Shirtwork - Bring Rats Into Your Shirt?
This method should only be used with rats who voluntarily go into your shirt.
If your rat is hesitant to explore inside your shirt, please do not force her inside.
Respecting the rat's fears will do more to establish that you can be trusted, than
ignoring the rat's fear and in fact escalating it by forcing her inside.
(Can you find the rat accompanying Cinderella? :)
If your rat is very shy and does not want to be with you, even on your shoulder, does not want to be held, or is afraid to come out of the cage and be with you, start with other methods: For a deeply fearful or aggressive rat, Construct a Good Relationship with a Fearful or Aggressive Rat. For a basically shy rat, Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Rats Trust.
When a slightly shy or friendly (along that range) rat is able to be with you and shows interest in your person, such as hanging out on your shoulder, or riding around in a scarf around your neck, shirtwork can be a great next step.
- Settle in a chair, or sit at a small play table, with the rat on your shoulder, or hanging out on the table. If you can be far away from the rat's normal cage, that will help, as the cage is always more safe in the rat's mind and can be a distraction.
- Tuck in your shirt tail, open your collar. Access via loose sleeves is helpful.
- Drop a few treats down your shirt.
- Sit quietly or, if at a table, lay your head down and get comfortable to stay for a while. Interact with your rat if you wish, as long as she experiences that as friendly. If touching her scares her away, or you see she doesn't really like it, don't do it.
- Observe the rat explore. If you see she smells the treats, but is hesitant to enter your shirt, move the treats to the opening, or slightly inside.
- One session can be 10-20 minutes, and if the rat never enters the shirt, that's fine. Repeat sessions as often as possible, as long as the rat is having a good time. With enough sessions, the normally curious rat is likely to enter the shirt.
- Once the rat enters the shirt, very important: do nothing. Hold very still and let her explore as she wishes. If she exits quickly, no problem.
- After the rat has entered and exited the shirt many times, and shows some comfort in doing this, the human should move about just a bit, slowly and carefully. Watch the rat. Ideally we would like her to ignore the movements, and just adapt, but, she might have a "what's happening" look. This is okay, but she should be frightened or stressed. If she races out in a panic, step back and don't move, or move less.
- Progress your movements. If you have been sitting, stand up. If you have been laying on the table, sit up. At the far end, walking around and doing chores with a rat down your shirt, who moves up to your shoulder or down your shirt - AWESOME. :)
- Pet rats are very curious and explore their world. Once "down the shirt" becomes ho-hum, they may not be interested further.
- VERY IMPORTANT: Replenish "down your shirt" with a high-value treat regularly in all sessions. By pairing a treat with "down inside," we help the rat associate "inside" with "good".
- Over time, the rat will experience "down the shirt as a safe place, like a hidey hole or cave.
- If your rat is fearful of being touched, you can use "down the shirt" time as a way to gently touch on the outside - no so much to trigger fear reactions, but just bits here and there.
- When being with you on your shoulder is ho-hum, if something scary happens - for example if you drop a pot - your rat will dive down your shirt for safety. Being with you instead of "get away from you" is a form of establishing trust, in you, and in the big wide world of strange objects, activities, or smells.
- Use your voice as a calming sound, and the rat will begin to associate safety with your voice.