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Training Your Guinea Pig

By: Talia Starkey

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When you bring your guinea pig home, let him have a few quiet days to adjust to his new surroundings before you start handling him. Speak to him softly in a comforting voice when you give him fresh water and food but don't try to pick him up just yet. Instead, try feeding him a celery or carrot stick directly from your fingers before you place his bowl on the cage floor. Hold the long-stemmed treat close enough to your guinea pig so that he can smell it but far enough away to make him stretch or take a step in your direction to grab it. With time, your guinea pig will come to recognize your voice and smell and may squeal expectantly whenever you enter the room.

The Lift and Hold

To pick up your guinea pig, place one hand over his shoulders such that your thumb and forefingers brace his front legs and prevent him from leaping forward. Use your other hand to scoop under your guinea pig's body and rump to support his weight. As you lift him, your grip should be firm but gentle. Remember: Guinea pigs almost never bite, and there is no reason for you to be more nervous about picking your pet up than he is.

Once you've lifted your guinea pig out of his cage, hold him close to your body. You can let him stand lengthwise across your arm as you hold it folded against your chest, or prop him up so that one of your hands cups his bottom as he stands with all four feet flat on your chest. Either way, be sure to hold your opposite hand against his back so that he feels secure and does not tip over backward or fall. Guinea pigs cannot land on their feet like cats can and have no means of protecting themselves from impact.

Owners who have mastered the lift-and-hold with their pets may want to move on to fancier tricks. Guinea pigs aren't as easy to train as other rodents, but with patience you may be able to teach your guinea pig to run in a circle, to stand on a pedestal or to respond to his name.

As a general rule, young guinea pigs are more receptive to handling and training than older ones are. Some may never learn. Most small rodent training relies on a method called operant conditioning, wherein the rodent receives a reward every time he completes a specific task. However, to teach your guinea pig a completely new trick, you've got to start by rewarding small movements that will eventually lead up to the trick in full.

A Hungry Rodent Learns Best

Take a tip from laboratory researchers who train rats and gerbils for psychology studies – a hungry rodent learns best. That's because the motivating factor for your pet to complete his tricks is not your praise or adoration, but the treat he earns after he has "done good."

For example, if you want your guinea pig to run in a clockwise circle on command, kneel on the floor and place him on the ground facing you. Load your pockets with light treats, like carrot bits and keep a metal noisemaker (a "clicker") in your hand. Say, "Turn." Then watch and wait. If by chance your guinea pig turns his head even the slightest bit to the right, click the noisemaker. The sound may startle your guinea pig, and he will likely look up at you in surprise. If you give him the reward then, he will soon come to recognize the sound as an indication he has done something right. After he has eaten his treat, place him back in the original position. Say, "Turn," then sound the clicker and dispense with the reward if he responds as desired. As your guinea pig learns the signal, make it progressively harder to earn the reward. Give it to him only if he turns 45 degrees to the right, then only if he turns 90 degrees, and so on. This trick may take several weeks of daily half-hour training sessions to master.

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