Saturday, April 4, 2009

getting a skittish or shy guinea pig to warm up to you

From what I understand, some guinea pigs will always be skittish and resist human contact. Others, with time and patience, become trusting and start enjoying some interaction. A lucky few people have very docile pigs that don't mind being picked up and petted. I think they're the ones that get to be YouTube stars. The rest of us may get there, or close to it, with lots of time and patience.

Here's what has worked for us so far. This has taken place from age 6 weeks until 12 weeks:

1. Provide a safe, secure environment, with regular meal times. You'll know things are set up right if the piggies play happily when you're not there. If they don't play or run around at all, something is not right. The probably will either be the cage setup or their health or both. Check everything and see a vet if needed.

2. Talk with the piggies whenever you can. Encourage everyone in your household to do this as well. You want them to get familiar with everyone. And for now: hands off! You have to do this in very small, patient steps. If you got the piggies to be cute pets for your little kids, you may be in for some disappointment. Each guinea pig is different. Just like people.

3. Spend lots of time cleaning the cage or simply standing near it while talking. Guinea pigs can learn simple tricks after about 30 repetitions. It's probably the same with getting comfortable with you. Expect at least 30 good interactions for them to start bonding with you.

4. Never get between the piggie and its escape route. Each piggie needs at least one hidey hut. If you are cleaning the cage, make sure your hands are not blocking the route to the hidey. Over time, the piggies will start playing while you're cleaning, but only if they feel like they can make a run for it if they need to. Be mindful of things from the piggie's viewpoint.

5. Expect nothing and be delighted in every small step forward. Never ever try and force behaviour. Think of them like little kids. How do you win the favour of a child? Same things: safe, trusting environment, plus time and patience.

6. Don't try and touch the piggies. Just be there available for them to explore you. If you have a big open floor cage, go in and sit down and let them sniff around you. Otherwise, just put one or two hands in (depending on what they're comfortable with) and chat with them and watch.

7. If there are sudden noises while you're with the piggies, keep talking calmly. Gradually they will take more comfort in your voice more than noticing the noise.

8. When placing food in the cage, over time, start lingering a little longer and longer. After a few weeks, you should be able to keep your hand still near the food and have the piggies comfortable enough to come nibble it with your hand nearby.

9.Identify favourite treats and use them. Harmony and Kazula love apple, which they shouldn't have much of. After a few weeks, I can now take tiny pieces in my finger tips and entice them to come to me for hand feeding. I always use the word 'apple' which then seems to get them sniffing the air and coming to me. I hold the piece firmly until they get it with their mouths and pull it away. When they take it, I say 'good girl!'. Even if they drop it, I always praise them. Guinea pigs are never to be reprimanded. They don't understand it. All they will do is fear your anger. Keep it kind and gentle.

10. At six weeks, our piggies would hide if we came near the cage. By 12 weeks, I'm a welcome visitor. Sometimes Kazula even whistles for me to come over! I can place the food in the cage with no problems. They like to sniff my hands and circle around my wrists. If they do frighten, they come back right away to investigate things further.

11. My newest technique is 'Hello'. When they are playing in the cage, I put my hand in and place my knuckles near their noses, one pig at a time. I don't stick out a finger for them to sniff because they are still assuming my hand=food and have accidentally bitten me. It was a gentle bite but my startle startled them. So instead I use the backs of my hand so there's nothing to bite. I say hello, let them sniff, and then gently pull my hand away. I do this as many times a day as I can. The idea is that we will get them comfortable with my hand without expecting there always to be food with it. Gradually I hope to open a finger and perhaps (much further along) touch them. But for now, it's small steps and lots of patience. If they are going to overcome their skittishness, I think this is the most likely way.

I'm not sure what the next step will be. It always seems to become obvious to me when we get there. In other words, the piggies are the boss.

Progress so far:
6 weeks - always hiding when we're around, not even allowing photographs from a distance
12 weeks: calling us over, comfortable with our hands nearby, sometimes touching their noses to us; posing for closeup photos.

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