Georgie Works on Learning to Fetch

One of my goals for 2012 is to do some clicker training everyday (or at least almost everyday) with my critters. Finding time for training was hard last semester because I had three evening classes. Since the rats and mice are semi-nocturnal, the evening is one of the best times to work on training. I’m happy because I have only one evening class this semester and it should be easier to find time to clicker train the critters.

Recently, Georgie the rat and I have started working on fetch. Dogs and horses can learn to fetch, so why not a rat too? I’ve seen several very cute YouTube videos recently of rats and mice that fetch small objects. Georgie is just as smart as they are, so I know she can learn to fetch.

However, I’ve quickly discovered that this is a much harder trick to teach than I originally though! I want Georgie to go to a small object, pick it up, walk a few feet while carrying the object, and then drop it either in my palm or in a small cup.

One issue that I’ve run into is that there are two natural rat behaviors that compete with picking up an object and bringing it back to me. First, while Georgie is willing to pick up an object, she would often rather just sit there and chew on it. I ran into problems here because I clicked several times in the beginning for her picking up an object and nibbling it because I wanted to increase the duration that she would hold an object. However, she thought she was getting clicked for chewing!

The other difficulty I’ve had is that Georgie will sometimes pick up the object, then run off to find a good spot to hide the object, not caring at all about the click or the treat.

We often run into difficult spots when training animals (and when training people, too!). Often there is one behavior we want the animal to do and that we are willing to reward the animal for doing. However, the animal would rather engage in another behavior that she already knows how to do and likes to do. Sometimes trainers have to be very creative in these situations to figure out ways to make the behavior the trainer wants the most interesting and rewarding choice for the animal.

One thing I’ve been doing with Georgie is that we have been experimenting with different types of objects. Her behavior changes depending on the type of object, its size, and the material. For instance, I’ve tried using several small pieces of plastic that I’ve found lying around the house. Small pieces of plastic are definitely for chewing! I’ve had more luck so far with small wooden toys and pieces of wood. She is more likely to pick these up and move with them. However, we are still far from having anything that resembles fetch.

I’ve also been playing with changing the environment, including where the object begins in relation to her and where in the training area I deliver the treat. Sometimes small changes such as these can have a big impact on the success of training.

I will keep you updated as we continue to work on fetching. I thought that fetch wouldn’t be a hard trick to teach, but it’s turned into quite the challenge. However, so far, this has been a really fun puzzle for me. If anyone has any suggestions or ideas, I’d love to hear them!

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  • A very interesting  post! I ran in to difficulties when I tried to teach my horse to fetch as well.

    One thought that strikes me is this: Have Geogie been reinforced for coming to you? If she would be strongly reinforced for this, as well as for picking up objects in her mouth, maybe, she would with a bit of luck, if presented with these to opportunities at the same time, pick up the object and then run towards you. And also if she was strongly reinforced for targeting your hand with her nose, it may make her more prone to do that even with something in her mouth.

    I have no idea if this really would help, just musing upon the problem 🙂


    • Thanks so much for the suggestions!

      She already gets lots of treats during training for coming to me.

      However, I might give the hand targeting a try. That could possibly work well.

      Also, one thing that I might try, after thinking about your comments, is to start with the object in my palm. Then all she has to do is pick it up and drop it. And then extend the behavior from there. This might make it clearer and easier for her to figure out what I want.



      • Hi and thanks for your answer!
        It will be interesting to hear how things goes! Backward chaining seems like good idea!

        I wish now that I had thought of the hand targeting bit when I was training my horse. Being a horse, and capable of eating all the time, she happily picked up the dumbell and got treated time after time, but with little improvement in duration of the behavior 🙂

        About coming to you, I am not sure if you mean that you click Geogie FOR coming to you, or if she gets her treats in your hand after you have clicked her for something else? If it is established as an individual behavior I think it may be easier for the animal to think of doing it when it is trying to find something profitable to do.


        • We have done some targeting, but it's been awhile.

          The more I think about it, I think hand targeting might be a good thing to work on.

          I'll let you know how our fetch training goes as we continue it!



  • I love reading about your training efforts, Mary.  I always thought rats would be excellent students for “fetch in reverse,” meaning you hand them something and they run away with it and you never get it back. 🙂  Okay seriously, how about putting the hidey box that Georgie wants to stash to, near you, and place her away from it (and you), so that when she goes to bring the item to hide it, you meet her part way and reward her for that movement? My girl rats loved to stash shreds of magazine sheets (3″ x 3″ for example), or basket coffee filters. Things that were for nesting. However food is highly stashable…. except they don't want to give it back … unless you had a better treat in hand to exchange … except rats are good at focusing only on the best treat … so I'm spiraling down here. 🙂  Just thoughts; after all I'm still struggling with how to charge the clicker for my own rats. :

    • Thanks for the comment, Gwen.

      One thing that I tried that did seem to be working was I put the object in her hiding spot, then waited and clicked when she went to it and picked it up. At that point, she had no where to go except to bring it toward me a few steps.

      Another things I've thought that might work is to start with something that she considers a good hiding spot (maybe a Kleenex box) and reward her for hiding things in the box. Then, gradually change to other boxes and reduce the size of the box. Then start slowly taking away parts of the box, until I'm left with a small box or cup for her to put things in.

      Still playing around with ideas, not sure how to do any of this, but it's been fun and interesting so far. (Although also a bit frustrating!) We'll keep playing around and hopefully we'll get this figured out!

      P.S. She is very itchy lately, I'm going to send you a separate e-mail about that. Not sure if I should try Ivermectin or Revolution first, I've been reading about both of them.



  • Yep I was going to suggest back chaining too!  I'm looking forward to following your progress with it.  You'll get it figured out.  😀

    • Yes, It's been a bit frustrating, but I do enjoy a good puzzle. 🙂

      We've been taking a break from working on fetch, but do plan to resume working on it soon. Hopefully we will figure it out!