By Donna Anastasi
Gerbils enjoy performing certain tricks as long as the training is fun and done as part of their daily playtime. Gerbils, unlike dogs, are not food-driven. The reward for desired behavior isn’t edible, but instead is to give them fun, freedom and attention.
1. Ladder To Fun
First, teach your gerbil that you are the ladder to the outside world. Take everything out of the gerbils’ cage, and then rest your hand and arm in it at a gently sloped angle. Be very still and talk softly. Gerbils have acute hearing and love soft-sounding noises. Then just wait. Ignore your gerbils completely. You may even decide to watch television while they are getting accustomed to you.
Before too long your gerbils will start sniffing at your hand and sitting on it. Next they will begin climbing up your arm (wear a long-sleeved shirt to give them better traction). At this point slowly lift the gerbil out of the tank and offer your gerbil a reward. The best gerbil incentive is running and exploring, so give your gerbil a few minutes of free-run time in the area you’ve gerbil-proofed. Then, put the gerbil back into his housing.
It won’t be long before your gerbils are running straight for your hand, up your arm and onto your shoulder. It can take some practice to handle two gerbils at once; if you have more than one, as a gerbil crawls up your arm, lift him out and hold him individually to start.
2. Shoulder Sitting
To teach your gerbil to sit on your shoulder, begin by being seated on a soft surface like a couch or rug. Place the gerbil on your shoulder and tell him how pleased you are. When he tries to climb down say “Awk” or “No,” and gently push him back up onto your shoulder. If he ignores you and continues to climb down, put him back into his house. After a minute, offer your hand so that he can come out again, and place him on your shoulder.
After some training your gerbil will realize that coming off the shoulder means playtime is over, and he will happily shoulder-sit or run from shoulder to shoulder.
Once your gerbils learn to crawl into your hand, up your arm and onto your shoulder, the very sight of you may get them excited. As you peer into the tank or take off the lid, the gerbils may dance against the front of the glass or leap into the air. Their body language is clearly saying, “Out, out, out.”
To teach a gerbil to jump into your open palm, start out resting your hand on the floor of the tank. When your gerbil crawls onto your hand, lift him out and give your pet a few minutes of playtime. Then return him to the tank. This time, keep your hand raised an inch or so above the floor. Anchor your hand against the side of the tank so it is still and steady. When your gerbil crawls onto your hand, give him some out time and put him back. Raise your hand inch by inch until your gerbils are leaping several inches to get onto your hand to come out.
4. Gerbil Agility
The new craze in the world of gerbils is, believe it or not, gerbil agility. Like dog agility, the gerbil runs over, under and through a course of obstacles. There are many YouTube videos of gerbils showing off their skills: “Herman The Show Jumping Gerbil” and “Agility Gerbil — Binki” are two of my favorites. If you are selecting pet gerbils and want to do agility training, pick the gerbils that come to you fastest: the gerbils that are the most fearless, curious and active. These are the ones that immediately climb on top of any object placed into the housing. You may also see them jumping up on top of the water bottle or springing up to touch the lid of the tank, just because they can.
For gerbil agility, you need some equipment for jumps, tunnels and ramps. You can buy these or make them. For my agility courses, I like to use children’s wooden building blocks (which attract gerbils because gerbils love wood) and quality toy horse jumps made of heavy plastic. Attach the pieces of the jumps together using nonpermanent paper paste or putty for more stability. Gerbils tend to avoid obstacles that shake or fall apart.
To train gerbil agility, use a combination of the techniques already discussed in this article, plus a little knowledge of natural gerbil behavior. In addition to a love of climbing over, under and through things, gerbils instinctually run in a straight line and follow the same path or course over and over.
Start in a large escape-proof area. Observe your gerbil as he runs free and notice his running pattern. He will likely move alongside one or more walls of the room and in a preferred direction. Some gerbils like to run at top speed toward a familiar “target” spot or home base, such as a cardboard box fun house that you’ve set up in one corner of the room.
Place a few “easy” obstacles like 1-inch high building blocks in the gerbil’s established running path. When he gets to the blocks, he may just jump over them. If the gerbil tries to go around an obstacle, guide him toward the block with a gentle, steady push with your hand. Hopefully, your gerbil will jump over one or more of the blocks. As your gerbil masters the jumps, add more of them with more difficulty and variety. If your gerbil continues to try to go around the obstacles, try making them easier and lower to start. Use a small-animal fence to make a corridor so that your gerbil can’t go around the jumps.
As your gerbil gains confidence and speed, increase the height and jump difficulty. When the gerbil has mastered the course you want, begin inching the fence away from the obstacles. And gently guide the gerbil back toward the obstacles if he tries to go off course. You can see a training session titled “How To Teach Gerbil Agility” by ABCgerbils on YouTube with my gerbil Benny; it shows his first attempt at gerbil agility.
Gerbils are easy to train, and when you use many combinations of freedom, fun and attention, they will respond by becoming pets you enjoy having as much as they relish being part of your family. Regular interaction and playtime establishes a strong bond between you and your pets. This doesn’t have to be a time-suck — 15 minutes to an hour a day is fine. The more often you engage with your gerbils, the more they will delight and surprise you. It’s amazing that with the right time and attention these small creatures can become such wonderful pets and companions.
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And check out:
Gerbils At Play In And Out Of The Cage, click here.
See questions and answers about gerbil behavior, click here.
See questions and answers about gerbil health, click here.