behavioral conditioning in mesocricetus auratus

This is fascinating stuff, guys. I’m using what I’ve learned from Beloved Dog – adapted for an animal the size and weight of a cellphone, of course – and I’m reading up online, though most of what I’m finding there is Skinner boxes and less things like “how to teach a hamster to perform behaviors the way a dog would.”

Still, it’s really neat to see Myshka’s teeny tiny brain molding and changing itself, laying down new pathways and reflexes, in response to the things I encourage and discourage. I know animal training is Not A Big Thing, in the grand scheme of Big Things, but it always strikes me as some kind of minor miracle: I am communicating with a critter that is not human, and we are understanding each other, and accomplishing things. It’s immensely gratifying. (Before you ask: I would only be willing to do this professionally if I didn’t have to train the owners, and that’s most of what other-peoples’-pets-training IS. Animals ain’t Disney characters.)

Right now I’m working on handling and hand-taming, with little Myshka. The operant-conditioning reward system makes this really easy. I will explain how I do this, as I’m not 100% working with scientific methods here. A bit more intuition, a bit less rigidity.

I try to get the animal to perform a behavior I want. If they perform the behavior, they get a high-value reward. With Dog it’s either food or playtime with a valued toy; for a hamster it’s a particularly delicious treat. That’s the positive-reinforcement stimulus. If I don’t get the behavior, then they don’t get any reward: that’s a neutral stimulus, neither reward nor punishment. The treat is still on offer though, so the animal can try other behaviors to see if they can get it. For Dog that means she’ll roll through every trick she knows when I’m trying to shape new behavior. For the hamster… well, he’s new to this, so it mostly means confusion. But we’re working on it.

After that comes the shaping, where I reward behavior in increments until I get them from “WTF” to easily doing a complex series of tasks. For Myshka, that means: first he gets the treat when I bring it to him. Then he gets the treat when he approaches my hand. Then he has to climb onto my stationary hand to get it. Then he has to climb on my hand and eat it there while I lift him up. The end result of this would be that he’d come willingly to my hand, because that usually means food, and in the interim he would become accustomed to being touched.

There’s no force involved: either he does it and gets the treat, or he decides not to and there is no punishment. If he grabs the treat and takes off, that’s what happens. (but I round up the treats when they’re left behind, so they don’t lose their value) It’s all up to him. But delicious snacks are very tempting, and every time we do this successfully I’m a little less scary and a little more appealing.

I rarely use negative reinforcement. It’s gotta be something big and bad. For Dog, that’s mostly things like chasing possums or wedging herself under the house or pursuing cane toads – then there’s a sharp reprimand and usually a timeout, because that is what works best on her. With Myshka, there’s really not much wrong he can do — the only thing is cage-bar chewing (Jack’s favorite vice, and cause of many sleepless nights for me) which I am trying to nip in the bud. Reading and experimentation has shown that the best negative reinforcer for a hamster is blowing on them like a hot coffee. Startles them, they don’t like it, but it doesn’t hurt — which is perfect for my purposes. I don’t want him afraid in any way, I just want him to learn: “I chew bars, I get bad air startles. I will, therefore, not chew the bars.” And when he leaves the bars and goes to do anything else, he gets praise-voice and delicious snacks, which redirects that chew urge to something he can gnaw.

That’s the theory, anyway. We’ll see if it works. Though it seems to be: he’s been climbing onto my stationary hand to retrieve a treat, and a few times now (in the cage, mind) I’ve got him to walk from one hand to another. He still flinches at an unexpected touch, but they are not as much of a violent startle as they used to be, and sometimes he accepts it without reaction. It’s a start.

It really is sad how much fun I find this. I MOLD THE LITTLE ANIMAL BRAIN! YES!

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