My local rat club, the Midlands Rat Club, has had a rat agility course since I first started going to shows in 2001. It’s always been a fun event at the shows, with no-one really training their rats but the rats being willing enough and bright enough to be persuaded around the course on the day. The committee, of which I’m part, have now decided that it would be good to promote the agility event as something that can be trained for in advance, with the thought that it would improve the bond between rat and human and provide an opportunity for enrichment for the rat. Having shown some enthusiasm for the idea I’m now trying to lead the way in learning to train our rats, even though I have no experience at all of training animals. We’re running an online workshop on the club forum, with quite a few people interested in learning to train their rats and make their own practice equipment.
I’ve watched some of the many videos on the topic on Youtube and read a good few pages on training both dogs and small pets, and I’ve decided to try clicker training my rats. I have something of an advantage as I currently have 34 rats, so I can select the ones that appear most interested.
It’s two days since I began trying to train the rats. Some of the advice is to get them used to associating a click with a treat by clicking and then treating. That was mayhem because as soon as they realised I had treats they all started mobbing me for them. There just isn’t time to try out 34 rats separately in an evening, so I decided to try teaching them their first obstacle at the same time. The hoop seemed most sensible, as that is usually the final obstacle.
On Tuesday night little Crystal Tips, who is seven weeks old, very quickly got the idea that click was followed by treat, but didn’t quite get the idea that she needed to jump through the hoop to get the click. Arwen, a seven month old in a different cage group, soon learnt that she needed to jump through the hoop to get the food but didn’t quite get the point of the click.
As of last night, both Crystal Tips and Arwen have now totally got the hang of getting a click as they jump through the hoop and then waiting for a treat. The puffed grains from Rat Rations make a nice reward because there’s very little substance to them but the rats like them. Asha is also learning the jump quickly too, but she was mated up six days ago so I won’t want her jumping around too much soon. She’ll have to wait before we take her too far.
I’m trying to use clicker training, but I’ve never trained an animal before so I need to learn the ropes too. The idea is that the rat gets a click at exactly the moment they do what you want them to, so they know what you are trying to teach them and they know they are about to get a reward. I’m clicking my tongue for now, but I might get a clicker later. It will be interesting to see how different people’s ways of training compare. I suspect the rats will learn however we do it.
It’s quite confusing at the moment because I’m trying to do it while the whole cage group is out, so I’ve got several rats at a time milling about and getting in one another’s way. After Saturday when I introduce the baby boys to their daddy and uncles I will only have five groups to get out every evening rather than six, so I’m planning to use that extra half hour to do one-on-one training with the rats that seem to catch on quickly.
Once I can do one-on-one I will add in the balance beam, I think, and try to teach them to go along the beam and then through the hoop.