Small pet owners can use treats for a number of practical purposes, but these delicacies may also help teach tricks and modify behaviors.
It’s fun to give treats to pets, but goodies aren’t just all fun and games. Tasty snacks can be used as tools to teach pets some practical behaviors, such as using a litter box, tolerating grooming and coming when called. Using a reward to train desired behavior is a method called “positive reinforcement,” and an animal will tend to repeat a behavior for which it is rewarded.
Giving treats to a pet will also help build a bond of affection between the pet and owner. The key is to make sure the treat is given with purpose and not just at random. Owners should say their pet’s name before giving them a treat so the pet associates their name with the treat. It’s also a good idea for the owner to cuddle their pet when giving it a treat to encourage the pet to be more willing to cuddle.
A Spoonful of Sugar
Using treats can be particularly effective when training a small animal to allow grooming. Many small pets dislike the grooming process, especially nail trimming, but their struggling can make grooming difficult and cause injury to pet or owner. Treats can make the procedure go more smoothly for both parties.
Owners should be directed to give their pet a treat before beginning the grooming session, to get things started on a positive note. Treats can also be given during grooming to distract the animal and reward it for good behavior. It is also important to give a treat after grooming to leave a good taste in the animal’s mouth–literally. Following this plan each time will make grooming sessions progressively easier.
Treats can also help when returning a pet to its cage after playtime. Some pets enjoy playtime so much that they resist, sometimes violently, going back into their cage. Giving the pet a particularly yummy treat once they are back in their cage can help the pet look forward to going home.
In addition, treats can help encourage rabbits, ferrets and rats to eliminate in a litter box. The best results come when owners are observant and vigilant. If they see their pet assuming the position to eliminate, gently lift the animal, place it in the box and give it a treat. They can also reward pets with a treat if they observe them using the litter box on their own.
Come to Me
Most small pets can be trained to come to their owner, either when their name is called or when they hear a distinctive sound, such as a whistle, squeak or a box of treats being shaken. This is more than just a parlor trick. Teaching pets to come when called can be a matter of life or death if they escape their cage. It is also an important behavior for pets to know in case of an emergency, such as a fire, earthquake or tornado.
Teaching this behavior is simple. The owner says the pet’s name, or makes the chosen sound, and then gives the pet a treat. It won’t take long for the animal to associate the treat with the sound. Then the owner makes the pet come a little farther each time to get the treat until it will run across the table, bed or floor to its owner. This behavior should be practiced often so the behavior becomes automatic.
Teaching a pet tricks also has many benefits. It strengthens the bond between owner and pet, and it provides both mental stimulation and exercise. Guinea pigs can learn to sit up to beg for a carrot. Rabbits can learn to retrieve a ball and jump through a hoop. Rats can be especially good performers, easily learning to walk a tightrope, ring a bell and pull up a basket on a string.
Simple tricks can be taught by leading the pet with a treat. For example, hold a treat over the animal’s head to teach it to sit up. The behavior must be repeated many times for the pet to remember the trick. Treats given as a reward should be small, so the pet can eat the treat quickly and not get filled up too soon. Larger treats can be broken into smaller pieces.
More complicated tricks are usually best taught using the clicker method, where the clicking sound instantly signals the pet has done well. In the beginning the animal must be rewarded for any attempt to perform. As the pet starts to get the idea, gradually require the pet do a little more each time. Each training session should be no more than five to ten minutes long.
Stores that have a website can encourage customers to send in video clips of their pets doing a trick. Advertising this feature will attract browsers to the website, where additional promotions can be posted. Consider holding a monthly contest, with the winner receiving a free package of treats. Not only will this get potential new customers into the store, it will also encourage the sale of training products, such as clickers, treats, and training books and videos.
Different products can be combined for sale as a training package. A selection of grooming products could be combined with treats in a “Stress-free Grooming Set,” which includes suggestions for how treats can help train a pet to accept grooming. Another set could include a clicker, a box of treats and a toy that can be retrieved, such as a small ball, along with a page of simple directions for clicker training. A book or video about training can also be included.
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.