I have never seen a mouse play Connect 4 or ride a tiny skateboard across a table. I didn’t think it was possible. How do you train a mouse to shoot hoops and put a ring on your finger? Well, I recently spoke to Marina from Austria, the founder of mouse-agility.com to find out.
Marina has been training animals since she was five and fell in love with mice after finding the shy but inquisitive creatures in her family barn. She coined the term ‘mouse agility’ after seeing the dog sport.
Marina told me about some her favourite mice, how she trains them and what the future holds.
Why did you start training mice?
I’ve had mice since I was 8 years old. I have always loved to interact with them and tried to train them by luring them over small obstacle courses. They learned very quickly and memorized the course for weeks or even months.
That’s when I realized how smart mice are. I find it fascinating how much intelligence can fit in such a small brain. After so many years mice can still amaze me. For an animal lover, it’s just a very fulfilling hobby to work and interact with one’s pet in such an intense way.
What training techniques do you use?
I use positive reinforcement only. When they do something right or something goes in the right direction, they get a reward. I completely ignore behaviors I don’t like, they are never punished or forced in any way.
The tongue click one can hear in many of my videos is a bridge signal. It bridges the time gap between the desired behavior and the reward. This technique is called clicker training and is already very widespread in dog (and other animal) training, but as far as I know, nobody has ever tried it with mice before.
How quickly do they learn?
That totally depends on the trick and on the individual mouse. For easy tricks like a spin or high five, most mice only need a few minutes. Experienced mice sometimes don’t need any repetitions at all.
Very difficult tricks like skateboarding can take a few weeks. Many people admire my patience because they think it takes ages to train mice. To be honest, the opposite is the case and my impatience is the reason why I prefer to train mice rather than my dog.
Do the mice have personalities?
Of course every mouse has its unique personality. They differ so much from species to species (I keep Fancy mice, Multimammate mice and Spiny mice). Most Fancy mice are very docile, can be handled and never bite. Multimammate mice (the bigger ones in my videos) are often highly aggressive and due to their extremely powerful jaws their bites can be quite harmful.
What are their names?
I have more than 20 mice and all of them have names, so there would be too many to list here. My most talented Fancy mouse, the grey one in my recent videos, is called Brösel (German word for crumb) and my most talented Multimammate mouse is called Grimaldi. The smart little black mouse in my older videos is called Doogie Mouser.
Who is your favourite and why?
I don’t really have one favourite, I love all of them like crazy. It depends on what I want to do with them. Donnie Darko is the most agile, so he’s my favorite to watch. His brother Knox is especially smart and can concentrate very well, that’s why he’s my favorite to work with.
What is their favourite food?
That differs from mouse to mouse. They all are crazy about living insects like grasshoppers or meal worms. Most of them also like hemp seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. These are rich in calories, so they only get them as a treat. For training I also use wafer paper and millet balls (both contain no added sugar or salt).
How smart are they?
They learn incredibly fast (faster than my dog) and have a good memory – once my Spiny mice remembered a trick for over a year!
Some of the tricks I didn’t even need to teach them. Grandel, the grey mouse that plays Connect Four in my videos, showed this behavior spontaneously. She already knew to play basketball and seemed to have understood the relation between ball and chip. I think that mice (and other rodents) are highly underestimated.
Do you train any other animals?
Currently I also trick train my Airedale terrier and am experimenting with training giant hissing cockroaches. In the past I’ve trained several other rodent species like rats, guinea pigs and gerbils.
What does the future hold for you, the mice and your website?
I just hope that my mice will continue to change people’s mind about them and act as an ambassador for their species.
Anything else you would like to add?
I find it important to note that mouse training is not as easy as it may seem in my videos. Unfortunately, some people spontaneously buy a mouse after seeing my videos and then are disappointed. Mice are highly sensitive, so you don’t just need background knowledge about positive animal training, but also much empathy for the feelings of the mice.
Only balanced and happy mice are trainable, and a mouse that has to spend its life alone in a 10 gallon tank will be chronically stressed. So the prerequisite for mouse training is species-appropriate keeping. Mice are highly social and must live in groups and in proper sized cages with enough enrichment. Their sensitivity and their nocturnal nature makes them unsuitable for children. They are demanding pets, not least because of their intelligence.