NY Times: How To Train A Rat

NY Times: How To Train A Rat
January 15, 2018 sdcpm
Mark With Gambian Rat Ben

NY Times: How To Train A Rat

Senior animal trainer, Mark Harden, discusses with The New York Times Magazine his tips and tricks on how to tame those adorable rodents.

“Young rats are more malleable,” says Mark Harden, a senior trainer at Animals for Hollywood. Pick up and hold your juvenile rodent frequently, so that it becomes accustomed to human touch. If you’re patient enough, any rodent can be trained, but some are inherently more pliant and endearing and less prone to biting. Harden has trained thousands of rats for movies like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and television shows like “True Blood.” He and his colleagues schooled 600 rats for the 2003 horror movie “Willard.” “I can watch that movie now,” he says, “and pick out the 12 or 13 rats that really captured our hearts.”

Animals in training should be made to work for their sustenance. “Don’t just let them sit in the cage eating as much as they want, getting fat,” Harden says. Reward desired actions with food. For Harden, rats who act more as extras are paid in what he calls “dibblies,” a crumbled mix of pet food, dried fruit, vegetables and bread products. Harden incentivizes lead-actor rodents with nuts, or sometimes at the end of a long shoot even Fritos or sugar cereals.

Go to a pet store and buy a so-called clicker, a small hand-held device that makes a snapping sound. Begin by giving food and then clicking so the rat understands cause and effect, associating sound with treat. Eventually you’ll move to clicking first and feeding later, stretching the time between the two actions until the rat realizes the sound can act as a promissory note. But don’t wait more than 30 seconds to reward a behavior. “The quicker the food comes, the better the trick sticks,” Harden says.

Start with a simple goal of getting the rat to sit up on its hind legs. More complex undertakings need to be broken down into component tasks and rewarded accordingly. The most difficult trick is retrieval. Desensitize fretful rodent brains by frequently exposing them to different floor surfaces and new features in their surroundings. Short training sessions spread throughout the day work best. Harden suggests five 10-minute sessions a day. At times your furry apprentice will seem unruly, stubborn even. Don’t bother getting angry. “You can’t scold or punish them,” Harden says. “A rat does not understand discipline.”

See the full article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/31/magazine/how-to-train-a-rat.html