This site is not meant to be a training tutorial for ‘everymouse’, but should be an homage to my lots of little eggheads who since my childhood gave so much pleasure to me, and whose astonishing learning abilities never cease to amaze me.
Only recently I got thousands of mails referring to some of my videos published on several video portals and featured on TV shows. I’m really sorry that I couldn’t yet read them all, but I hope this provisional site will answer some of your questions…
What is mouse agility?
When I came up with this ‘mouse sport’ around 1990, agility for dogs didn’t yet exist or at least was unknown hereabouts, not until years later I termed what I was doing ‘mouse agility’, following the popular dog sport.
As in dog agility, the mouse has to complete an obstacle course in the correct order, including e.g. sea saw, tyre jump, weave poles and A frame. But certainly the owner won’t run alongside the mouse and give it commands - in fact, the mouse has to completely memorize the course!
How it all started.
When I was a child I discovered a small mouse population in our barn, and since then I sat there every single evening - dead still for hours - just to study the mice from up close. After a time, one mouse after another overcame its shyness with me, and soon there were these wild animals sitting on my shoulder, crawling under my sleeves and trouser legs, nibbling my hair and shoelaces.
From this moment on I was fatally attracted to these little rodents and was very proud of such people-shy animals having so much trust in me.
But as a result of my spending more time with the mice than on my homework, I soon got trouble with my parents. But they came up with a good compromise: I would have to give up on the wild mice, but for that I would be allowed to have some mice as pets.
So I finally got a group of four pet mice, all of them does and of extraordinary colours.
But one of them – a siam called Chilly – unfortunately turned out to be very aggressive. Because of that, cleaning out the cage was quite stressful for both of us, so I considered ways to tame Chilly.
I had always been trick training my other pets, starting with rats when I was only 5 years old, followed by dogs, rabbits, guineapigs, gerbils, African soft-furred rats and many more - and I often got to see the stress reducing and even therapeutic effect trick training had especially on behaviour disordered animals.
The difficult thing about Chilly’s training was that she couldn’t be touched at all, this little doe really challenged and spurred my creativity… mouse agility was born!
Mice as pets.
Not at least because my mice are not just pets but also food for my reptiles, I attach great importance to their physical health. Any stress (e.g. caused by bad husbandry conditions) will boost their adrenal hormone level, which will again have negative effects on their general health situation. On the contrary, the predator will profit from a heavily muscled and well-nourished feeder mouse.
I do not keep my mice in normal cages. In my opinion, that won’t in the least satisfy the needs of these extremely curious animals. But an acceptable way to keep mice would be e.g. a pyramid of different-sized tables, the several floors interestingly arranged and connected by ropes or ladders - this will keep them fit in all respects. Another advantage of this husbandry is the perfect airing, the good chance to watch your pets and the direct contact to them for the lack of cage bars or glass. Healthy mice are able to estimate the altitude correctly and neither fall nor jump off the table-pyramid. To supply their need for digging, I use to place a few litter-filled boxes onto the tables, as well as some bigger tubs beneath them, used as their “basement”.
Another group of mine lives in a rebuild tall cupboard – the front doors of course removed.
This ample space fortunately obviates any hamster wheel, those things make mice completely stupid and moreover injure their spine.
It goes without saying that such highly social animals can only feel comfortable in groups of not less than 3 or 4 individuals, if not more. Single housed mice will physically and mentally waste away rapidly – not the best advantage for trick training. Keeping a mouse alone is further against our country’s animal welfare law, but you won’t get one mouse from a responsible pet shop or breeder anyhow.
And certainly the group should be of the same gender, otherwise the does are condemned to have babies every 21 days, which of course tires them out, shortens their lives and produces masses of weakish inbred pups as a sideline, which are then difficult to place.
Bucks are not suitable as pets for non-experts, cause it requires very much experience and knowledge to keep a group of bucks stable on a long-term basis. The slightest dissonance between them may end fatally! Unlike does, bucks always fight to kill. But on the other hand, castrated bucks can be perfectly socialized with a group of does.
To simply keep bucks alone for convenience is certainly no choice for any pet lover and besides illegal.
By the way, another disadvantage of buck-keeping is that they stink like hell ;-)
Mice can also be socialized with some other rodents if necessary, but this again should be left to very experienced keepers only - otherwise this can easily cause the death of your mouse!
If one of my mice has to temporarily be separated from its group, I use e.g. African soft-furred rats (also known as natal rats or multimammate mice) to provisionally replace its companions. Although the two species cannot communicate at the same level, they will warm and groom each other, and these rats even adopt and nurse outcast mouse pups!
I generally prefer athletic, ingenious and fast mice with acute senses, that implies with closest resemblance to their wild relatives. If a mouse has any physical defect decreasing its quality of life, e.g. red eyes or long fur, I strictly keep it out of breeding.
At the present I’m keeping a group of nine does (excluding pups and feeders), eight wild-coloured and a black one, and then a group of three breeder bucks, wild-coloured as well.
An absolute necessity for any pet training is to understand the animal’s needs and to know about its generic behaviour, since appropriate animal training is only based on certain natural habits. For mouse agility, this means e.g. their great spatial orientation abilities and spatial memory which is worth bringing to light by relevant trick training. In nature, mice always prefer the familiar (= safe) route to their feeding site, no matter if it’s a long way round. This is also the reason why mice are unbeatable in maze tests – and a mouse agility course is nothing else than a maze without walls!
But many owners forget that if you expect your pet to show some natural habits and abilities, first and foremost the husbandry has to be species-appropriate. If your mice have to live in a small ground level cage, their three-dimensional consciousness and orientation abilities will surely be stunted or never fully develop.
Building trust with your mouse is also absolutely fundamental for any training, especially for agility. If the mouse feels uneasy about its surrounding and your presence, it will probably just try to escape by running along the wall for want of cover. Such a frightened rodent won’t cross free and light area while confidingly following your hand - but that’s exactly the sine qua non for agility training! A stressed mouse can never concentrate on the agility course and/or your hand, it will be so nervous that it even refuses its favourite treats or other rewards outside the cage and, if ever, learn a lot more slowly.
So the only but on the other hand most effective way to successfully agility-train your mouse is by positive reinforcement!
In general, mice are very quick and effective learners with an amazing memory, that’s why they are basically very easy to train. But you have to be aware of the fact that mice (e.g. compared to rats) are extremely sound-sensitive and easily scared. So it is sometimes hard to find a way to positively mark a certain behaviour without scaring the mouse. For example, a normal clicker might be too loud for some individuals, but human voice won’t work either as it is to deep for mice to astonish. In this cases, I’ve achieved good results by using a quiet ballpen instead of a classic clicker, as well as a mild light signal. In the main I try to be calm and not to talk to a sensitive mouse during training, any sound would attract this prey animal’s attention too much.
So, despite their intelligence, mice are definitely not the right pets for free-shaping/clicker training newbies, not least because they require absolute perfect timing – and it’s e.g. not the easiest thing to capture just one certain rapid behaviour this very agile little animal shows.
I usually start to train my self-bred mice when they are at least 4 weeks old, depending on their temperament. But generally, mice can be trained at ANY age just as well, assumed that the mouse was kept species-appropriately by then.
Principally I do not take any mouse out of its housing, as mice are pets to observe rather than handle. I always wait till it freely gets in touch with me, just out of curiosity. So I can be sure that the mouse has never had any negative experience with me, but will regard my hand to be the safest place on earth. This is the basis for several tricks, e.g. fetching small objects.
First I try to figure out what the individual mouse likes most, this may be certain treats for the one, some caressing or playing for the other. After that, the mouse learns that it MAY get what it desires e.g. at the end of the agility course. To maintain the mouse’s passion it is better not to award it every single time and always the same way. Otherwise this intelligent und nosy animal will get bored in no time and then tired of training.
For a mouse that has never been on my hand before, I start with two basic and simple tricks: it learns to nudge my hand with its nose and to touch my hand with its paw. These two are fundamental for a couple of more difficult tricks.
Sometimes it’s useful to apply a target stick instead of your hand, e.g. for teaching the mouse to spin or to slalom between your fingers. And not at least a target stick is convenient for highly aggressive rodents, such as natal rats!
Once your mouse understands this very simple trick, it will follow your hand (or the target stick) in all directions to nudge it (but remember that mice are short-sighted!), so you can most easily guide it threw the agility course. Then you can gradually take away your hand, so your mouse has to concentrate more and more on the course than on your hand / the target stick and has to memorize it.
The obstacles themselves don’t have to be introduced to the mouse in particular, cause certainly mice are able to balance, jump, climb etc. by nature, so they just have to learn the right order. Only the see-saw might frighten one or two mice at the beginning, but you can avoid this by slowing it a bit down by hand.
I prefer obstacles that can be made quickly and easily, that’s why I mostly just cut them out of a carton and stick them together, so that I don’t need any glue. This is important because especially at the beginning of the training, curious mice love to nibble on the obstacles. For the same reason I just use some non-toxic modelling clay to better fix the obstacles on the ground.
As most of my mice are very clever and therefore easily bored, it’s not worth while to expend more effort on the obstacles or to even buy some in a toy store.
Other mouse tricks.
Actually, this should be the main part of my site, since mouse agility is only one of many other tricks I have taught my mice so far. The truth is, I don’t even like mouse agility too much! — First, you have to build the obstacles, then arrange them, and after only one or two minutes of training stow them away again… which can be quite annoying (especially for an extra long course).
So I prefer mouse tricks for which you don’t need any equipment (except a clicker and some treats).
The learning abilities of mice seem to be unlimited:
Principally, you can teach them anything that you could also teach a rat – and you can teach a rat almost anything you could teach a dog!
That’s why my mouse training is often inspired by dog sports, e.g. dog dancing (which I practice with my own dogs). For mice, I simply use my fingers instead of my legs (e.g. for ‘finger slalom’ or jumping threw the ‘finger hoop’). And like my dogs, one of my mice can even walk backwards! Most others can give (or lift) their paw, spin, fetch, stand up,… like I said — anything you could teach a dog (admittedly, they still don’t bark on command ;-))
And similar to dog training again, you can also use their great sense of smell for a couple of tricks. Probably you have already heard of giant pouched rats being clicker trained to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis. But since tuberculosis and landmines are quite hard to find in my house, I turned this trick into something more useful for me: My mice can sniff out money!
I’m planning to introduce some of the easier tricks — which are, BTW, teachable to other rodents just as well — step-by-step here on this site or on my youtube-account.
So, if you’re interested, drop by frequently!
© 2008 mouse-agility.com
Unfortunately, my videos have recently spawned a few imitators who also call what they are doing ‘mouse agility’.
I say ‘unfortunately’, because for some, the motivation seems not to be the appropriate exercise and entertainment for their pets, but rather to show off themselves, and — not least — to make money out of my idea (e.g. by selling their own ‘mouse agility’ equipment).
One of those persons even lied about the copyright and publicly claimed one of my videos to be her own!
But to avoid being confused with animal abusers, let me explain the difference between my training and what some others call ‘training’:
As I said before, stressed and frightened mice (and other rodents) certainly just want to cover. That’s why they won’t cross free and light space, but will try to escape by running along the wall instead. Some ruthless people now try to use this behavior for pretending to have ‘trained’ their small pets. The truth is, they just annoy the poor rodents and then obstruct their escape route by some obstacles. If the animal feels uneasy enough and is distrustful of its owner, it will still rather get over the obstacles along the wall (sometimes I have also seen the wall replaced by e.g. wood planks, fences or books) than to leave its cover. You see, that has absolutely nothing to do with my definition of ‘mouse agility’ training.
Without this background knowledge, such poor animals might seem to be trained and — if you were not familiar with rodent body language — even seem to have ‘fun’. But the opposite is the case.
I HEREBY VEHEMENTLY DISTANCE MYSELF FROM THAT!
I often feel so guilty for having provoked that animal abuse by my videos, and even being brought into context with it, that I sometimes thought of taking my videos down. But instead, I decided to continue to show which incredible tricks you can teach your small pets — by positive reinforcement alone!
So please let me know if you saw my (text) content and/or videos being brought in such kind of context again. THANKS!
mouse agility - shop (German)
mouse agility - shop (U.S.)