eileen,

    I enjoyed seeing some ratties on your blog!

    Loved the video — Gwen has such a great website for rat owners.

    It’s unfortunate, because with the pocket pets (rats, mice, hamsters, etc.) it is SO easy to force them to do things. And, these critters often end up with owners who know very little about behavior and training. So, I think they get forced into things a lot and don’t get to make a lot of decisions. 🙁

    I have one female rat right now that doesn’t like to be picked up. We’ve tried working on it, but have settled for a cardboard box that she gets to ride in. She’s happier with this and will climb into her box to go to and from the rat cage and the play area. Every once in awhile she doesn’t want to get in the box and that’s okay, I don’t force her or try to bribe her if she doesn’t want to.



    1. Thank, you Mary, for your kind comments. I love hearing about your female riding in a box. For other pet rat owners who might be visiting Eileen’s material, I have the “transport box” method described and illustrated with 2 videos of very different rats who learn it for the first time, http://www.joinrats.com/EarningTrust/Transportbox/15258357_HDgHVd.

      I also have a page on “shoulder riding”; the idea is, when the rat is happy and feeling safe in the box, I place the box on my shoulder and we go for a walk. Rats, being so curious, can love shoulders. My two very aggressive rats who were very “transport-box-trained”, taught me about “shoulder boxes”. We walked and walked and they got to sniff and sniff. Then I would stand still with the box on my shoulder. From there, they got brave and came out of the box and clambered around my neck and shoulders (their biting occurred in other contexts, plus, my fingers weren’t present during shoulder rides). In conjunction with this I used +R to help them like climbing up my chest from the cage door, and since they knew about the shoulder ride thing, that was easy too. From there I did DS/CC to my little touches, and they progressed in the touch department. (The biting/aggression always took place inside their cage, so working on that was another entire adventure.)

      I probably digress here but there is so much we can do to help shy rats without insisting they tolerate something they don’t like, or fear.

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