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!


the taming of the ham

For the past two years, give or take, I had a hamster: a black one-eyed Syrian, amiable and rotund like a miniature Buddha. One Eyed Jack was his name; he’d been a rescue from Craigslist, and the getting of him was one of my early victories versus The Anxiety. Driving plus new places plus strangers equals panic, unless you get a hamster out of it. Jack was more like a dog: he never bit, licked peanut butter off my fingers, never escaped, never excreted on me, came ambling up when I called for him, and was so lazy that he only took a leisurely stroll in his wheel about twice a week. His one vice was bar-chewing, late at night, for hours.

The problem with these guys is that they do not live nearly long enough. A urinary problem appeared in January, and while the trip to the vet was highly entertaining it didn’t cure anything — given his age and the rule-out of infection it meant various terminal things. About two months later a tumor appeared on his right hip. A week later he died, obliging to the last; he kept breathing until I was there to hold him when he relaxed and let life go.

An act like that is hard to follow. It was a good month before the dismantled and sterilized cage on the top of my bookshelf looked empty instead of mournful. Then I started thinking about Another Hamster. It wouldn’t be Jack, but none of them ever could be; it’d be a new little critter with a new little critter-brain to mold and shape, new behaviors to coax and condition. Eventually that sounded good, so I started checking the internet and the local shops.

What I found was a dove-grey rodent with creamy rings around his eyes and along his snoot, all of two months old and as small as a (particularly robust) mouse. I found myself asking him “So, pal, what do you say? Wanna live with me, eat the snow peas from my moo goo gai pan?” At that point there was nothing for me to do but have them box him up and bring him home.

It took a few days for the little bug to adjust; new world, no littermates. I called him ‘little mouse,’ tested out several names, and loomed benignly in the distance so that he’d get accustomed to the sight and sound and smell of me. By the time he was acclimated enough to run on the wheel even if I was standing next to the cage and talking to the dog, I’d settled on ‘Myshka’ as a name – which is “little mouse” in Russian. Interestingly, ‘Mishka’ would mean “little bear,” if I have the -ka suffix correct, and little mousebear seems like a very good way to explain a hamster.

So: I have a young impressionable hand-shy hamster, now what? Jack had come to me fully and amazingly tamed, though he wasn’t too fond of being out of the cage. I refreshed myself on How One Tames A Rodent, but privately I wondered if I’d be able to pull it off.

This morning I woke up and peered into the cage, as I do, on my way to the bathroom. No hamster. I popped the door open, dug around in the bedding, removed the furnishings. Still no hamster. I looked around on the floor. No hamster. I considered myself very fortunate to have shut Beloved Dog out of the room for the evening (she’d been more interested in prodding me and wriggling when all I wanted to do was fall asleep) so that little Myshka hadn’t become a tasty snack.

I found him by waiting in silence and then following the scuffles: he’d worked his way into my nightstand, where he was tucked into a corner and nibbling the last lonely piece of my Emergency Chocolate. I checked the cage for various points of egress (the cage was designed for rats but is perfect for a full-grown Syrian, being three square feet) and identified a few spots that Myshka’s tiny self could probably have wiggled through. If the skull can fit through, so can the rest of the rodent. I set a sheet of cardboard on the top to block the seams where everything fit together, added a nearby book to keep it in place, affixed a pair of binder rings to the door corners, and then gave that a test run, leaving ham and cage alone in the closed room all day. He stayed in, so it worked.

I couldn’t be too upset about The Great Escape. The little guy was experimenting with his environment, which meant he’d traded fear for curiosity. Some objects in the cage move, and some make sound; some are porous and good for chewing, while others are not. Some things he can fit inside, or under, or on top of. Some things involve climbing. It’s been fascinating watching him test objects: is it food? can it be chewed?  climbed into or under or on? dug in? carried? is it stable or does it move? Hamster priorities are different, and it’s interesting to see how he approaches the objects I give him.

Tonight I balanced a yogurt drop on the tip of my finger and laid my hand in the cage, near enough that he could take the treat if he wanted. He sniffed until temptation overruled shyness, took the treat, and ate it. I carefully petted him with a finger: he cowered when I stroked along his spine, but sides and belly were all right. Big moment. Big, big moment. I’d earned some major points with little Myshka; I’d gone from the potentially scary giant ape to the potentially snack-bringing giant ape.

Pretty much any animal can get to like you if you have the right snacks to offer.

After that he kept looking outside the cage, which reminded me of the way Jack used to beg for treats. So I went back over, spoke softly, let him know I was there. He’d climbed up the bars again and hung there, watching me with ink-drop eyes. I offered him a seed. He dropped it. I picked out a different seed. He dropped that one. I picked another; that got shuffled into his face-pocket.

Then we were pals. I was a potential source of delicious treats. I dutifully fed seeds, one at a time, and he stuffed them away in his pouches for later. It was like a Pez dispenser, but backwards.

I’m amazed that in five days this tiny animal went from spooking and running if I made a sound to accepting food from my gigantic scary hands. (More than that; as I type he’s climbing up into the cage corners again, likely to see if that is the correct behavior to make me give him delicious mango seeds.) Taming a hamster is not a particularly big thing, but I’m fascinated. He’s showing new behaviors, trading fear for inquisitiveness. His little brain is molding itself in response to things I do.

Clearly, the next step – after getting him used to being handled – is to see what’s been done with rodents and operant conditioning. He’s all potential and fuzz. I wonder what he can do.