Chinchillas aren’t known as a pet that can be easily trained. But can you train them at all, and how is it done? And if you can, what can you train a chinchilla to do?
Can you train a chinchilla? You can train a chinchilla to do some things, but not many. You use treats and positive reinforcement to train a chinchilla, never hitting or shouting. Training is nevertheless more difficult than with other animals. Examples of things you can train a chinchilla to do include litter training, shoulder training, getting your chinchilla to lie down, and teaching it to respond to its name. To train a chinchilla, you have to above all remain patient.
The guide below first looks at each of the steps you need to follow to train your chinchilla: choosing a behavior to train, encouraging good behavior, and remaining patient. Once you’ve learned how to teach a chinchilla tricks, since you no doubt can’t wait to get started, we’ve also detailed lots of ideas for things you can train a chinchilla to do from rolling over and lying down to sitting on your shoulder.
How Do You Train a Chinchilla
Training a chinchilla is possible so long as you approach the task in a sensible and organized manner. The guide below explains how to do it in easily-followed steps. If you follow them correctly, there’s no reason why your chinchilla can’t learn basic commands. You can train a chinchilla to:
- Perform basic tasks
- Stop bad behaviors, and learn certain good ones
- Respond to gesture or voice commands of your choice
However, before you start training your chinchilla, you have to know your pet’s limitations. While chinchillas are smart compared to other small rodents, they don’t train as easily as other common household pets. Expecting that they will will only leave you disappointed, and your pet unhappy. There are also safety guidelines (e.g. chinchillas shouldn’t go outside) that further limit what you can train your chinchilla to do.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the steps you should follow.
Step 1: Choose a Behavior to Train
If you want to train your chinchilla lots of things—commands, movements, handling—that’s great. But you don’t want all of your time to be taken up by training. You want to spend some regular time with your pet, too. That’s why it’s best to start by picking one particular behavior and aiming for that. This will:
- Cut out any frustration you feel from your pet being a slow learner
- Save you time and effort
- Help your chinchilla to learn, because it’s learning gradually, not all at once
Ideally you should start small, and pick something that your chinchilla will eventually want to do anyway. Examples include telling it to go to certain places, begging for treats, and learning to sit with you rather than running at 100mph. What you can’t do is teach your chinchilla to do cartwheels; so, be realistic, and pick just one thing to begin with.
Step 2: Never Hit Or Scold Your Chinchilla
There are two ways to mold the behavior of any animal (or children, for that matter!): with positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is where you encourage good behavior, and negative reinforcement is where you discourage bad behavior.
In recent years, negative reinforcement has become far less popular than it used to be, and for good reason. It doesn’t work. Hitting a pet, shocking it with a shock collar or using a choke chain teaches it nothing other than the fact that you’re cruel. If you were to raise your voice at your chinchilla, flick it on its nose, rub its nose in its pee, or anything like that—you’re not going to get anywhere.
The core reason why this doesn’t work is that animals don’t fully understand cause and effect. Our deep understanding of doing x, causing y is something we take for granted, but not all pets ‘get it’. Your pet doesn’t know that you’re flicking its nose because it did something bad. All it knows is that you’re flicking its nose, and random violence won’t endear it to you.
What works far better is to encourage behaviors by offering appropriate treats. Say that you’re trying to shoulder train your chinchilla (get it comfortable with sitting on your shoulder). Giving it a treat any time it sits there is going to work over time, while shouting at it for moving away would do the opposite. If anything, your chinchilla would want to stay away from you!
You may be thinking Well, how do you stop chinchillas from displaying bad behaviors then? Basically, you can’t. You can try to encourage your chinchilla to show good behaviors instead, but there’s no way to tell a chinchilla that it’s doing something wrong in a way that it will understand. You can try clapping your hands if your chinchilla is barking, and it might stop for a minute or two. But in the long run, it won’t learn that barking is bad, and all you’ll achieve is that you stress your pet out.
Long story short, be kind and not cruel to your pets. Who knew?!
Step 3: Use Treats
The fundamental basis of all training is that you’re giving your chinchilla treats. The treat is what the chinchilla will be focused on, and is how you will get it to move around/stay where you want it, or in the way that you want it to move.
Once you’ve properly ingrained the behavior in your chinchilla, it will do the trick whether you give it a treat or not. But to start with, you’ll need some.
Rosehips are ideal treats, as are flower petals. But you also have to be aware of unsuitable treats. Some owners, even some vets will tell you that raisins are suitable but they aren’t. Any treat that’s full of sugar or has lots of water in it isn’t suitable for a chinchilla and will gradually damage its health. That rules out all fruits and vegetables.
Step 4: Be Patient
No matter what approach you take, you have to be patient with your chinchilla. That’s because chinchillas aren’t as smart as other common pets.
They’re clever for rodents, but won’t take to commands as quickly as, say, a German Shepherd. You may need to repeat each trick many times before your chinchilla gets the hang of them. There may also be tricks that your chinchilla never gets the hang of, and that’s OK, even if other chinchillas can.
Being patient means repeating lessons over and over until your pet gets the point. So, you want to give your chinchilla time out of its cage each day. Try training the behavior for five minutes, then let your chin get on with its playtime. The longer you keep up this schedule, the more your pet can learn.
Being patient also means being open to trying to teach new things when one thing fails. Not all chinchillas can learn the same things, so try your pet with different things to see what it can and can’t do.
As for the exact training method, that depends on what you’re trying to train. These are detailed in the section below. But these four guidelines will help no matter what you’re teaching.
What Can You Teach a Chinchilla? (Tricks & Good Behavior)
This isn’t a question with a definitive answer. That’s because few people have tried to train chinchillas. There’s therefore lots that they could be capable of doing, but that’s never been trained before!
But to start off with an easy question: can chinchillas learn tricks? They can, in a sense, learn how to beg or roll over. But this is partly from learned behavior and partly from the movement of the treat initiating and guiding their movement, too. So partly yes, and partly no—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t at least look like your chinchilla is doing tricks!
To get you started, here’s a list of the most common things people train their chinchillas. It ranges from the most basic (handling and shoulder training) to voice commands and more.
1) How to Train a Chinchilla to Come to You
This is the easiest thing to teach to a chinchilla. You can teach it this even before you start to handle it; in fact, it makes the progression from not going near your new chinchilla to handling it comfortably much easier.
All you have to do is hold a treat in your hand and call your chinchilla’s name. Your chin will come over of its own accord! But over time, it will also come to associate two things with the treat:
- The particular shape you hold your hand in. Say you hold the treat between your thumb and forefinger, in what looks like an ‘OK’ sign: your chin would associate this with getting a treat.
- You calling its name.
Over time, your chinchilla would come to you if you call its name and hold your hand that way even if you don’t have a treat for it. This is the basis of all kinds of training, as you’ll see below.
2) Training a Chinchilla to Be Handled
This is one of the first things people want to train their chinchillas. After all, they’re so cute and cuddly, how could you resist?
This takes a little more effort than training a chinchilla to come to you. It requires lots of trust, because your chinchilla’s first instinct will be to run when you try and hold it. Remember, there are no circumstances in which wild chinchillas are ‘held’ by another animal that doesn’t involve the other animal trying to eat it. So, it’ll take getting used to!
It takes several steps, and typically several days. You can only move from one step to the next when your chinchilla is clearly comfortable.
- Sit by your chinchilla’s cage for an extended period of time. Don’t talk, don’t make sudden movements: just relax and let your chinchilla get used to you.
- Talk softly to your pet so it can get used to your voice. It doesn’t understand what you’re saying, so tell it whatever you like!
- Put your hands inside your chinchilla’s cage. Don’t reach for your pet; just let your hands dangle where your chinchilla can sniff them. Make sure you wash your hands before doing this so they don’t smell like treats or hay. You can also do this during playtime rather than in the cage.
- Let your chinchilla come to you. Over time, it will get used to your hands, and feel comfortable near them.
- Lay your hands flat on the floor/floor of the cage. Place a treat on your palm that your chinchilla can eat.
- Scoop your chinchilla from underneath and lift it up gently. If it wants to get away, let it: don’t ever grab it or reach from above to pick it up.
Eventually, your chinchilla will understand that you want to pick it up for some reason other than to eat it, even if it doesn’t know quite why!
3) Shoulder Training
Shoulder training is where you help a chinchilla feel comfortable sitting on your shoulder. This is lots of fun if you can pull it off, because you feel like a kooky pirate, and your chinchilla has a cool vantage point to see the world from. This should come after handling training.
It’s easy enough to teach because you hardly have to teach it! When a chinchilla is handled, it naturally wants to scurry around. Once your pet is comfortable with you, it will climb and run all over you, your shoulders included. All you have to do is give it a treat to keep it still once it’s up there. Once your chinchilla knows it gets a treat when it sits on your shoulders, it’ll want to sit there all the time!
If you do want to shoulder train your chinchilla, be aware of your pet’s limitations. It’s big enough that it could easily fall and hurt itself if you were walking around. But if you’re sat down somewhere safe, it’s not a problem.
4) ‘Go Here’
You can teach a chinchilla to go where you want it to. This is relatively easy. All you have to do is accompany one of your behaviors with offering a treat. Here’s how it works:
- Pick a place you want your chinchilla to go (e.g. on top of a tub)
- Tap the tub and hold a treat above it
- Your chinchilla will likely realize that you have a treat, and try to reach it
- When it gets onto the tub, give it a treat
- Repeat until your chinchilla knows exactly what you want it to do
Tapping the tub is the crucial part of the process. What you want to do is get your chinchilla to associate tapping a location with moving there. It will think that whenever it follows your tapping, it will get a treat. Eventually, you can tap a place and your chinchilla will go there even if it isn’t given a treat because the behavior has been ingrained.
Making your tap unique will help your chinchilla make the specific connection between the tap, you, and the treat. Otherwise, it would think that any tapping is for a treat. So, for example, you could tap at a certain speed or a specific number of times.
5) Lie Down
This is another trick you can teach your chinchilla by using treats. All you have to do is:
- Hold a treat in your hand
- Lower the treat to the floor and move it slightly away from your chinchilla; your pet should reach out with its nose and press its body closer to the ground
- At the same time, accompany what you’re doing with the phrase ‘lie down!’
- Reward your chinchilla with the treat if it does what you want
Your pet will at least associate the hand movement with lying down, which is close enough. Chinchillas can understand simple noises, too, but won’t lie down if you just say the phrase. But it looks impressive to your friends if you say it while making the hand movement, and getting your chinchilla to do what you want it to!
6) Can You Teach a Chinchilla Its Name?
Chinchillas can learn their names, and that isn’t just owners thinking they can—it’s been proven by scientific studies. And it’s been proven time and time again, too.
Perhaps the earliest research into this subject was in the 1970s. Research was published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, and in the even more respectable journal Science. The second of these sources was a study performed by authors PK Kuhl and JD Miller. Patricia Kuhl is a Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington, and is a well-respected published author outside of academia as well as within it.
Either way, the paper says that:
Four chinchillas were trained to respond differently to /t/ and /d/ consonant-vowel syllables produced by four talkers in three vowel contexts. This training generalized to novel instances, including synthetically produced /da/ and /ta/ (voice-on-set times of 0 and +80 milliseconds, respectively). In a second experiment, synthetic stimuli with voice-onset times between 0 and +80 milliseconds were presented for identification. The form of the labeling functions and the “phonetic boundaries” for chinchillas and English-speaking adults were similar. (emphasis added)
This means that chinchillas can tell the difference between the sounds you make and respond to each of them, so yes: a chinchilla can respond to its name being called. More recent studies confirmed that they can do this, too.
As for how to teach a chinchilla its name in the ‘real world’, the trick is practise. Call your chinchilla’s name every time you teach it to come to you (as described in the first trick in this list). It will then come to associate its name with itself, with you and its treat. As for how you class this—is the chinchilla truly recognizing its name, or just reacting to you?—that’s up to you. But it’s impressive nonetheless!
7) Can You Train a Chinchilla to Use a Litter Box?
Chinchillas can be toilet trained to an extent. You can put a litter tray in your pet’s cage, and over time, it will stop peeing anywhere but there. Most chinchillas take to the idea quickly, while others are slower, and others never get the point. That’s not specific to chinchillas—all animals you can train are the same.
This is a great illustration of how you have to approach training your chinchilla anything. You can’t teach it to do completely unnatural things that it would never want to do.
If you didn’t know, chinchillas naturally pick somewhere to pee. They’ll typically pick a back corner of the cage. The point of this behavior is so that it doesn’t get its fur wet by sitting in its own pee. You can take advantage of that and work with your pet to teach it something valuable. All you have to do is put the tray where it normally goes to the toilet!
8) Can You Train a Chinchilla to Sleep at Night?
Chinchillas are naturally crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at dusk and dawn. They sleep throughout the day, but slightly more during the daytime. That’s because it’s safer for them at dusk, night-time and dawn in the wild.
Your pet may adjust its own schedule to spend more time with you. Many owners report that their chinchillas began doing this of their own accord. The likely reason is that chinchillas crave stimulation, and night-time is boring in a dark and quiet house. Playing with you is lots more fun than only being awake at night.
You could gently train your chinchilla to stay awake for longer during the day. It wouldn’t take anything special. All you would have to do is spend more time with your pet at the hours that suit you. Once your chinchilla expects to be let out in the evening, it will stay awake for longer. Again, this is an example of working with your chinchilla to gently guide its behavior; not forcing it to do things it doesn’t want to do.
9) Can You Leash Train a Chinchilla?
This is one of the limitations of chinchillas. As we said above, you can’t teach them to do things they can’t or won’t do.
You could theoretically teach a chinchilla that a harness/leash isn’t something to be afraid of. It would take a while, but it could be done. But what you can’t do is take your chinchilla for walks with you. There are lots of reasons why:
- It could get wet
- It could try and run away
- It would be deeply frightened any time it saw a bigger pet walking by
- It could get sick from encounters with other pets or wild animals (e.g. by catching ticks or fleas)
This is a limitation you can’t get past no matter how much training you give your pet. Even if you spent all day, every day training it, these limitations will still be there. You have to pick something your chinchilla is physically able to do.
Besides that, there are health and wellbeing concerns related to the use of leashes and collars. Dogs have been trained for hundreds of years to wear collars and respond to the movements and restrictions of a leash. Chinchillas aren’t domesticated in the same way, so yours wouldn’t understand why its movement is restricted and why you’re pulling it in one direction or another. Plus, chins have very delicate skeletons with bones that can easily bend and break. And then, believe it or not, there’s another problem with them: chinchillas don’t walk, they hop and leap, meaning that collars and harnesses could even choke your chinchilla or break its neck.
So, no. Don’t use them and don’t try to train your chinchilla to wear them.
10) How to Teach a Chinchilla Not to Bite
They’re cute and fluffy, but they will defend themselves if they have to… So, how do I get my chinchilla to stop biting?
As a rule, chinchillas will not bite unless provoked, or unless they feel threatened. This is therefore less about teaching your chinchilla not to bite, and more about learning how to tell when your chinchilla feels scared. Luckily, chinchillas are communicative creatures so this isn’t difficult. Chinchillas show that they want you to leave them alone by:
- Standing on their hind legs. The chinchilla is trying to look big to scare you away.
- ‘Shouting’ at you. Chinchillas tell other chinchillas that there’s something to be scared of by ‘barking’ (loud, repeated alarm calls). If your chinchilla does this any time you’re around, it’s afraid of you.
- Spraying urine. This is a defensive behavior known as spraying. Females are better at it than males.
- Trying to get away from your hands. It takes time to teach a chinchilla that it’s safe when you handle it. If it doesn’t know, it will try to get away from you and could bite you if you keep pestering it.
When you notice these behaviors, don’t push your pet too far. It’s giving you a fair warning. If you keep pushing its buttons, it will bite you (and as parents always say, it’ll be your own fault!) So, all you have to do is leave your pet alone when it acts this way to get it to stop biting.
You’re also free to teach your chinchilla anything else that you might like. The only limitations are the safety of your pet, and its ability to learn. So why not try something different, and see how you get on?