Gerbils are intelligent animals. If offered an enticing reward, they will learn to repeat desired behaviors. You can teach your gerbil tricks using both voice commands and hand gestures.
Gerbils can learn tricks such as to come when called, beg, turn around, and jump into your hand. With time, gerbils can also be taught to navigate complex mazes and run obstacle courses. Tasty treats, such as sunflower seeds and raisins, make great gerbil training rewards.
We’ll discuss how to teach your gerbil tricks, and the best treats to use as incentives. We’ll explore seven cool gerbil tricks, and provide a step-by-step training process for each one.
Can Gerbils Learn Tricks?
Gerbils are a species in the order Rodentia, otherwise known as rodents. Rodents are clever creatures, and have demonstrated this countless times in laboratory settings. Gerbils and other rodents have learned to memorize mazes, learn tricks, respond to auditory and visual stimuli.
An article in Nature explained that gerbils can distinguish between different vowel sounds, such as ‘oo’ and ‘ee.’ They were able to tell which cup contained food, depending on which vowel sound they heard.
Not every gerbil is equally intelligent, and some gerbils may learn quicker or slower than others. Gerbils can get distracted easily, and don’t have long attention spans. But if you put in the work every day, you can certainly teach your gerbil some basic tricks.
Don’t expect anything too complicated from your gerbil, like learning to walk on its hind legs or play dead. Gerbil tricks are different from tricks you might teach other animals, but they are impressive.
Your gerbil must fully trust you before it will work with you. If you haven’t already, work on building up your bond with your gerbil. Spend some time every day holding and playing with it.
How to Teach Your Gerbil Tricks
The gerbil training process is based on a learning method called positive reinforcement. It was first publicized in 1938 by a psychologist called B.F. Skinner.
In his book, Skinner demonstrated that rats could be taught to pull levers. By presenting a reward (food) when the lever was pulled, the rats learned to repeat the behavior.
A study in Psychonomic Science showed that gerbils can also learn using positive reinforcement. The critical components to gerbil training are:
- Breaking the trick up into small, manageable stages. This makes it easier than trying to teach the whole trick at once.
- Offering an exciting incentive, such as free run time, or a special snack. Gerbils learn quickly if they think it will be worth it.
- Pairing the behavior with a visual or auditory cue. Once your gerbil has learned the trick, repeat a vocalization or gesture each time. Your gerbil will come to associate it with the trick, and will then perform the trick on-cue.
- Consistency and patience. Reward your gerbil each and every time it displays the trick on-cue. It may take days or weeks for your gerbil to perfect it.
Some gerbil owners use target sticks and clickers to help with training. Target sticks are wooden sticks with a ball on the end. You can teach your gerbil to follow the target, by rewarding it for doing so. This can help make some tricks easier to teach.
Clickers are devices with a button that emits a distinct ‘click’ sound. When your gerbil performs the desired behavior, accompany the reward with a click. Clicker training gerbils helps them to learn tricks faster.
What Are the Best Gerbil Treats For Rewards?
To train gerbils to perform a trick, there must be an incentive – something “in it for them.” What works best for your gerbil will depend on its personal likes and dislikes.
The treats that work best as training rewards are foods that your gerbil doesn’t usually get. Pick something high in sugar or fat, that your gerbil will be willing to work hard for. Good gerbil training treats include:
- Dried fruit such as raisins or chunks of dried apricot, banana, apple, and coconut.
- Seeds. Gerbil favorites include sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.
- Nuts including hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts, almonds, and cashews. They should be raw and unsalted.
- Small pieces of bread, pasta, and cereal (not the sugar-coated kind).
- Chunks of cheese or plain roast chicken.
The above treats should not make up a significant portion of your gerbil’s diet. That’s because they are high in calories and can make your gerbil overweight if it eats too many. But used solely as training rewards, they will get your gerbil doing tricks in no time.
Most gerbils also appreciate the free run time. If your gerbil isn’t food-oriented, try letting it out of its cage as a reward for performing a trick.
If you are using a clicker, give a ‘click’ whenever you reward your gerbil.
What Tricks Can Gerbils Learn?
Gerbils can learn all sorts of different tricks. The limit is your own imagination, and how much time and effort you’re willing to put into it.
How to Teach a Gerbil Its Name
Coming when called is one of the easiest tricks for gerbils to learn. This is because your gerbil will hear its name a lot anyway, whenever you come over to its cage.
It’s also one of the most important tricks for your gerbil to learn, for safety reasons. It means that if your gerbil ever escapes or gets lost, it will respond when you call it.
When you approach the gerbilarium, have a treat in your hand (such as a sunflower seed). As you get closer, your gerbil should show curiosity, and come out to see what’s going on.
Open the gerbilarium, put your hand inside, and reveal the treat. As you do this, call your gerbil’s name a few times. They will come over and eat the treat.
Repeat this multiple times every day. Try to use the same tone of voice and inflection each time you say your gerbil’s name.
Eventually, your gerbil will learn to come when you say its name, before it’s seen a treat. You can then progress to trying this outside the cage, from a further distance.
How to Teach a Gerbil to Beg
Gerbils frequently go up onto their hind legs, with their front paws together in front of them. It gives them a better vantage point from which to survey their surroundings.
This position is often seen when a gerbil is on alert, such as when it’s heard an alarming noise. Because it’s such a natural behavior for gerbils, it’s easy to train them to do it on command.
Hold a treat above your gerbil’s head, slightly out of its reach. It will naturally go up onto its hind legs to reach it.
When your gerbil is on its hind legs, say the word “beg” (or use a different cue, such as a whistle). Do this multiple times a day for a few days.
Then, start giving the cue before you hold the treat up. It may take some time, but your gerbil will eventually learn to go onto its hind legs in response to your cue.
Auditory cues work better than visual cues for this trick. This is because your gerbil will be busy looking up at the treat.
How to Teach a Gerbil to Spin
To teach your gerbil to spin, you will first need to teach it to follow a target stick.
Present the stick, and give your gerbil a treat every time it touches the target with its nose. It will soon learn to follow the target around the cage.
Once your gerbil has mastered the target stick, you can teach it to spin (turn around in a circle).
- Place the target stick in front of your gerbil’s nose.
- Move the stick slightly to the left. Your gerbil should turn its head to follow the stick. Give your gerbil a treat for doing so.
- Repeat this a few times, moving the target stick further each time before you give the reward. Your gerbil will eventually follow the target stick in a complete circle.
- Give your gerbil a cue just before moving the target stick around. This could be auditory (the word “spin”) or visual (moving your finger in a circle).
- After a few days, remove the target stick. Give the cue, and wait for your gerbil to turn around on its own.
This is a complicated trick that can take a long time for gerbils to master. If your gerbil is struggling to spin without the target stick, reintroduce it, and repeat the cue.
How to Train a Gerbil to Jump Into Your Hand
Fully-grown gerbils can jump distances of up to 11 inches. Teaching a gerbil to jump from the floor into your hand is simple, but requires many steps.
Put your hand on the floor of the gerbilarium, palm-up. Your gerbil may come over anyway, but if it doesn’t, use a target stick to guide your gerbil.
When your gerbil places a paw on your hand, offer a treat. Next, reward your gerbil for placing both of its front paws onto your hand.
Eventually, your gerbil will learn to climb into your hand completely. When it does this, you can remove your gerbil from the cage and let it free roam.
Free roam time is one of the most effective rewards for pet gerbils, as they love to explore. Multiple times a day, allow your gerbil to climb into your hand and reward it by letting it out of the cage.
When your gerbil is used to this, hover your hand around one inch above the substrate. Your gerbil should happily jump into your hand. Reward your gerbil, and add a vocal command (such as “jump”).
Slowly increase the height, rewarding your gerbil each time.
How to Teach a Gerbil Agility
Gerbil agility involves jumping and climbing over, under and through various objects. Gerbils can learn how to pass different obstacles with ease. With time, your gerbil will be able to run a full gerbil obstacle course.
Each gerbil obstacle involves the same basic training process. Let’s use the example of teaching your gerbil to jump over a bar.
- Place the bar on the floor.
- Entice your gerbil to climb over the bar using your target stick. Immediately reward with a treat.
- Raise the bar into the air, about half an inch. Again, encourage your gerbil to climb over, and reward with a treat.
- Continue raising the height of the bar, half an inch at a time, and rewarding each time. Eventually, your gerbil may be able to jump over a bar which is 3 or 4 inches high.
You can apply this technique to teach your gerbil to pass many different obstacles. For example, gerbils can learn how to jump through hoops, climb over bridges, and crawl through tunnels. You can even teach your gerbil how to walk over a balance beam.
Pet gerbils are descended from wild Mongolian gerbils, which live in huge underground burrows. They’re used to finding their way through complex tunnel systems, so they can learn maze layouts with ease. Maze running is one of the coolest gerbil tricks to show to your friends.
To make a gerbil maze, you’ll need a large piece of cardboard for the base. Use a hot glue gun to attach cardboard strips for the walls. The walls should be at least 6 inches high, so your gerbil can’t jump over them.
To train your gerbil to go through the maze, begin with a straight corridor. Place a treat at one end and your gerbil at the other. It will naturally go down the corridor to reach the treat.
When your gerbil is used to this, add a bend to the left or right. Keep adding twists and turns each time you practice.
Eventually, your gerbil will be able to memorize the most complicated maze layouts. The more times it goes through the gerbil maze, the quicker it will be able to complete it.
How to Train a Gerbil to Use a Litter Box
You can’t teach a gerbil to poop on command. However, you can train your gerbil to go to the toilet in a designated area.
Gerbils prefer to go to the toilet in the same place each time. According to Laboratory Animals, gerbils are more likely to urinate in a place where their own urine is already present. The same goes for defecation.
While cleaning the gerbilarium, you will notice more gerbil poop in this area than any other. This is where you should place the litter box.
Choose a heavy ceramic or glass dish, like a large ramekin or an ash tray. Fill the dish with a layer of clean sand.
Scoop up your gerbil’s poops, and place them on top of the sand. This will help your gerbil understand what the dish is for. Place the dish down in the area of the cage where your gerbil likes to do its business.
Most gerbils quickly get the hang of the litter box. To encourage your gerbil further, use the clicker and offer a treat whenever you see it using the box.
Gerbil Training Tricks and Tips
All gerbil training takes time, persistence, and patience. Gerbils are individuals, and some learn quicker than others. So, don’t be discouraged if your gerbil doesn’t learn tricks quickly.
Here are some gerbil training tips to help your gerbil learn tricks faster:
- Work to your gerbil’s schedule. Train them when they seem awake, active, and inquisitive. Don’t interrupt your gerbil when it’s resting, eating, or drinking.
- Gerbil training sessions should last for a maximum of 10 minutes at a time. Any longer, and your gerbil’s attention will wander. Multiple short sessions are more effective than longer, less frequent sessions.
- To keep things interesting for your gerbil, vary the treats that you offer as rewards. Try different nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and non-sugary cereal pieces.
- Don’t try to train more than one gerbil at a time, as they will distract each other.
- Use clear, distinct visual, and auditory commands for each trick. Otherwise, your gerbil may get confused. Some gerbils learn better with vocal commands, and other with gestures.
- Never punish your gerbil for mistakes. Gerbils can learn using punishment, according to Neuroscience, but it’s not as effective as positive reinforcement (reward). It will also harm the bond between you and your gerbil, and it may become frightened of you.
Young gerbils learn tricks faster than older gerbils. If you have an older gerbil, it may take longer, but it’s still possible to train them. The stronger your bond, the more your gerbil will trust you, and the more success you’ll have.