Almost any small animal can learn a simple trick, such as sitting up or coming when called. Others can learn more complicated tricks, such as climbing a ladder or finding a tidbit in a pocket. All it takes is a little patience and a tasty treat.
Teaching tricks to a pet not only offers it an opportunity for mental and physical stimulation, but it also helps to strengthen the bond between the animal and the owner. The pet will become more responsive to its owner, and the owner will become more attached to the pet. This will help maintain the owner’s interest in the pet, decreasing the chances that the owner will get bored with the pet and opt to give it away. Interaction between the owner and the pet will be more fun, and owners are likely to share that fun with friends and family. This may even lead to new pet purchases.
Guinea pigs can learn to sit up to beg for a carrot. Rabbits can learn to retrieve a toy and jump through a hoop. Rats can be especially good performers, easily learning to walk a tightrope and pull up a basket on a string.
It can be easy to teach a simple trick. The owner just shows the pet what he or she wants it to do by using a treat to lead it. For example, to teach an animal to sit up, hold the treat over its head. Remind customers, however, that even a simple trick can take time and patience to teach.
In the beginning, they may need to reward the animals for any attempt to sit up. As a pet starts to get the idea, the owner should gradually require that the pet do a little more each time, waiting longer before giving each treat to encourage the pet to try harder. The pet may also have to gradually build up the muscles it must use for the trick. Eventually the pet will learn the full trick.
The more complicated the trick, the more time it usually takes to teach it. Some animals learn faster than others, but most pets can be taught at least a few simple tricks. Each training session should be no more than five to 10 minutes long.
Some tricks can serve an even greater purpose than simple entertainment. Teaching small animals to respond to their name can be a smart move. While some people may consider this behavior just a trick, it is more than that; it is practical training that can be a life-saver if the animal escapes.
A pet can also be trained to come in response to a sound, such as a whistle, rattle or a squeaky toy. The process is easy. The owner just needs to say the pet’s name, or make the sound, and immediately give the pet a treat. The pet will come to associate the sound with the treat. The owner can then ask the pet to walk a few steps to get the treat, gradually increasing the distance the pet must walk.
Treats can also make unpleasant tasks, such as trimming toenails, brushing or bathing, more pleasant for both pet and owner. Giving a treat before the grooming session will ensure the pet sees the approach of its owner as good and not bad.
Treats given when teaching tricks should be small so the pet can eat the treat quickly and not get filled up too soon. Some treats can be broken into smaller pieces to make them better suited for trick rewards. Treats that are similar to the animal’s normal diet are best and can comprise up to 20 percent of the pet’s diet. Treats that are high in sugar and fat should be limited to only one percent of the animal’s diet.
Since ferrets are carnivores, most of the treats they receive should be made of meat. Products such as liquid fatty-acids supplements also work well during grooming. Treats for herbivores, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus and prairie dogs, should be high in fiber and low in sugar and fat. Ideal treats for training these pets are dried vegetables and an occasional piece of dried fruit. Most other small pets are omnivores, and they will eat a larger variety of treats.
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.