This page is all about ways to train guinea pigs to be handled as positively and stress-free as possible. The focus here is on force-free methods where the guinea pig is a willing participant in the training and handling. I’ll cover several topics on this page and keep adding more topics and ideas in the future.
1. Syringe Training Your Guinea Pig
Syringe training is helpful for a few purposes. First of all, it may make things easier if your guinea pig needs medication or syringe feeding in the future. Guinea pigs may refuse the syringe once they realize it has yucky medicine instead of water, but it still takes some of the stress away if they’re familiar with it.
Guinea pigs can also be trained to take extra water from a syringe. This can be useful if they get sick or develop arthritis in their senior years. Syringing water can also help flush out excess calcium and prevent bladder stones. If you notice dried white urine marks around the cage, this can indicate excess calcium levels in the diet or lack of water consumption. Syringing extra water often helps remedy this.
How to Train a Guinea Pig to Take Water From a Syringe
This is typically an easy behavior to teach. Start by holding an empty syringe in front of your guinea pig. Most guinea pigs will turn towards it to sniff and see what it is. Give a treat anytime they turn towards it. After a few repetitions, wait until they touch it twice before giving the treat.
If they nibble at it even a tiny bit, give them a big jackpot reward with extra treats to communicate that you want them to do that again. Practice until your piggy nibbles at the tip of the syringe consistently. I like to build this up a little more, so they are biting at the syringe harder or doing it 2-3 times for one treat.
Once you have this, fill the syringe with water. Squirt a tiny drop of water into the guinea pig’s mouth when they nibble at the syringe, and then give them a treat. You may want to practice a few times without squirting the water in between so the guinea pig doesn’t get turned off by all the water in their mouth at once.
You can see the entire training process in the video below with my piggy, Daisy. This was her first training session with the syringe. As you can see, she progressed through these steps pretty quickly in her very first session. Not all guinea pigs will pick it up this quickly, but most seem to catch on within 2-3 days of practice.
2. Teaching Guinea Pigs to Like Being Petted
Some guinea pigs don’t mind petting, and others absolutely hate it. However, most guinea pigs can learn to enjoy petting with a bit of patience and positive reinforcement.
Abyssinians, in particular, seem to hate petting. I suspect that this is due to their wonky hair directions. Guinea pigs rarely like to be pet against the grain of their fur, and that is almost impossible not to do with Abys. However, both my Abyssinians improved a lot with gentle strokes and lots of positive associations.
I’ve also had a few other piggies that did not like to be touched, despite following me around and eagerly doing tricks. This method worked very well with all of them.
Teaching Your Guinea Pig to Enjoy Petting
The first thing you’ll want to do is practice hand feeding and build up a hands-off bond with your pig. Once they trust you and can sit near you comfortably to munch on their favorite veggie treats, you can move on to the next step.
While hand-feeding your guinea pig with one hand, use your other hand to gently stroke their head. If your guinea pig is easily spooked, you may want to start petting their back or shoulders instead. Start with the area of their body that is most comfortable for them.
Pet very gently at first. If your guinea pig pulls away, try petting more softly or starting with another area. It often helps to teach your guinea pig to climb on your lap too. Tips for training your piggy to do that can be found right below this section.
Wait until your guinea pig is calm and relaxed before moving on. Once your piggy has reached this state, try petting more normally and slowly move from the head down to your guinea pig’s shoulders. Once they are comfortable with this, you can work down to their back and sides.
It may take some time to reach this point, so be patient and go at your guinea pig’s pace. Practice this frequently, pairing soft, gentle petting with treats. Over time, your guinea pig will associate petting with treats and start to look forward to it. Eventually, they will come to enjoy petting, even without food present.
Make sure you’re paying attention to your guinea pig’s body language as you pet them. Figure out their favorite places to be pet, and avoid spots they don’t like. All guinea pigs are individuals. Some may like gentle head strokes, while others may prefer bum scratches or shoulder rubs.
3. Climb on Your Lap
Teaching your guinea pig to climb up on your lap is a great way to bond with your piggy. Plus, it is super adorable! I like to combine this with the petting exercise above. Most guinea pigs seem more relaxed when they’re on your lap instead of on the floor.
To teach your guinea pig to climb onto your lap, start with your legs crossed and as flat to the floor as you can make them. Sometimes it helps to drape a blanket over your lap too. Use a piece of food to lure your guinea pig onto your legs. You will likely need to give them a little bit of the food for each step they take. Reward when they put their front paws up on your leg, and anytime they make an effort to lean or step up higher.
Younger guinea pigs are more likely to climb up willingly. You may find that guinea pigs over two years may be lazier and not want to put in the effort to jump or climb up. Regardless, this is not a necessary skill to teach, so don’t worry if your guinea pig isn’t the agile type.
If you still want to teach this, it helps to put a small platform beside you that the guinea pig can use as a step. Anything from a few hardcover books to a block of wood or a binder can work well for this.
4. Being Picked Up Willingly
There are several ways you can teach guinea pigs to be picked up willingly. Some people train their guinea pigs to jump into their cradled arms. I had a pig who would run over and stand up on his hind legs when he wanted up. He would put his front paws on my hand and then shift his back feet onto my other hand that I placed right behind him.
Regardless of how you teach it, there are two crucial things that you need to teach your guinea pig to be picked up willingly. The first thing is trust and a strong bond. Being picked up is a scary thing for guinea pigs. They are very small animals and feel quite vulnerable being lifted so high by a giant being.
The second thing is a reason to want to be picked up. For most guinea pigs, this reason will be food, at least at the beginning of training. The elevator method is a perfect way to teach guinea pigs that picking up leads to great things.
Before teaching this, it’s a good idea to make sure your guinea pig is comfortable being petted and touched on their sides, shoulders, bum, and belly. You can desensitize your guinea pig to this using the method above on how to teach your guinea pig to enjoy petting.
The Elevator Method
For the elevator method, you’ll need a higher surface and some veggies that your guinea pig loves. The high surface can be anything off the ground that is safe and not easy for your guinea pig to jump or fall off. Some good examples would be an armchair, a couch, or a bed.
Put a pile of veggies up on your surface. Next, give your guinea pig a piece of food as a distraction, and quickly scoop them up onto the bed or couch right in front of the veggie pile.
Personally, I like to teach my guinea pigs to put their front paws up on my hand, so then I just have to slip the other hand under their bum and lift them up. Either way is fine. Give them a minute to eat and realize what happened. Then, put the veggie pile on the floor. Distract again and scoop them down in front of the veggie pile once more.
If your guinea pig is too startled after being picked up and doesn’t notice the food, try to start with a lower platform or object. Look for something low enough for your guinea pig to climb up on with their front paws but too high for them to jump to.
This way, they can see and smell the veggies but not reach them. Wait until they are reaching up and sniffing the food, then boost them up the short distance. They will come to think of your hands as a very convenient way to help reach that elusive pile of yummy food.
Practice a few times a day for several days. Eventually, the guinea pig will connect the dots and even start waiting expectantly for you to lift them up to the food.
5. The Carrier Method
Catching and picking up guinea pigs can be stressful for people and guinea pigs alike. The carrier method is the easiest tactic to get guinea pigs out of their cage and back in again. This method entails teaching your guinea pigs to go into a small carrier on cue.
You can also use a box, tunnel, snuggle sack, or any other type of object your guinea pig can go inside. It’s crucial to choose something that is safe and impossible for your guinea pigs to jump out of.
Guinea pigs are easily spooked and have poor depth perception. This can lead to them jumping out of something that is not safely enclosed.
To teach this skill, simply toss some veggies in the back of the carrier and let your guinea pig investigate. You may need to make a trail of veggies into the carrier at first to show them what’s inside. It helps if you get them used to the carrier before using it to carry them around. Put the carrier in the cage with some veggies, let them check it out, and then remove the carrier.
If your guinea pig is too nervous about going in for food, try placing the carrier in the cage and removing the other hiding places one at a time. Most skittish guinea pigs will gravitate straight towards the carrier.
Once your guinea pig is going in the carrier as soon as you place it down, you can stop putting veggies in the carrier. Instead, give them the treat from your hand right after they go in. The cue to go in can be simply putting the carrier down near them. You can also cue them to go in by pointing or tapping the top of the carrier.
In some cases, you may not need to give them a treat at all. For example, if your guinea pig likes coming out for floor time, the reward for going in the carrier is their free-roam time. I often put a big pile of fresh hay or some pellets in the cage before putting the pigs back in after floor time. In this case, the fresh hay and pellets are the rewards for going into the carrier and back into the cage.