Training your pet rats

Why train pet rats?

Rats like to please their people, are natural problem solvers and hate being bored. So both you and your rats should enjoy the process of teaching them to do tricks. Your rats will probably think they are successfully training you. As well as enhancing the quality of their lives, training your rats will build the bond between you. And you'll look cool showing off to non-rat owners what your little furry companions can do.

Pre-requisites for successful rat training

Your rats will need to be well socialized and used to interacting with you. Newly acquired or frightened rats will probably not be receptive to training at first – especially if your training arena will be a play or free-range area which they would much rather explore. You'll need to give such rats time to get used to you and their environment.

Younger rats may be more adaptable and ready to pick up new skills, but they'll also have a shorter attention span and a greater urge to roam round looking for new things to explore. Older rats often have a longer attention span but less physical agility. Bucks will be less interested than does in obstacle or activity style training.

What to do if training isn't working.

It's best to train your rats as a rewarding activity in its own right; a way to play and bond with your rats, rather than something you do just for the results. That way you and the rats will both have fun whatever they learn. However an untrainable rat is very rare. Even old rats being trained for the first time can still learn simple tricks. So if the training isn't working, think about whether you have got the right relationship with your rat and whether he or she has other motivations which you need to consider. For example: are you training too often (rat has become bored); training at the wrong time of day (rat is sleepy and not inclined to play); offering the wrong treat (rat sees no reason to undertake funny behaviour); or training a rat which needs more socialization (rat doesn't see why it should please you). Ultimately if training isn't working for a particular rat after you've looked at what you're doing and tried some adjustments, then you may just have to be satisfied with training your other rat(s).

Starting your rat training.


The first and most important thing you can do as a trainer is to know what your rats love. Although pleasing you may be some part of their motivation, it's the certainty of getting a reward for displaying the correct behaviour that will really motive them to heights of physical prowess and amazing manoeuvres. That means you'll need to have identified one or more treats which your rats love. But just as with small children, offering your rats junk food as a reward is not good parenting. Rats grown fat on the rewards of training are unlikely to be performance superstars either. Luckily there are plenty of treat foods which, in small doses, will not disrupt your rat's healthy diet. Examples of common rat favorites include:

  • Banana chips
  • Peas
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Blob of yogurt

Experiment to find out which works for you.

Training must be enjoyable for you and the rats, so make it a part of playtime when they are interested in being active. Your training sessions should be short and regular, say ten minutes at a time every day. The key to training is to work with your rats' natural inclinations and provide positive re-enforcement for the behaviour you want. That means whenever your rats do the right thing, praise them and provide a treat.

Training your first trick.

An easy thing to start with is to train your rats to come on command, which can be very useful if you let your rats free range. Your goal is to make the rats understand that when you produce a certain noise, they can get a treat. But only if they come to where you are. It's probably easiest to start this training in their cage to begin with. Pick a time when your rats are active, but not already at the cage door. Have their treat ready as you make the calling sound. You can either choose a soft noise or a particular word said in a positive (and consistent) tone of voice – much as you would if training a dog. You should be able to get individual rats to distinguish their own name and understand that they are wanted when it is called, although that will take longer than training all your rats to come to to a generic noise.

Once your rats approach you, give them the treat (have the cage door open rather than feeding them through the bars) and some praise. The rats will soon be eager to come to you when called. Continue the training when they are out of their cage and running round. If they are reluctant to cross long distances then move a little closer at first so that they get smell of the treat. Lead them back to where you were originally, holding the treat out but not allowing them to grab it. Eventually they will get used to travelling a little distance in order to claim their reward.

Advanced training and fancy tricks

Once you and your rats have mastered the basics, it's time to move on to more impressive things. Advanced training requires more time and patience, since you will be asking the rats to do things like combine behaviours and puzzle solve.