Are your guinea pigs skittish or shy? Or maybe you just want to hang out with your guinea pigs more? Whether your guinea pig is young or old, new or has been part of the family for a while, it’s never too late to start building trust with your guinea pigs! Taming exercises are a way to teach your guinea pigs that they are safe with you.
The basics of taming
The secret to getting your guinea pig to trust you is not memorizing taming exercises, but to “think like a guinea pig.”
Imagine you are small and at the bottom of the food chain. You think everything is out to get you. Suddenly a large creature (aka a human) appears and sticks their large hand in your home to grab you. What is going to make you feel safe?
Think through different situations like this and what you would want someone to do if you were in that position. The key is patience. They probably won’t change overnight but dedicated practice every day will do wonders!
Every guinea pig has their own personality, so you’ll want to tailor their training plan specifically to them.
What to use as treats?
Vegetables are a great way to your guinea pigs’ hearts! Since you’ll be doing taming exercises every day, you’ll want to keep sugary fruits as an occasional treat. Instead, use small pieces of romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce, red leaf lettuce, or any other of your guinea pigs’ favorite foods.
Positive reinforcement through food will make the most effective change to your guinea pigs’ behavior. Do not use negative reinforcement like hitting, spraying water, or refusing food/water/shelter to your guinea pigs.
Prep the room
Remove all distractions and loud noises from the room. You don’t want your guinea pigs to feel threatened or nervous about a dog in the room or a busy kitchen. Make the environment feel as safe as possible for your furry, little friends.
Guinea pigs will often flatten their bodies, or “pancake”, when they start to feel safe and comfortable
How do you know when they want to go back?
Once you get to know your guinea pig better, you’ll be able to tell the cues of when they want to go back in their cage because each guinea pig will find their own way to communicate to you. Typically, they’ll go from relaxed to antsy quickly, others will start tugging on the fleece, or even putting their paws on your arm and look at you. Spend time with your guinea pigs and notice changes in their behavior to accurately tell their mood.
My favorite taming exercises
- Using either a clean, old t-shirt or a blanket that smells like you, place it in their cage. Even better, drape it over a hidey or slip a corner inside. This will teach them that your scent means they are safe.
- Start with a large piece of lettuce (or whatever is their favorite treat) and offer it to them, holding very still. When they take a bite, don’t let them steal the entire treat from your hand. Once they become comfortable at that distance, shorten the piece of lettuce each time until you are able to feed a very small piece. They’ll learn to associate your scent with food. This exercise can be done in both their cage or with the lap pad. For extra skittish guinea pigs, this can be done inside their hidey in their habitat.
- Let your guinea pig hide under a t-shirt or a blanket with your scent and feed them a treat. Once they feel comfortable, roll back the covering a little bit, exposing a little bit more of their head. Feed them another small treat until they are enthusiastically enjoying it. Roll back the covering again and repeat until your guinea pig is completely free from the covering and eating unhesitantly.
- Simply talking to your guinea pig can help your guinea pigs get used to you. Talk in a calming voice, asking “What are you thinking about?” or “How are you doing today?” I like to think that they are trying to tell me something. Simply listening to them will help you get closer to your guinea pigs.
- No surprises! Whenever you pet your guinea pig, start your motion from the front where they can see your hand coming. It may also be helpful to announce yourself or speak before you walk into the room with guinea pigs
- Petting your guinea pig softly will soon be one of their favorite things to do with you, besides getting treats. Start by giving a little head scratch and then maybe a full body pet. Do: head scratches, full body pet, chin rubs, ear rubs, neck rubs. Don’t: brush against fur, touch tummy, touch bottom, scratch too hard.
- As slowly as you can, place your hand in their cage. Let your guinea pig notice you, and even sniff you, without making a move. Then once your guinea pig is comfortable, move your hand an inch closer and freeze. You are trying to show them that your hand is not a threat. Repeat until you get closer. Eventually you may be able to give them pets without running away.
- Using the bonding scarf, let your guinea pig snuggle up against you and listen to your heart beat. This is a great way to bond with your guinea pig while watching TV or reading a book!
- Using two fingers, gently tap their back (remember to approach from the front so they aren’t surprised!) This will help desensitize them to being touched. Only do this for a few seconds at a time.
- Pick up your guinea pig in a cuddle sack or securely in your hands and hold them in the air for a few seconds. Then, slowly put them down. Repeat, remembering not to make any fast movements. This will help them get used to being picked up. Once they feel themselves safely back on solid ground, give them a second to think “I’m alive… that wasn’t that bad!” You can also do the same with head scratches.
Desensitization is a technique of exposing the pet to a stimulus that would normally cause an undesirable reaction at an extremely low level so that there is no response. As the pet becomes less reactive, it is desensitized through exposure to gradually more intense levels of the stimulus.
Guinea pigs are wonderful companions, sometimes they just need a little extra help building their confidence. They probably won’t change overnight, but with a little love and support from it’s caretakers, you’ll make a big difference in their life. Guinea pigs might be in just a small part of our lives, but to them, you are their whole life.
If this guide helped your skittish guinea pig, I’d love to hear about it!