This article is from the Spring 1997 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Ann-Zophi Pålsson, Sweden
Permission given to reprint article
A funny trick to teach our friends the rats, is to fetch things for us. Just as we can teach a dog to go and get an object, a rat can learn the same thing. The trick is rather complicated and takes time to teach the rat, but when the rat at last knows the trick, it is extremely fun to show off in front of surprised friends and others. Choose a rat that you already have taught to stand up on command, come when called, and so on. The rat already knows the rules of the game, in as much that you reward the rat with a suitable snack (something the rat loves to get) when it has done something you really appreciate. The rat has to enjoy the training and you cannot train for too long each time. It is individual from rat to rat as to how long you can keep on training every time.
To make the trick really exciting and entertaining for both the rat and its owner and potential onlookers, you train the rat not only to go and get an object, it shall also be able to leave the object in the owner’s hand, and know the difference between objects. For example fetch a rubber eraser, or a pen, and so forth, depending on the wish of the owner.
The whole trick has to be divided into different parts that the rat is taught. We also want the rat to enjoy the training, which will make it want to play with us. From America we have seen suggestions to teach the rat that when you make clicking sounds from a small metal clicker (that produces identical and clear sounds) this means that the rat has done the right thing and is to be rewarded. I have not used such a thing, but assume that it is possible to do. I built the whole trick upon the enjoyment of the rat in fetching objects and receiving a snack as a reward. Start with a suitable object like a wooden block, or a rubber eraser. You can also use an object that the rat likes to play with. The trick is complicated and you should let it take its time to learn. You should be totally convinced that the rat really knows one step of the training before you go on with the next one. How long it takes to train the rat depends partly on the personality of the rat, but mostly on how much you have trained the rat earlier for other tricks. The more tricks you teach the rat, the easier the rat will learn because it recognizes the training situation/playing situation. It is important to let the rats decide how long they want to play.
Play on the rat’s curiosity. The rat cannot avoid stealing the rubber eraser from you or have to leap after its plaything that you just rolled away on the floor. First I tried a piece of cloth that I tied a knot on and threw it in front of two of my rats that happily raced to this object and carried it into their cage, where they shredded it to pieces. The rats had fun anyway! Since my rats are in the habit of taking my rubber erasers when they are out playing, I tried to use one of those. I took out a rat, Cabinda (before this I had several rats out to see who was first to chase the object I threw to them). I threw the rubber eraser a short distance away from the rat that clearly noticed my movement. Cabinda happily leaped forward to the rubber eraser and took this in her mouth and started to carry it. I rewarded her with joyous acclamations and stopped when she did wrong, that is to say when she entered her cage with the rubber eraser. I tried the same with another rat, Cooksonia, but she just went up to the rubber eraser, sniffed a little on it and then went and discovered that it was rather fun under the fridge, chasing dust.
You don’t have to get mixed up using commands at this stage, save that until later when the rat has fetched the object many times. It is very important that you let the rat have fun and that you don’t overdo it so the rat gets fed up with the training. When the rat has fetched the object several times and seems to enjoy it, you can go on to step 2. In step 2 the rat has to learn how to give the object to you.
Now you have taught your rats to fetch an object that you have thrown to them and they happily have carried away the object, I hope? Then we can go on with step 2. That means that you want the rat to not only pick up the object but also put the object in your hand. It can take some time before the rat approaches you with the object. Usually the rat thinks that the object fits better in its cage than in your hand. A great advantage with rats is that they are extremely curious. This is what we use. The easiest way is to, for example, take a grape (something that my rats really enjoy feasting on) and put this in your hand. When the rat has gone away to fetch the object, and has fetched it and is on its way to the cage or another popular place in the room (where the rat in peace and quiet either can hide the object or examine it) you call for the rat and show it what you have in your hand (the grape). What usually happens now is that the rat leaves the object and comes to you to get the new object you now offer it, or, since the rat wants both objects, takes the object that it just fetched to you. Now a grape is rather big for a rat and the rat needs to use its mouth to take the grape which results in the rat leaving the object that you want in your hand. When I tried this method with exchange, almost all rats dropped the object in my hand, took the grape and made haste to go away and eat the grape. One rat, namely Polly, didn’t drop the object but still tried to take the grape which wasn’t possible. Then she used her front paws and dragged away both the grape and the object, walking on her elbows. She had an enormous job, but didn’t give up; she had to get both things home. Her cage had an open door and that door is situated 40 cm up, which meant that Polly had to climb. How she succeeded in this is hard to describe but it looked extremely comical. Happy and contented, she then sat there in her cage with her captured things!
It didn’t take long until the rat had learned that there is something tasty to get in its owners hand and the rat immediately after having fetched the object, comes to you and gives you the object. When the rat has repeated the trick several times, the rat hopefully will give you the object without being given a reward in exchange.
I tried, when the rat gave me the object, to throw it out again. This resulted in the rat looking at me seemingly thinking “I just fetched it, and if you are stupid enough to throw it away again, you’ll have to get it yourself.” Hence the trick does not always work.
Furthermore you can put in the command “Fetch” that makes the trick into an even bigger success. The rat does not understand the word Fetch, but it can learn to recognize the word and associate it with the trick itself. But human onlookers that happen to be there understands the word that you say when you throw or place out the object the rat has to fetch. You can also teach the rat to fetch different things such as pens, paper clips, and such things. Then you have to teach the rat a word for each object, like, “Fetch the pen.” This is possible to do since the rat has a very good hearing and can distinguish different intonations. The most important thing is that you say the word clearly and see to it that the rat sees the object you mean.
The rat is very ready to learn, but you must have much patience and make everything nice and easy for the rat. To teach the rat to fetch things can take some time.
Thank you to the Friends of Fancy Rats=Tåmrattans Vänner (Sweden) for letting us use this wonderful article.