WRITTEN BY TANA LYMAN | EDITED BY JENNIFER PARLATI
I am caretaker of the “The Little Rascals ”clan. I have cared for gerbils for many years, and bred them for a few. The purpose of this article is to explain the process that I use to teach “gerbil manners”; simple rules like “don’t chew on your human”. It does NOT refer to training a gerbil to do tricks. My purpose in training has always been to help the gerbils become good, friendly pets, not to teach them tricks.
This article is not the solution to every training problem you will ever have. A great deal depends on the gerbil: his or her personality, experiences, etc. No method of training a gerbil (or any other animal) is ever completely foolproof. The methods I am describing have worked quite well for me when raising my gerbils from pups – They may not be as effective on adult gerbils. It would take a longer period of time, and some personal adaptations.
That said, the training is simple: incorrect behavior is followed by something unpleasant to them, such as a puff of air in the face. Likewise, correct behavior results in something pleasant. Basically, there are three “rules ”I want them to learn: Don’t be afraid of humans, don’t chew on human clothing or skin, and don’t try to get away from the human when allowed out of the tank. The floor, for example, is absolutely forbidden.
The first “rule ”they actually learn mostly from their parents; namely, that humans are not to be feared. They observe their parents interacting with humans and begin to interact in a similar manner. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a 3-4 week old pup try to follow “mom ”or “dad ”up my arm! They learn a great deal from imitating their parents. At this stage I simply provide them with plenty of opportunity to interact with me, and try to get them accustomed to my voice by constantly talking to them in a soothing tone.
Training for the second rule (humans are not chew toys) begins as soon as they have enough teeth for nibbling on fingers to be painful. At that point, chewing on human skin (or clothing) brings a puff of air in the face (which they HATE!) and a firm “NO!” It can be fascinating to watch their learning process. Some, upon getting the puff of air, will immediately stop and leave (for the time being). Others will try again. Sometimes you can practically see the wheels turning in their tiny heads as they try the second or third time, then decide that yes, chewing really DID bring that nasty puff of air, and go on to other pursuits. They are quite intelligent and most don’t need this training for very long. A few will be more stubborn.
The third rule (floor etc. is off-limits) is more advanced training and doesn’t occur until the pups are old enough to be allowed on my shoulder (usually 5 weeks or so). I generally let them stay as long as they want, provided they are behaving. They are required to stay physically on me, and are not allowed on the floor (I sit on the floor to interact with them). I don’t even allow them on my lap – too close to the floor and therefore too much temptation. They stay on my shoulders, arms, hands, and occasionally climb to my head! If they try to get to the floor, they get a firm “NO! ”(which hopefully they have now associated with the unpleasant puff of air in the face) and put back into their tank. They don’t get out anymore that evening – rather like “grounding ”a teenager! This is a difficult stage of the training, and for some it takes quite awhile to get the idea (or perhaps to accept the idea). Others will pick it up almost right away.
After all this training, some will even begin to respond to the tone of my voice alone and alter their behavior accordingly. They definitely know the difference between my usual “everything’s-all-right” tone of voice and my “oh-boy-you’re-in-trouble-now ”tone. Sometimes I can feel little gerbil feet sneaking down my back to the floor, give a firm “NO!”, and feel them turning around and scurrying back up. Sometimes it takes a few repetitions before they decide to behave. And once in awhile their adventuresome natures get the best of them and they simply MUST attempt the floor, forbidden or no. Gerbils are natural-born explorers and their sense of curiosity does get the best of them sometimes, no matter how well they are trained.
Some will wonder why I don’t use treats to reward good behavior. Frankly, for my gerbils, food isn’t all that much of a motivator. Most of them would much rather play than eat, especially at a young age! So their reward for good behavior is to play as long as they like. This may not be true for everyone, but I have found it quite effective with mine. One thing I always do is put their food in their tank as soon as they run up to my shoulder. They know their food is always there when they come down after their first trip up, no matter what. The idea here is to avoid them associating food with bad behavior. Usually they don’t misbehave until at least the second trip up my arm, so I manage to avoid giving them food right after misbehaving. It is interesting that when I do have to put them back in their tank for misbehavior, they generally go straight to their food and start sampling it. They don’t even attempt to come out and play anymore – they know they won’t be allowed, so they don’t bother! As they age, food does seem to become more important to them. At that point, it might be a more effective training aid – but by then they usually have learned their “manners ”anyway, so it isn’t needed.
I hope that you will find this article useful in training your little ones. Keep in mind you must be patient, persistent, and consistent! Spend lots of time with your gerbils, and hopefully their learning of these “manners ”will make the time even more enjoyable for both of you.