Trick training can be a fun source of activity for both people and guinea pigs alike. However, how do you know what’s safe and what’s not? In this list, I’ll go over five of the things I’ve seen people try to teach their guinea pigs that they really shouldn’t. Many of these are stressful for guinea pigs and can even be dangerous. I’ll explain why each one should be avoided and what you should do instead.
1. Play Dead
You should never try to teach your guinea pig to play dead on their back and here’s why. Guinea pigs are not very flexible animals, and their spine can be seriously injured doing this. Lying on their back is a very unnatural and vulnerable position. It can be hard for them to get back up and they get even injure themselves trying to flip right side up again.
In addition, it’s very painful for their spine when they are forced to lie on their back. Plus, it will destroy any trust that your guinea pig has in you, because they feel extremely vulnerable and unsafe when placed on their back.
Any trick you teach your guinea pig should be something they can do themselves without physical assistance. If you need to put them in a position yourself, it’s not an actual trick. Think about dogs that play dead. They can do it safely without you flipping them over onto their back.
If you can teach your guinea pig to play dead in a way that does not involve touching them, then it is safe. For example, you could give them a treat every time they lie down and try to capture that as a trick. This can be difficult to get on cue, but you may be able to get them to do it in certain situations.
For example, I had a guinea pig who would sometimes lie down beside the exercise pen fence when I had another guinea pig out. Every time he laid down beside the fence I gave him a treat. He figured that out pretty fast and soon came and laid down right beside the fence every time, kicking his legs out behind him. This is about as close to a play dead trick as you can safely get with guinea pigs.
2. Run in a Ball or Wheel
Many people assume guinea pigs need to run in wheels because most other rodents do. Guinea pigs are actually built much differently than these other animals. They have wide, low bodies, cannot climb, and also, do not have flexible spines like hamsters, mice, rats, and gerbils.
Because of this, it’s very painful for guinea pigs to bend their backs even slightly. This makes it impossible for them to run in wheels or exercise balls. If forced to walk in an exercise ball, they can suffer spinal injuries.
It is important to give your guinea pig lots of safe exercise however. Guinea pigs are prone to obesity and can be more likely to get sick because of this. The best way to exercise your guinea pig is to give them floor time in a safe guinea pig proofed room. Provide them with a large cage to give them space to move around.
You can also hide treats around their cage or the room during floor time. Another fun option is to teach them tricks. You can even build them little obstacles like jumps and teach them to run an agility course. You can also get them a treat ball and put pellets or diced up veggies inside. Once you teach them how to use it, guinea pigs love rolling a treat ball around to get food to fall out.
3. Walk on a Leash
Walking on a leash is also very unnatural for guinea pigs. Harnesses scare them and make it difficult for the guinea pig to walk with them on. They feel like their body is trapped and will likely not want to move with the harness on. In addition, it can cause injuries if you try to tug them along with you.
Harnesses are also not very safe. Guinea pigs can absolutely panic and wriggle out of them when they’re scared. Walking them in an unfamiliar environment is very scary for most guinea pigs and they could slip away and get lost so easily. Guinea pigs are not dogs, and it’s best not to treat them like they are.
If you need to take your guinea pig somewhere, put them in a safe zipped up carrier so they are secure. If you just want to take your guinea pig outside, try setting up an exercise pen in a quiet area outside and let them graze in a safe space. Make sure they are supervised so predators like large birds and cats cannot reach them. Also choose an area with clean, untreated grass. This will be a much safer and happier experience for them than going for a walk.
Guinea pigs can usually swim a little bit if their life depends on it. But swimming can be extremely dangerous for guinea pigs, for many reasons. First of all, guinea pigs aren’t built to swim. They have evolved to live in dry environments and don’t swim naturally in the wild. Their bodies are not very agile, and they really struggle trying to keep their head above water. Most guinea pigs absolutely hate the water and should never be forced to swim. If they need a bath, do so in shallow water where they can easily touch the bottom.
In addition, swimming can cause a lot of potential health problems, some of which can be deadly. Pneumonia, ear infections, and various injuries can occur when they are panicking and trying to keep themselves afloat. It is also extremely stressful for them. Due to all the potential dangers and stress, guinea pigs should never be forced to swim for any reason.
5. Roll Over
Roll over is unsafe for the same reason as the first two things on this list. Guinea pigs simply aren’t built to roll over. They don’t have a flexible spine and cannot roll over naturally. Any trick where you have to lift them and turn them over are not real tricks and can seriously harm your guinea pig. Trying to make your guinea pig roll over will make your guinea pig fear you, and it can even cause serious physical injuries or paralysis.
To sum it up, there are some things that should simply never be taught to guinea pigs. Any “trick” that involves you handling or putting your guinea pig into position is not actual training. Many of these are stressful and just plain dangerous for your guinea pig. Plus, there are so many other fun tricks that you can teach with positive reinforcement that are enjoyable for you and your guinea pig.
Real trick training can be a great source of enrichment, and it builds up trust with your guinea pig. You can find some fun and beginner friendly tricks on our list of 10 easy guinea pig tricks to teach first.