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Sunday Afternoon at the Park ( a cautionary tale)

1748 Views 9 Replies 6 Participants Last post by  Rat Daddy
So it was Sunday, and our new girl Misty needed shoulder rat training. The plan was to take my daughter and Misty to the safe site for a little fresh air fun. Naturally my daughter insisted we go to the local waterfront park instead, where she might find kids to play with. She also wanted to take Cloud along and I suppose that made sense too, to a degree. Cloud is a trained true shoulder rat, and she's getting old and pudgy, she normally stays right by me so she shouldn't be a problem... Working with two untrained rats outdoors is an absolute recipe for disaster, but with the two of us there and one rat being trained it shouldn't have been a problem. And despite the site not being safe, we've had Misty at the safe site and she was really very manageable.

So when we got there, my daughter found another little girl to play with and they took off with Cloud, while I talked to the girls dad and worked with Misty. The girls and Cloud disappeared into the distance down the scenic path that overlooks the marsh, but I wasn't concerned... My daughter is 9 years old and has been handling rats since she was 5.

Then I see my daughter running towards me.... ratless. "Dad! Dad! Dad!... Cloud's gone!" Now for all of you who really love your best furry friends, this is about the last thing you ever want to hear. It's one of those things that really knots up your stomach. So as best as I could get the story, Cloud had stepped off the fence rail onto a branch and had fallen into the dense edge of the marsh below the path... I looked where she had fallen and she was in fact gone somewhere in a few acres of low tide salt marsh and dense reeds and tall weeds. Now for folks that don't shoulder rat and have never lost a rat or gotten one killed... this is the precise point your whole day turns to absolute sh**.

Now Cloud is a true shoulder rat, but she's no Max... Max would have headed straight for the car. And she's no Fuzzy Rat. Fuzzy Rat always disappeared and came back... but Fuzzy Rat went off to explore and Cloud fell into a marsh. Worse yet, Cloud is one of those rats that sticks to us like glue she never actually went off to explore on her own before... In fact Cloud barely passed her final true shoulder rat test by hiding under my t-shirt.

The other little girl ran up and told me she saw Cloud heading along the edge of the marsh through the rushes and reeds towards where I was before, but naturally I wasn't there anymore. So I ran back to where she would have been looking for me, but she didn't turn up. By this point the park was filling up with kids and barking dogs and some woman shouting at someone on her cell phone... and Cloud doesn't like wide open spaces, she wasn't likely to break cover... So I started calling her, but Cloud is a dumbo, and I don't even know if dumbos can locate someone by sound. I mean their ears don't really pivot properly. So with Misty under my shirt I started battling my way through the low tide marsh, but I soon realized there was no way to find a rat in the dense growth and years of dead grass mats under my feet... That wasn't going to happen. I even sent my daughter back to the car in case Cloud turned up there, but she wasn't there. She was now gone for over an hour.

Time to stop and think... Cloud did pass her true shoulder rat test... she shouldn't be panicking. And rats never get lost. Theoretically, we can't lose her. She went to look for me and she didn't find me... what would she do next? If she were Fuzzy Rat, she would go back to the place she last saw us and we would normally just wait there for her. This is what really good true shoulder rats do. But this is the very first time Cloud's been on her own, and if she panicked she could be anywhere hunkered down in the marsh... and we would never get her back. It's so easy to say you trust your rat will do the right thing, but it's actually a lot harder to do it when everything is going wrong.

So I went back to the place she fell into the brush and I pushed away some of the branches and leaves and there she was all hunkered down in the very spot she disappeared from. She had found her way back and was waiting to be recovered... All be it, she was in a clump of poison ivy and recovering her took a bit of finesse, she hadn't panicked and she had performed as well as our best true shoulder rat. She kept her cool and went looking for me, when she couldn't find me, she went back to the spot where she was most likely to be found. She performed brilliantly! I think I was proud beyond words and happier than I can express. By cheating her way through the final exam, and being reluctant to go into open spaces, I really never gave her the credit she deserved. But she proved herself to be more than worthy of her title Sunday. You can't really lose a true shoulder rat, they always come back... Maybe I feel sorry for doubting poor old Cloud. Maybe, I've been unfair to her, but she's never really inspired confidence before. Thankfully, Misty pretty much stayed under my shirt and hung on to me while I was searching the marsh for Cloud... she did pretty well too. I really didn't pay her much attention while I was traipsing though the reeds and rushes with her on me... talk about tempting fate. Losing two rats in a single outing is about as bad a day as you can possibly imagine. But Misty cling on tight and didn't panic either, our little girl has some potential... now tested under fire too.

After we got Cloud back, we continued to play with the rats at the park for a while... and Cloud actually took off for the car on her own along the guard rail and across wide open space... it's the first time she ever did that. And I let her go, while watching at a distance. Her confidence level was through the roof. She even stopped to pose for photos taken by park patrons who didn't even realize she was someone's pet, she was so far away from us. Misty had fun, and we did get some pics and video. It turned out to be a great outing, my daughter made a new friend and Cloud evolved to the next level and Misty was a very good girl.

Cloud safely back and sidetracked on her route to the car.
Marsupial Rat Ferret Muridae Grass

(Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to have to leave this face behind in a salt marsh.)

Cloud & Misty chilling while the humans say goodbye.
Wood stain Grass Hardwood Wood Table

So when we got home both rats got a bath, mostly to wash the poison ivy and swamp muck off Cloud, but Misty got a bath too... Naturally Cloud went off to explore the house for a while and get some fresh dirt on her, but then she passed out in a little ball in her cage with that familiar smug Fuzzy Rat or Max look on her face... "Yeah, I'm cool... I can handle myself... I'm just that good" and you know, she earned it.

When you read this little post, you might spot our mistakes. My daughter should have gone into the marsh after Cloud instead of coming to tell me she lost Cloud. She shouldn't have taken Cloud so close to the marsh and more than likely she was busy playing with her new friend and wasn't paying attention when Cloud decided to look for me. But that can happen to anyone, it's easy to get distracted, especially if your a 9 year old girl with a new friend. But when you screw up, you have to rely on your rat to compensate for your mistakes. Cloud was experienced and trained and tested, she had the composure and skills to survive and do the right thing, even if I wasn't very confident in her.

This nightmare had a happy ending because Cloud turned out to be a great true shoulder rat. Because we took the time to work with her and train her and help build her confidence. A lesser rat would have been lost forever.

I'm posting this, not only because I'm so proud of our big girl, but to make a point of how easy it is for even an experienced shoulder rat handler and trainer to screw up. It only takes a second and your rat is gone. Shoulder ratting is dangerous. With a well trained rat your rat will compensate for your mistakes. But when everything goes wrong, that's all you have to rely on. Your rat will come back or it won't... and there's nothing you can do about it when it happens. Now with fingers crossed that Cloud didn't find herself a boyfriend while she was on her own... I'll put this tale to bed...

Always keep in mind that shoulder ratting is dangerous... shoulder rats need to be trained and tested and as a handler you need to be constantly vigilant or you will get your rats lost or killed. Fuzzy Rat was a superstar, Max was brilliant, despite lacking an outgoing personality and Cloud proved herself to be more than competent. Only three rats have ever attained my true shoulder rat designation, and each one earned it under fireworks and now I know for sure it was well deserved by all three.... If you can imagine how nervous I was knowing that Cloud barely passed her tests, imagine how frightened I would have been if Cloud hadn't, if she panicked she would have been a write off the second she hit the ground... But Sunday turned out to be a very good day after all...

Stay alert, only work with the right rats and train and test... and your outings will end well too.
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Quite a story Rat Daddy! Great to see that Cloud lived up to your greatest expectations of hopes for her - hopefully Misty is on the way to being a true shoulder rat
I felt so sick for a moment. I'm glad you found your girl!

Although I would really love to take my rats out, I doubt I'll ever have the guts to let them go around like yours. My anxiety would surely kill me before anything happens. I might train my rats in the future, but come to think about it, my pooch is extremely obedient outdoors but still I rarely let her off the leash.
Congrats to cloud. Yay
Four generations of true shoulder rats is a lot to even hope for... and Misty has a long way to go, but here she is having a little fun with the girls after Cloud came back... you can see the marsh in the background... and yes Cloud was out in there...


The purple gloves were to prevent spreading the poison ivy I might have picked up recovering Cloud.
How do you train your rats? Do you have a thread on it?
Actually I have written a thread on the subject.


Basically I don't use the term train as in teach tricks... That would never work.

First I build a strong bond and trust with my rats using immersion techniques. And pretty much adopt a loving parental role.... sort of a soft alpha, if that makes sense, so the rats trust and follow us more or less naturally and think of us as safety... Then I work on building their confidence and skills...

A confident rat may explore away from you and sometimes will get itself into trouble but a terrified rat will panic. Panic is the kiss of death. When a rat panics, it runs for cover and hides, down a sewer hole or a ground hog burrow or in a thicket, either way you aren't getting it back.

I prefer to do training at a safe site... as you can see by the video, my daughter is "playing" with Misty right next to a salt marsh, in fact the same one we lost Cloud in... We already did a few hours at the safe site and Misty did very well there, but if she freaks out, she's only a split second away from being gone. But so far, Misty hasn't shown any signs of panicking... so it's not quite as dangerous as it looks, but it's not 'safe' either.

Our safe site looks like this:

Tree Land lot Woody plant Property White pine

40 Acres surrounded on 3 sides by water.

Then we test and evaluate... In the video, you can see Misty's natural tendency not to be out in the open, but she's following the kids and she's sometimes running to burn off some stressful energy, but she then recovers her cool and comes back to play some more... This is a good learning experience and will serve to make her more relaxed and confident.

Lastly, we practice our own skills at rat handling and managing risks. The risks in the park involved a dog, other people and kids, rat traps around the nearby warehouses and of course the marsh. There were no predatory birds or foxes. Darkness was still several hours away. I'm in the background hanging out but keeping an eye on anything that might be approaching that could become a problem or signs that Misty is losing her composure and likely to bolt off.

The secret to successful shoulder rat training is two fold... First to manage the risks and second to predict and prepare for when things go terribly wrong. Although Cloud's not deaf, she works with hand signals rather than voice commands... which wasn't very useful when she hit the marsh, but she also kept her cool and first went looking for me and when she didn't find me, she went to where she thought she was most likely to be recovered... When everything went terribly wrong, she didn't panic and acted predictably. And that's something a good rat trainer can work with... like a safety net.

This is why leashes and harnesses terrify me. Once the string breaks or the harness slips off the handler has no clue what's going to happen and most likely neither does the rat. Once the situation goes out of control, there's no plan to correct the situation. Sunday was the first time we actually lost Cloud, but the recovery plan was in place, both in Cloud's mind and in ours.

Every rat is different... Cloud's actually easy to handle, she normally stays close by and doesn't roam off... Max was very competent, but didn't much like people or going places when she got older... she would head for the car as soon as she got bored or climb up a tree and take a nap. The best strategy with Max was to find her a tree and drop her off there where she could watch what was going on from a safe vantage and catch some Z's in the fresh air. When she disappeared, we always found her under the hood of the car. Fuzzy Rat was a nightmare to work with if you like to be in control... She loved to tear off on her own to explore when no one was looking or playing with her... but an hour later she would always come back. Whenever people would see us without her, they would ask... "Did you lose your rat again?" "Again", being the operative word. On the other hand, her phenomenal self confidence and competence and navigational ability meant we didn't really worry too much about her when she went missing. Amelia was a disaster... she panicked as soon as she hit the ground and bolted for any cover she could find... outdoors with her was a matter of staying right on top of her or keeping her feet off the ground... She never even came close to the fireworks final exam... She was however a very sweet and wonderful indoor rat and late in life she did like to be carried outside for short walks as long as no one put her down, then all bets were off. Working with true shoulder rats is a matter of really understanding your rats limits and sometimes knowing when to keep some rats inside.

So it's bonding, confidence and competence building, testing and developing the skills you need to manage risks... It's best done at a safe site and still it's a very dangerous game, but for the right rat and the right people it has tremendous rewards. On the flip side, when you screw up and your rat isn't properly 'trained' it is most likely dead. Shoulder ratting isn't for most rats or most people... For most people reading this thread, enjoy the pics and don't try this at home.
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I'm so glad everyone got home safe. Ahh I started reading this and was so sad.
Thanks for the post. I'm not sure it would work out very well for me, as we have a lot of hawks in the area (and even a nest in one of the trees in our backyard) so I definitely wouldn't be comfortable taking them outside.

Besides, we also have dogs so any whole house access would be risky (Sunny is a bird dog and once literally pulled me across the street while she was chasing a cat, and although she has a very bad overbite and probably wouldn't be able to harm a rat, I'd obviously prefer not to risk it). However, the dogs aren't allowed into the attic, where my room is, so I could train them as far as I can, resonably, and then just let them free roam my attic.
I think that true shoulder rats are important to the fancy. They demonstrate how competent a rat can get. They amaze and entertain people who see them and inspire people to see their own rats as competent and intelligent little beings.

Last night my daughter was sitting with the Cloud, Misty and me and she remarked that she felt like the rats were her sisters and not pets. And I think to some degree I see them as tiny kids.

Although I think many rats can benefit from a visit to a proper safe site, I honestly don't think most people should take most rats outdoors. Average rats are still wonderful and intelligent little family members and I think they can be very happy free ranging indoors with each other and their human friends, siblings and parents. I think converting any space in your home into a rat play area is a great idea. Challenge them, engage them, teach them and make them part of your life. Whatever you decide to do, don't let them waste their precious short lives in a cage. It's unfair to you and it's unfair to them.

If someone is the right person and has the right rat, I've posted a lot of information that might help them not to get their rat killed or lost. But for most people, I just want them to see what's possible and to do the best they can, preferably without taking the kinds of risks that shoulder ratters and their rats take when they go outside. We've had both shoulder rats and indoor rats, and we loved them all. If you don't feel it's a good idea to take your rats outside, I think you are probably doing the right thing for them. And I applaud your wise decision. There's nothing more fun than a true shoulder rat, but there's nothing more horrible than coming home one rat short.
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