Hamsters can be trained to do tricks. Just as dogs can be trained using rewards, so can hamsters. However, you can only train them to do things which more or less fit in with their natural behaviour (Domjan l983). For instance, you could train a parrot to sing a lullaby but not a hamster that cannot imitate words or sing! But scientists have trained hamsters to press a bar for food or rear up on their hind legs. And my clever friend has trained a hamster to jump through a hoop and play football with a ping pong ball!
First of all, you need to find a suitable reward – sunflower seeds, dried mealworms or even bedding (Shettleworth 1978). Hamsters vary so you will have to make sure that your hamster is really motivated by the reward. You can train with a clicker. There is a good website here. Here is a demonstration video of target training and one of the hamster climbing over a little jump.
For inspiration look at this video of mice doing agility! My friend Beverley Saucell, BSc (Hons) DipCABT KPA-CTP, an expert pet behaviourist, trained a hamster for fun. She runs clicker training for dogs, so she had good skills. This is her experience:
“Firstly building a good relationship with your hamster is essential. I borrowed a client’s hamster whilst they were on holiday for a couple of weeks. I was lucky as she was a friendly and tame little thing from the outset although I started out initially just by clicking each time I hand fed her a treat.
Teaching her the sound and meaning of the clicker was easy. I started this as I mentioned and without getting her to perform any behaviour. As she didn’t know me and to build trust, the first thing I taught her was to run to my hand when I presented it so I could pick her up without ‘chasing’ her around the cage, she would then get a click and treat when she did this. An obvious difficulty as with any crepuscular animal was the times when I could work with her, which with her was usually at 10.00 – 11.00 pm as this was a time when she was particularly active.
I trained her in a large, high sided box (she kept climbing out the previous box with lower sides). Before deciding what to train I watched her to see what she did naturally. When starting out what to train any animal it is important to always first observe their natural behaviour. She stood up and moved about the box a lot so I decided on her going through a hoop and playing football (fundamentally pushing a Ping-Pong ball around) but starting with luring her into a stand so we could start with something simple and nothing adventurous. Mainly to get her to learn to work for food and to build a bond with me, a bit like teaching a dog to sit first before more complex behaviours.
She wanted to escape a lot and it was hard to get her to interact in the box until I realised she must feel uncomfortable outside her cage and so then put an empty, square tissue box in her training area where she could run in and hide when she felt like it. I also added a toilet roll tube that she would play with and munch on as this training area was barren compared to her 3-storey home, which made a difference.
I started with jumping through a hoop, one I constructed myself, and with it touching the bottom of the box. Initially I had to move it about so she walked through it until she realised going through the hoop earned her a click and treat. All mammals can touch a target with their nose, which is why I also decided on the Ping-Pong ball.
The challenges I encountered were keeping her motivated by food, which is easier to do with dogs, because if she was not hungry she would take the food and store it in her cheeks, and when they were full would look for an escape route to want to go back to her cage to store them. I opted for sunflower seeds in the end as they were a healthy option.
It was hard to train a hamster but not impossible, as her focus was low as she continuously was on the move. It was actually very rewarding as with food on offer she could have chosen not to. Similarly with a dog, she could be easily lured to follow the food so it was not necessary to touch her during the training process therefore she was not forced to do anything she didn’t want to do.
I didn’t get around to putting the behaviours on verbal cue, ie giving her a spoken command, as I didn’t have her long enough and I decided to limit training sessions to one, or two depending on her, a day for 5 minutes at a time, or less if she opted out. However the presentation of the objects, i.e. the hoop and the ball were sufficient as cues for her to do the behaviour. She quickly understood the significance of the clicker and would look for my hand when she heard its sound, expecting to receive a food reward, hence the importance of always following the click with a treat.
The key to success in any training is understanding your pet. As I mentioned I had limited time with her as she was on loan, however we were making good progress and I became quite attached to her.”
If you want Beverley Saucell’s help with your dog, either for classes or one-to-one for problems, you can contact her here.
Domjan, M., (1983), ‘Biological constraints on instrumental and classical conditioning: Retrospect and prospect,’ Animal Learning and Behavior, 11, 151-161
Shettleworth, S., (1978), ‘Reinforcement and the organization of behavior in golden hamsters: Sunflower seed and nest paper reinforcers,’ Animal Learning and Behavior, 6, 352-362