ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Clicker Training Rats

Are all rats trainable? Of course. Are all rats equally trainable? Of course not. Long time ago, when we were testing rats as potential behavioral models, we procured many different kinds of rats from many sources. Rats, just like chickens, come in many flavors. The rats you by at a pet store (mostly meant as reptile food) are usually unknown flavors. Some rats are better for certain purposes than other rats. If you purchase a "high activity" rat, and expect that rat to stay in one place for long, lots of luck. If you have one of those rats bred to demonstrate the onset and course of obesity, and you expect that rat to enthusiastically operate an exercise wheel, lots of luck. Having said all of that, most run-of-the-mill rats, especially the more wild-types, such as the hooded breed, are active enough to move about and condition quickly. Yes, there WILL be some exploratory behavior, especially at first. Keep the environment as constant as possible. When the rat is faced with new surroundings there is a strong tendency to explore. My guess is that the exploration is as much looking for a "back way out" as for another food source. Remember that you are dealing with a lot of evolutionary baggage when dealing with animals, and rats are relatively new as truly domesticated animals.

How can you help yourself and speed things up. Is the rat hungry enough? Especially early in the training program, rats have lots of competing "drives" going on, including exploratory behavior (for whatever reason, as I discussed earlier); finding food should be high up on the rat's list of things to do. Is the rat calm enough? Remember that Pavlov is always looking over your shoulder - handle the rat gently, and give the rat time to adjust to new surroundings. Don't train if the rat appears nervous (body kept more or less compact, head up frequently and sniffing, moving in very fast short jerks, etc.)

Suggest you get a jar lid, cover the bottom of the lid with VERY small pieces of dog food, or small pieces of whatever the rat seems to like, and ALWAYS feed the rat from that jar lid. Forget the clicker for awhile (I know, I know, people always want to go to the clicker immediately) and let the rat get used to getting food from the jar lid. Now, you can use things other than a jar lid -- a fourth- or eighth-cup measuring cup, preferably metal, works well with rats. If the handle is big enough, you may attach the clicker right to the handle of the cup (sound familiar, those of you who have been to one of our chicken training workshops?). Get the picture. First get the rat used to the idea about where food will be coming from, and THEN, give the rat the new idea of WHEN the food is available by introducing the clicker. This whole process our students will recognize, and they will also recognize that this step-wise approach to training is called SPLITTING, as opposed to LUMPING, which would mean the rat would have to learn everything all at once (adapt to environment, learn where food is coming from, the meaning of the clicker, etc.) Not having been there, and with so little info, I can't say what your problems are, but try some of the above and see if it doesn't help. Good luck.

Bob Bailey
copyright 2000 Robert Bailey


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