As spunky and intelligent creatures, gerbils can be taught to perform tricks. You must first learn the proper way to handle the rodent and earn his trust before attempting further training. This does not mean that all gerbils possess circus-worthy talent, but with repetition, your pet will become acquainted with your voice and can even recognize his name.
Environment for Training
It can be quite difficult to catch a gerbil in his cage when your hand barely fits through the door, let alone in the colorful tubes that invade the small area. Housing your gerbils in a 10- or 20- gallon glass tank with a screened lid creates an ideal training environment. When acclimating the gerbil to you, remove his running wheel and chewing toys, leaving only the food dish and water bottle. This allows him to focus on you rather than hide or play. Wash your hands before and after handling your gerbil.
Remain in a calm state, not allowing excitement over your new pet nor fear of potential mishandling influence your interactions with him. Refrain from picking the gerbil up by his tail, as it is painful for the animal and the tail can break under such strain. For this and other reasons, young children should never hold gerbils unsupervised. Keep plenty of treats nearby, such as sunflower seeds or toasted oat cereal for positive reinforcement. Also remember that if your gerbil bites, do no get angry or drop him. A quick, light blow of air will discourage this behavior and he will associate biting with an unpleasant, though not harmful, experience.
Slowly put your fist into the cage, just on top of the bedding. Gerbils are curious creatures and will come inspect this strange creature. Allow your gerbil to sniff and walk on your fist while you speak in a soft, friendly voice. Respond to any nips or bites by blowing on him, but do not remove your hand. Repeat this process over a few days, leaving your hand in the cage for longer periods of time, to allow the gerbil to get used to your smell and voice.
Bonding Outside of the Cage
When lifting your gerbil out of the cage, cup your hands together and hold him close to your body to help him feel more secure. Handle the gerbil low to the ground so that if he wiggles free and falls, there is less chance of injury. Also keep him away from other household pets and easy-to-hide places, such as under a bed. Allow the gerbil to walk around and explore you, giving him occasional freedom from your hands. Repeat these interactions on a daily basis to build a strong bond and gain the trust of your gerbil.
Foundation for Tricks
In conjunction with using treats to encourage the gerbil to climb into your hand, you can train gerbils using certain auditory cues, like a soft whistle. Be sure that different sounds correlate with different commands. Over time, you may use the treats less and less, gradually increasing both the distance from your hand to the floor of the cage and the length of time the gerbil is held. This will encourage him to stand on his hind legs, and sometimes even jump into your hand without enticement. He will also learn to remain still when in your hand. Training a gerbil this way makes it much easier to remove him from the cage rather than chasing him around.
Wearing long sleeves gives your gerbil traction to climb up your arm, sit on your shoulder and inspect your face. Encourage the gerbil to your shoulder, and then from one shoulder to the next, with treats along the way. Wear a shirt with a pocket and encourage the gerbil into it with treats and praise. Remember to use auditory cues in conjunction with treats when teaching different tricks. In time you will be able to get the gerbil to perform when using only a few treats.
Probably one of the best tricks to teach a gerbil is to use a litter bowl. While this is not a substitute for cleaning the cage, it will keep the bedding less dirty. Use a ceramic bowl half filled with sand or chinchilla dust that the gerbil will inspect and even take a dust bath in. The gerbil may then use the dust bowl to go to the bathroom, but will no longer play in it while it is dirty. Remove the litter, clean the bowl with hot water and soap and refill it it to encourage the gerbil to continue to use his new litter.
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