The Rat's Mind Set:
I've only ever seen a single case of human - wild rat introductions, and it may not be typical, but I suppose I should start there...
It was about 2 years ago and I brought my daughter to the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, NJ. We called ahead and were asked not to bring our shoulder rat with us, for her protection and the protection of the zoo animals. It was the only day that week that the zoo had late hours and closed pretty close to twilight. On the way out, my daughter spotted a small shadowy critter scurrying about in the ornamental shrubs planted between the zoo entrance and the parking lot. Naturally at 5 years old she was curious, moreover as a rat owner she pretty much knew what she was looking at. Moreover she wanted another rat badly, well she always want's more rats so nothing has changed there. So she asked me whether she could keep it if she could catch it and as any good father would say... "Sure, if it wants to come home with us you can certainly keep it."
Now to be completely honest, our first rat was part-wild and I realized that there was absolutely no foreseeable outcome that would include us taking a new rat home that evening. The chances of a little girl actually (even one that smelled like a girl rat) catching a wild rat in an open area are so insignificant, that I didn't see any risk.
Then something really strange happened, rather than just bolt off the little rat ran from bush to bush and let itself be pursued. And soon a second rat joined in and then a third, fourth and so on until my little girl was functionally surrounded by a truly bazaar number of small thin lightning fast wild rats all pretty much jumping across her feet. As she would start to chase one, another would cut in front of her to distract her and she was pretty much spinning in circles, swiping at them as they leaped by. Naturally, my original assessment of the situation had clearly changed, with so many rats coming so close the chances of my daughter actually becoming hands on were becoming quite good. So I ended the game.
Still, this was phase one of immersion as done by wild rats themselves. And it looks very much like immersion as we humans provide it for our rats. My daughter who smelled very much like a female rat entered the territory of an established pack. She behaved very much like a new rat joining a pack, following the first member she met and all of the other rats popped out to meet and greet her. They stayed right in her face and kept her constantly engaged. They got closer and closer and pretty much challenged her. They were neither running away, nor were they attacking. I suppose if my daughter had sat down and acted submissively she might actually might have wound up getting groomed... But given my daughter wanted a new pet rat and not to join a new pack, that's where things would have very likely gone very wrong.
All of the rats that participated in the experiment appeared to be young or female and I never saw a rat that might be considered an alpha giving direction, but it was getting dark and with the nature of how quickly things were evolving I was mostly focused on my daughter.
I'm also going to add that I wouldn't recommend sending your own children into a huge wild rat pack intentionally. Wild rats bite fiercely if they feel threatened and they are unimaginably fast and agile.
So there you have it... immersion is the method used by wild rats to meet. It has evolved over countless generations and it's part of every rat's firmware. When your rat first encounters you this is what he or she expects from you. Within half an hour of meeting the first foraging rat a couple of dozen members of the pack had each introduced themselves to the huge new rat in the territory and they were willing to sacrifice their normal foraging time to stay right on and right with the new potential pack mate. Introductions became the rat packs highest priority. Consider this carefully when reading forward.
The Human Mind Set:
In the example above we were dealing with very competent thinking animals. They had a very complex bond and social order. They had ritualized behavior and learned and adapted on the fly. Most importantly rats have colonized most of the world because they are intelligent animals with emotions. And rats communicate with each other and with their humans.
The number one impediment in having great pet rats is humans not realizing they have them in the first place. Having an unsocialized rat in your house is equivalent of having a human teenager that hasn't been potty trained and hasn't been taught to speak. Imagine finding out your prom date wears a diaper and doesn't recognize his or her name. How many ways can a date like this end? And how many ways are likely to be good? An unsocialized rat is a miserable rat and they have an unhappy human. If you omit teaching your baby their name, how to communicate with you and basic potty training everything else you do with them will fail. They aren't going to school, they won't have friends, they won't drive a car and they will never hold a job or raise a family of their own.
So before you begin to train your rat or rats, lets screw your head on straight. Your new rat is going to be your friend and a member of your family. He or she will learn the rules of your household, who is in charge and who his or her family is. There are no acceptable lowered expectations.
It honestly scares me when I get inquiries that read... "I just want my rat to stop biting me", or "I just want my rat to stop being afraid of me." That's the equivalent of saying you want your prom date to be potty trained.
Another example is the strange fellow that keeps a vicious dog in a cage he can't enter. I've actually seen this twice. In one case at a rural gas station after 10 years someone let the dog out to find out it was actually quite friendly. In the other case, the owner actually constructed a chain link box on a cement slab so the dog couldn't climb or dig out. Both dogs were quite miserable and unhandleable as long as they were caged.
So what is the right mind set?
First, respect your rat as a big competent intelligent and emotional being in a small package.
Second, set your sights high. The object is to make a best furry friend and not a docile exhibit.
Third, friendship takes time and commitment. Fish make good exhibit animals, rats and dogs do not do well without constant care, love and attention.
Fourth, your rat is a pack animal, it needs to belong to a family. It needs someone to be it's leader and to protect and love it. It will go completely antisocial if it's emotional needs aren't met. There are no half measures here. If your parents only locked you in the closet on weekdays and let you out on weekends, you would not grow up to be normal. You need to accept the role as family head and alpha to your rat or rats, on a full time basis.
Fifth, you have to communicate with your rat or rats. Rats don't come knowing English, so you need to learn basic rat. From the moment you first meet your rat it's trying to communicate with you. It might run up the the glass at the pet shop and want a treat or to go home with you, or in might tell you it's afraid and run and hide or it might tell you its the cage boss and take an aggressive stance to tell you to leave it's pack alone. But from the moment you press your nose to the glass in the pet shop you are the focus of your rat's attention and it's talking to you. You need to learn to listen.
This is worth an example... Fuzzy Rat, our true shoulder rat came home as a pup out of a feeder bin. When the cover was opened she stood right up and climbed right onto my daughter's hand. I really didn't find her quite as attractive as some of the other rats in the bin so I got my daughter to put her back and try to handle some other rats, but whenever my daughter reached in Fuzzy Rat went right over to her and climbed back into her hand. I finally gave in and literally from day one, Fuzzy Rat has never stopped communicating with us. Two days ago, my daughter was playing on her I-pod with Fuzzy Rat in her lap, Fuzzy Rat felt ignored and tried to snip the I-pod cord. She did this to me once when I was listening to headphones and she's cut my phone cables and peed on my phone while I was talking. Simply put, she wanted to tell us she wanted more attention. She points in the direction she wants to be carried and gives kissies when you go the right way. She communicates and she wants to be understood. Amelia was a neglected rat for the first 7 months of her life. She was ignored and didn't even know her name. She was sad and miserable lonely and very much afraid. She's been with us for 6 months and she doesn't expect people to understand her too much, still she tries and she is actually very obedient, comes when called and will follow at heel indoors. When she wants to get out of the cage, she climbs the front of the bars and spreads her feet as widely as possible as in 'see me', or 'notice me'. But after 7 months of no one listening to her, she doesn't expect much understanding from her humans, even though she still hangs on our every movement and every sound. Even though she probably thinks we're too stupid to understand her, she still tried to understand us.
Communication with your rats is critical, they expect it from you and you need to expect it from them. They will respond to you and you have to let them know you appreciate their effort. And when you do something they want you to do don't be surprised if they reward you.
Before immersion will work, you need to understand the animal you are dealing with and you need to adjust your mind set. Like potty training in humans, it's only a small part of the process of socializing your rats into your family. Having gone through immersion with several people, it seems to suddenly start working when the humans get it. And it seems to produce amazing rats because the rats have amazing humans.
Immersion socializes new rats, it fixes problem rats, it often eliminates rat on rat aggression, it builds trust, reduces shyness and cures many of the behavioral problems people have with their rats and it does it fast. Why? Because you are focusing on your rats needs and you are communicating in a way your rat can understand, and you are listening and letting your rat participate rather than just being trained. In short it's the way rats learn from each other. You are going to be speaking rat to your rats and they will be happy and excited to see you every day and they will love you as their dad or mom and their protector.
Immersion grew out of a philosophy to better relate to rats, to center the focus on their needs and the way they do things and as a way to open a dialogue. If you don't get your mindset right it won't work right. What good is a successful immersion if you are going to throw it all away the next day?
If you are new to rats, I know this all seems way over the top. But read the many threads by the many happy rat owners here, read the over the rainbow bridge section and see how many human hearts have been deeply touched by their little furry friends. And ask anyone with a rat or rat pack of their own if they feel loved by their rats. Take a close look at Fuzzy Rat meeting a brand new human friend and think about what she's trying to communicate in the photo. Let go of your lowered expectations and prepare for one of the most wonderful friendships of your life.
So this ends lesson one... Once you drink the Kool-Aid the rest will get so much easier. If you just can't accept your rats as intelligent, communicative emotional beings immersion won't work right for you and you will be locking yourself into a small space with a frustrated and potentially vicious rat and that just won't end well. Immersion requires that you act and react to your rat's needs properly on the fly in a confined space over a long period of time. If you get it, your rats will get it and you will walk out with your new best buddy riding your shoulder. Not to worry, immersion has worked on some very clueless humans with some very screwed up rats. The actual procedure is pretty easy and it's very fast.