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How Does a Rat Learn to Dunk Tiny Basketballs? We Asked a Rat-Training Teen

18-year-old Abby Roeser says she hopes her videos help people gain a better understanding of what the rodents are really like.
July 31, 2015, 2:55pm
Roeser's rat Pepper gets nothin' but net in one of her videos.

Many of us only think of rats in two contexts: sewers and science labs. Of course, there are plenty of rats scurrying around subterranean environments and helping us better understand brains and behaviour, but we sometimes forget that for some people, rats are just the family pet.

And these pets are highly intelligent, tidy animals capable of mastering tricks that would baffle some dogs, like this one:

The thief in the video is Pepper (who, sadly, has since passed away) and her trainer is 18-year-old Abby Roeser, a soon-to-be college freshman from outside Philadelphia. Roeser has always loved animals and had lots of pets, including other rodents like hamsters and guinea pigs. Three years ago, when her fish died and she was on the market for a new companion, she did a little research and discovered rats can actually be very affectionate and intelligent pets, so she bought two from the pet store. It was love at first nuzzle.

Since then she's had five pet rats and has fostered half a dozen rescue rats. I gave Roeser a call to find out how she trains her rats to do such complex tricks and what she loves about her rodentia pals:


MOTHERBOARD: When did you realize you could teach your rats tricks?
Roeser: I knew they were smart and I had trained my dog to do some little tricks. A couple of months after I got [my first rats], I taught them how to spin and was just completely shocked when they learned it after maybe two minutes. I knew, since they learned so fast, that there's a lot of potential for them to learn pretty complex tricks.

You said the spin trick only took two minutes to learn. What about the more complex tricks?
It depends, because a lot of the tricks are based on behavior they already have. For a trick like fetch, that's a new behavior for them, so originally when I taught them fetch it probably took four to six days of ten to 20 minutes of training per day. But after that, since Pepper already knew to fetch a ball, to teach her to put it into a hoop took maybe ten minutes. All of the tricks I've taught them have taken less than a week.

How did you learn how to train animals?
I think people think training animals is a difficult thing, but it's fairly easy. I didn't learn at any specific place. It's pretty easy to learn the right time to reinforce them with treats and when to say the command. That's the biggest thing: timing. The message you're trying to get across to the animal is "you did this right, so you get a reward." Once they get that message, they'll pretty much do the action very reliably.


What kind of treats do you use when you're training?
For rats, I use mostly Cheerios just because they're small and not that unhealthy. But they also really like dog food, dog treats, they love meat. If I have chicken for dinner I'll cut off a little piece for them. They love peas. They'll eat pretty much anything, any type of human food. Rats like the same things that people like: really sugary things, really salty things.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about rats?
A lot of people think that they're very dirty, but they aren't. They spend a lot of time grooming themselves and mine are litter-trained. A lot of people ask if I'm scared of getting sick from them, but you're very unlikely to get sick from a domestic rat that was born in captivity unless it was mingling with wild rats. [People think] the tails are going to be slimy, which is funny because why would that be? Their tails have fur on them and they're not slimy at all, obviously.

I have a friend with a pet rat (s/o to Mr. Baby) and I showed him your videos, but he didn't think his rat could learn those tricks. Can any rat learn these tricks?
Something I hear all the time is "oh, your rats are so smart. My rats would never be able to do something like that." But my rats are definitely not special rats. None of them have come from breeders, the original two were from pet stores and the others were rescues or feeder rats for people's snakes that were leftover. Anybody's rats can learn these tricks if you learn the basics of training.

Which do you think is smartest: dogs, cats, or rats?
I'm not a huge fan of cats. I don't think they're particularly smart. Rats and dogs are smart in different ways. Dogs and humans are the only species that look into eyes for direction and the amount of domestication we've done to dogs is pretty incredible. I'm not going to say rats are smarter than dogs, I think they're pretty even.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.