The Rat Fan Club

Trust Training

If you have a rat who doesn’t like to be held, remember that baby rats and females tend to be very active and often don’t want to hold still to be held. Instead they want to run around and play and explore. See if your rat wants to play a game with you instead of being held. Then, wait until she is feeling sleepy to hold her. When rats are feeling sleepy, they are more willing to be held.

If a rat still doesn’t like being held, acts scared of people, or doesn’t want to come out of her cage, it’s probably because she hasn’t been properly socialized. The word socialization is used to describe the process of getting someone used to a particular social group. The best way to socialize rats is to handle them every day from birth. This is a natural method of socialization. Rats handled from birth will be extremely trusting of humans and form strong bonds with people.  Even with proper socialization, some rats just naturally have a more fearful personality too.

You can help a distrustful rat learn to trust you by using food.  I call this method of socialization Trust Training. It uses food as both lure and a reward for the behavior you desire. It works best to use soft foods, such as baby foods and yogurt, because you can offer them on a spoon and the rat can’t grab the food and run away. Try different foods to see what she likes. You may need to let her try a food several times in the cage before she decides she likes it.

Use the food on a spoon to reward the behavior you want. For instance, use the food to lead her out of the cage and onto your hand, arm, or lap. Then reward her with the food. You have to do it little by little, just small steps at a time. Just give her a little taste each time and gradually make her come out farther and farther each time. As she learns that she gets good treats for being with you, she will be more willing to come out, be with you, and be held. Next, require that she let you pet her while she eats, and then that she let you pick her up and then put her down to eat.  Eventually, require that she let you hold her while she eats.

How much time do you spend with your rat?  A single rat needs about 4 hours of human attention a day.  If you can’t provide that I highly recommend you get another rat as a companion for her. Single rats often feel very insecure. With another rat friend, your rat will be more likely to trust you.

Below is a story that shows that even older rats who have been traumatized and are terrified of people can learn to trust humans again when the food reward method is used.  I highly recommend Trust Training as the best method of socialization for rats who do not trust humans.—Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun


Trust-Training Nervous Rats

by Elizabeth R. TeSelle

Our agouti rat Phineas was 14 months old when he joined our family. For all of his life Phineas had been used as a stud rat by a man who bred rats as “feeders” and who was, consequently, not particularly concerned with how easy they were to handle. When he bothered to pick Phineas up at all, it was by his tail, with Phineas hanging in the air flailing his legs wildly. Needless to say, this treatment did little to make Phineas feel positive about humans.

The first time I reached my hand into Phineas’ cage with a treat, he shrieked in terror and ran into the corner, where he huddled and chattered in fear. We took all his food away and for the next 2 days I persisted until Phineas was so hungry he was forced to take food from my hand. This may sound hard, but I knew that unless Phineas learned, through approaching my hand and not being hurt, that not all humans are the same, we would make no progress at all. When Phineas finally began taking the food I offered, he was frightened and nervous but within a week, he was allowing me to rub him behind the ears and gently stroke his back, though he still appeared nervous and concerned that I might alter my behavior at any moment.

In our first two weeks with Phineas, Marc was bitten once and I was bitten twice—once so hard my thumb bled for 10 minutes and sustained minor nerve damage that never entirely went away. In each case it was clear that Phineas was terrified, and was responding instinctively to situations he perceived as threatening. In fact, Phineas seemed so fearful that at first we were concerned that although we understood and sympathized with his plight, we may never be able to completely trust him. We wanted a rat who would sit on our shoulders and cuddle with us, but we tried to resign ourselves to being satisfied with just being able to handle him when necessary.

From the beginning, I decided that no matter how much I needed to or wanted to pick Phineas up, I would not resort to using his tail. Since this was clearly the kind of treatment at the root of his fear of people, I determined to persist in my plans to train him to tolerate being lifted by the body, no matter how long it took. The first time I put my hand around him in the cage, Phineas nearly scared me to death! He leapt away from me, screaming and chattering, and then sat facing me, daring me to try it again. I felt hurt and misunderstood, since I had no evil intentions and only wanted to provide Phineas with the freedom and fun I knew he deserved. But I tried to understand how scared he must be, and decided to wait until he trusted me more.

Meanwhile, Phineas’ companion, Fergus, who was 10 weeks old when he joined our family, was responding to us fearlessly. He mostly wanted to explore the room, but was happy enough to cuddle occasionally, and as he grew up and calmed down, he became loving and friendly. At first I wasn’t sure we could expect the same of Phineas, but I wasn’t yet ready to give up hope.

Following the Skinnerian technique of behavior modification, which emphasizes rewarding desired behavior, I began gradually increasing the difficulty of what Phineas had to do to get the small pieces of food we offered him. At first, he only had to take the food from my hand inside the cage. Then he had to come to the cage door and take it. Then he had to come out of the cage onto my leg. Finally, after proceeding in this vein for about a week, I once again reached in to pick Phineas up. This time he tensed up and looked worried, but let me lift him out of the cage and onto my leg, where he took a piece of food from me and retreated to the cage. For the next week, the rule was that Phineas had to let me pick him up in order to get the food. First he was given it after I’d set him down on my leg, then he had to take it from me while I still held him.

The nice thing about this method was that it was easy to see progress from day to day. Each day we felt good because Phineas seemed to trust us a little more, and seemed to feel a little more relaxed about us and a little more willing to give us a chance. As the days turned into weeks and I had still never hurt Phineas or grabbed him by his tail, he began to really trust me. He begged for food when I walked into the room, and when he was free to roam around, he no longer skittered away whenever I moved my leg or adjusted my position on the floor. These days, Phineas climbs onto our laps of his own volition, seeks us out wherever we are, and really seems to enjoy the attention we give him. Grooming Marc’s beard has proven to be a popular activity for both our rats! Probably most gratifying to me is the fact that now, when I put my hand around him, Phineas sits calmly and waits to be picked up, then seems relaxed and mellow while I hold him. If he struggles, it's because he wants to run around, and not because he’s afraid.

Recently Phineas had a respiratory infection which necessitated oral dosing 3 times a day with an antibiotic. Although Phineas resented being wrapped in a towel and having the syringe full of sticky fluid stuck in his cheek, he didn’t seem to hold me responsible. On the contrary, as I have seen with other animals, the daily medicating sessions had an effect opposite to what most people might imagine. Because I regularly had Phineas at my mercy, as it were, and yet did not kill him, he seemed to understand that we humans can be trustworthy even though we aren’t rats. When Phineas visited our vet, I was more than a little worried that he might bite her in his fear of the situation, but he tolerated her poking and prodding with nary a nip, and elicited from her the comment, “What a cool rat!”

Until recently, I assumed that our initial difficulties in winning Phineas’ trust were due to his age and the length of his mishandling. However, our new baby rat, Tristan, at only 5 weeks of age, is similarly terrified of us, which surprised us a great deal, as we assumed he would be fairly innocent of the ways of humans. In Tristan’s case, we were reluctant to withhold his food because of his small size and extreme youth, so we have used a different method of training. We first offered a syringe of fruit baby food several times a day until he tried it. Once hooked, we used it as a lure, just as we had used dog food and sunflower seeds with Phineas. Tristan gets a tiny sip of baby food every time he takes another step with us and he has already begun seeking us out.

What’s interesting is that Fergus was never really afraid of us, but was immediately open to our advances even though he, too, had been mishandled. I now think that while individual personalities vary, an important difference between rats raised by “feeder” breeders and those raised by most breeders is that the latter have mother rats who are already bonded to people. The mother rats help the baby rats learn about people early on and prevent the kind of fearful response we’re seeing even in little Tristan.

In our area, the only rats available are from “feeder” breeders, and I suspect that there are a number of places across the country where this is true. Far from this being a drawback, I feel gratified that through patient training and trust-building, we can bring light and love into the lives of rats like Phineas and Tristan for the first time. It has meant a great deal to us to see the changes in Phineas, and we love seeing the way he enjoys every moment of the wonderful life he now has. Few humans would be able to recover from the kind of abuse and neglect Phineas suffered and be able to trust again, but Phineas was willing to give humans one more chance. And after less than a week in our home, Tristan is already showing interest in us and beginning to consider the possibility that humans aren’t all bad. I know we’ll feel good when he learns to trust us and finds out what a wonderful life is waiting for him.

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