Taming a Nervy Degu

Degus, being prey animals, are naturally cautious about new things. We all know that some degus are naturally braver than others, and that degus given a new home will need time to settle in to their new environment. However, sometimes you can get degus who are naturally much more 'nervy' than normal, and it can take a little longer for them to adjust to their new home and to their owners. If you have a 'nervous nelly', here are some top tips for how to go about calming them down and getting them used to you in next to no time!

>How do I know if I have a nervy degu?<

If you've had your degus for less than a week, particularly if they're still youngsters, they will need some time to adjust to their new home full of new objects, strange smells and unfamiliar people and routines. Bear in mind that a young degu may never have been away from their siblings before or even outside into the wide world, so it will all be quite strange for them. The best thing to do when you get them home is to put them in their new cage in a nice, quiet room, and leave them alone for a few hours to settle in. Try not to handle them a lot at first, they need time to get to know you and get to know your routine with them. The bold nature of the degu means they will soon be coming out to investigate their home and new owners, and should be taking treats from you within a week or two (with a little patience of course!). However, if one or more of your degus is still running to hide whenever you come into the room after 3 weeks or more, or if your degus are running scared around the cage trying to hide at the slightest noise and won't take treats from you, it may be that they're a bit more nervy than normal. If so, read on!

>Taming a nervy degu<

This process can be divided up into stages to make it easy for you to follow, and to go back a stage if need be. Remember that you will need some patience, as with all types of training work- it might help you to read through the tips on the training page first. The most important thing to bear in mind is that you will need to go at a pace comfortable to your degu, so that they feel in control of what is going on. If things aren't going to plan, always aim to go back a stage or two!

This is a very important stage as it allows your degu to recognise that you're not a threat to them, and that it's safe to come out of hiding when you're close to their cage. A degu's cage is his castle, and he (or she) should feel very safe while inside it- they need to know that nothing can hurt them while they're in it. This will give them confidence while they're in the cage- very important for a nervy degu. Unfortunately this stage may not be so exciting for you, so have a good book to hand and the determination to sit in one place for an hour or so! So, firstly, you'll need to get yourself comfortable next to the degu cage. When you enter the room, try to ignore the degus at first, and go and sit as close to the cage as you can in a comfortable position. It's very important to have your back to the degu cage at this point. This is because by not facing the degus directly, you are immediately less threatening to them, making them feel a little more secure. Next, open up your book, or put the TV or radio on, and sit quietly for 30 minutes to an hour. You'll need to repeat this process in exactly the same way, every single day. Try to do this at the same time of day, so that you get into a routine that your degus can predict. Degus love routine- it makes them feel safe because they know what to expect and when to expect it. Note that you will have to repeat this daily (or as close as possible) for perhaps a week or two before your nervy degu plucks up the courage to come out of hiding while you're there. Also note that the longer time you can spend sitting like this, the faster your degus will learn to adjust to your presence. So be determined! This is the worst part of the process- it's worth it in the end! The first time the degu comes out and gets on with their normal degu activities, like eating, running in the wheel, having a wash, etc don't be tempted to turn and look, just let them get on with it. Once your nervy degu is happy to be out and about while you're sitting there, you know they've accepted your presence and are ready to move on to the next stage. Hurray!

Now that your degu doesn't feel you are a threat to them while you're close to the cage, it's time to let them know that you're no threat while looking at them and interacting with them. In fact, we want them to associate your attention with positive things, like treats! As normal, go and sit with the cage, initially with your back to it and wait for your nervy degu to come out and about. Once they're going on with normal things, start talking to them in a quiet voice and very slowly turn around to face them. If they show any sign of fear or running to hide, then just turn back around and wait for a while before trying again. If you do this often enough, the degu will get used to the process and know you aren't going to do anything scary! It may help your degu to have the radio on quietly while you're doing this- a little background noise helps to break up the silence. The aim here is for your nervy degu to tolerate and ignore your attention initially. If they don't run off when you're giving them attention, you're on to a winner!

Now come the treats! You want your degu to actively seek out your attention and presence, so that they see you as a positive thing rather than something to be scared of or indifferent about. For this stage you'll need to have to hand some treats that your degu really enjoys. I find that good treats to use for training work are things like natural, puffed rice or rolled porridge oats. Have a few tasty things to hand and go about your routine as normal, only this time offer up a treat to the bars of the cage (don't be tempted to open the cage door at this point). Hold it there and carry on giving the degu attention as you would in the previous stage. You will find that their natural curiosity means that sooner or later they'll come up to check out what you've got. They won't be afraid to do this at this stage due to your previous hard work, but it might take them a little time to realise what's going on. Rest assured that once they've got the hang they'll keep coming back for more! The first time your nervy degu comes to take a treat from you is a special moment indeed, and when it happens you can feel really proud of how much you've helped them already. As with all stages, repeat this until your nervy degu is happy to come and take treats from you through the bars every day. Then it's time for stage 4.

Now comes a big step for your degu- it's time to get the cage door open. The first time you do this may un-nerve them, because this is effectively breaking down a barrier behind which they feel secure. However, it's up to you to prove to them that it makes no difference, you're not going to do anything unexpected they aren't used to. As normal, give your degu treats through the bars, but after a few, this time slowly and calmly open the cage door, then move back to your previous position and offer a few more treats through the bars just to put them at ease. If at first your nervy degu runs away, simply close the door and repeat the process the following day until they're used to what's going on. It's only natural they need a bit of time to adjust to a new activity. Once they don't mind the door being open and are happy to take treats as normal while it is so, then you want to start encouraging them toward the open door by offering treats closer and closer. The aim here is to have the nervy degu take treats from your hand through the open door, rather than through the bars. It's really important at first not to have your hand inside the cage, as this is like 'invading' their safe space. You need to build up to this by gaining their trust through repeated treating. For now, the aim is to have your nervy degu happy to sit at the open door and wait to take treats from your hand.

From this point onwards you can begin the process of hand training your nervy degu. Hand training is really great for encouraging your degu to trust you and bond more closely with you as an owner, and it works well for nervy degus in that it can be taught directly from the open cage door. You can follow the guide just as you would any other degu, but be aware that each step may take a little longer for your nervy degu. The more training work you do with your degus, the better! You will find that once your nervy degu is happy to get onto your hand and come up to you in the play area your work will be done- although you can never completely cure a nervy degu of their nerves, you can make them confident around you and make them less stressed in general about their life, which is a very good thing indeed. On top of that, you'll have a friend for life, and that is why it's really worth all your hard work so far.

>What if only one degu in a group is nervy?<

If you have one nervy degu and one or more 'normal' degus, the process can be followed exactly the same, even with all degus in the cage. A nervy degu will be taking cues from other group members and will be watching how they react, learning by observation. For this reason, if your nervy degu sees the others out and about while you're at stage 1, they may be more likely to come out, too. However, if you're on to stages 4-5 and you're finding the other degus are keen to come out of the cage while you're trying to interact with the nervy degu, you may want to move them into their play area while you concentrate on the nervy one.

>Important note<

It should be made very clear that at no point must you go into your degus' cage with your hands in order to pick them up, especially so with a nervy degu. This action is likely to break their trust in you completely, putting you right back to square one and making it harder for you to proceed. So don't do it! If you need to get your degus out of the cage, for example for cleaning purposes, you need to do so in a manner they are happy with. If your degus aren't hand trained yet, a good method to use instead is with tube training as described on the tube training guide.