American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association

This article is from the Jan.–Mar. 1994 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.

Trust-Training Nervous Rats

By Elizabeth R. TeSelle

Since most people in AFRMA handle their young rats a great deal, they grow up accustomed to and interested in interacting with people. In some situations, however, a new rat may have been handled very little, or handled inappropriately, as was our Phineas. These rats can be difficult to tame, but as we have found, the key is establishing trust.

Our agouti rat Phineas was 14 months old when he joined our family. For all of his life he 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 human beings.

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. 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 human beings 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 I tried to remain as benign and non-threatening as possible. Within a week Phineas 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.

Following the Skinnerian technique, 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.

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 might 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 was not sure we could expect the same of Phineas, but I was not yet ready to give up hope.

Following the Skinnerian technique, 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 door 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 his food; first he was given it after I had set him down on my leg, then he had to take it from me while I still held him.

These days, Phineas climbs onto our laps for petting of his own volition, seeks us out wherever we are, and really seems to enjoy the attention we give 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 Phineas seemed to feel a little more relaxed about us as well 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 in 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 for petting 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 tract infection which necessitated oral dosing three times a day with an antibiotic. Although Phineas resented being wrapped in a towel and having the syringe full of sticky fluid stuck into his cheek, he did not seem to hold me responsible. On the contrary, as I have seen with other animals, the daily medicating sessions had an effect opposite 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 human beings 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!”

Our new baby rat, Tristan, who is extremely shy, has necessitated a different method. In Tristan’s case, we were reluctant to withhold his food and insist he take it from us because of his small size and extreme youth. Instead, we offered a syringe with 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.

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 little 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. I now think that while individual personalities vary (Fergus was never really afraid of us, but was immediately open to our advances even though he, too, had been mishandled), an important difference between rats raised by “ feeder” breeders and those raised by most AFRMA 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 are seeing even in little Tristan.

However, 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 has now. Few human beings would be able to recover from the kind of abuse and neglect Phineas suffered to be able to trust again, but Phineas was willing to give human beings one more chance. 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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Updated March 5, 2014