The box training method by HofS -Hamsters of Sweden
Taming your hamster – the box training method
By Tina Rosendahl, HofS - Hamsters of Sweden ©
I’m going to write some more about “box training” your hamster. This method is about learning your hamster to get used to you, your scent and that you are not "dangerous".
The method also teaches the hamster to not only associate hands with something that comes down into the cage to take the hamster away from its habitat. The method is excellent to combine togehter with the "walk in hand" / the walk-in-hand method.
You simply have an empty transport box or another small box that is not too easy for the hamster to climb out of, where you place the hamster and then let your hand rest on the bottom.
It is therefore important that the box is not too large, because the point is that your hand and arm should take up a large part of the box so that the hamster almost inevitably comes into contact with you when it moves around in the box / transport.
It can be tempting to try to pet the hamster, but the point of this method is that all contact should take place on the hamster's terms and that nothing should happen if it walks over your hand, sniffs or climbs on you.
Just leave your hand completely still in the box and feel free to sit in front of the TV meanwhile, as it can be quite boring to just sit completely still.
You can also "cup" your hand like a small nest (preferably at the corner of the box) or like a tunnel, so that the hamster is tempted to crawl under it. In this way, it learns that your hand means security.
Note that it is important not to “trap” the hamster in any way, it should be able to easily crawl in and out your “hand hide/tunnel” as it wants.
Week 1: train in short sessions of 5-10 minutes.
Week 2: start to extend the time.
Week 3: you can start to get the hamster used to you petting it as well.
Note: these are approximate time estimates because some hamsters understand faster than others. Do not stress your hamster by rushing through the steps too fast as it can have the opposite effect and delay your work, because it is a process that must take time to get consolidated.
Always end a training session when it is going well! It is important to be patient and not give up too easily, nor to keep going for too long, so that the hamster gets tired and/or irritated.
When you start touching the hamster, then pat / stroke it on the side and preferably when it is near you. Not straight from the top, which can be perceived as a threat by the hamster (think birds of prey that come from above and catch their prey aka the hamster). If you notice that the hamster finds it unpleasant, you back off a bit. Pay attention to the hamster's body language.
It is natural that the hamster might twitch a little the first time / times you touch it, but keep calm and be careful without being hesitant and "jerky" in your own body language and continue after a while.
If the hamster is still noticeably badly affected by you touching it, you "back" in your training and continue to only have your hand in the cage, and then you continue training in this way.
Feel free to wear a long-sleeved t-shirt or sweater, so that the hamster can climb on you to get out of the dull box. When it has come a bit along your arm, you undramatically take it with the other hand and let it down in the box again. After a while, it will surely try again, and then you just repeat the procedure.
This will teach the hamster to be handled and it can also learn to climb on your arm, so that when you then put your arm in the regular cage, it will come voluntarily and climb in your hand / on your arm. However, some hamsters never learn (or want to) climb your arm and that is also perfectly okay.
Why a special box? Why not just put your hand down the hamsters regular cage the same way?
There are several reasons not to put your hand down in the regular cage.
1: Your hamster cage should be significant bigger than the box I advocate that you should use in this method. In the usual cage, the hamster will not have to interact with you. It can just go and lie down and continue sleeping in its house, dig down or go and run in the wheel and pretend that you are not there.
2: Although Syrian hamsters do not guard territories in the same way as some species of dwarf hamsters, there are always exceptions.
I also believe that the cage should be the hamster's sanctuary and that it should feel safe in it. Therefore, I advocate that all training / socialization with the hamster takes place outside the cage.
It is unnecessary to provoke your hamster. An insecure / scared hamster also finds it easier to resort to defense / aggression when it is not possible to escape from the problem and we do not want to trigger this.
But do I not provoke / "trigger" my hamster through the box training then?
Both yes and no. A certain amount of provocation is necessary to achieve results, a bit like CBT for us humans. An important principle in CBT treatment is that you should dare to expose yourself to what you are afraid of, gradually in small steps, in order to break the avoidance behavior.
When you are exposed to what you are afraid of in a positive way, you build up a "safety memory" and thus reduce your fear. The box training method is meant to work in much the same way for your hamster. But it is important to "provoke" in the right way.
I bought my hamster from an ethical breeder, shouldn't it already be tame then?
If you bought your hamster as a 5-week-old pup, this means that your breeder has had three weeks to tame your hamster (you do not touch hamster pups until they are two weeks old and have opened their eyes). The training has thus begun but has not yet been consolidated. That is your job as a hamster owner.
In addition, a move affects all hamsters differently and it is not possible to predict how a hamster will react. Even older hamsters could have a strong reaction when moving to a new home.
So even if a hamster pup is tamed by its breeder, it does not mean that it is totally tame in its new home, where there are strange smells and new people to get to know. For some, it goes smoothly, while others are more sensitive and take the move badly - just as we humans are individual
Should I use and/or put food / treats in my hand so that the hamster is more easily attracted to interact with me?
No. I recommend that you tame your hamster WITHOUT treats or food. It is easy for the hamster to start associating you / your hands with food or treats and they can then get a wrong expectation what interaction with you should be about and start nibbling your hands or even straight up biting.
Once your hamster IS tame, there is nothing to stop you from time to time - not every time you interact though - giving it some treats/ food from your hand.
And no, of course doesn't all hamsters start biting because they got food from your hand before it was tame, but you can never predict which hamster will or will not do this, so why take a chance just because you think it's cute or thinks that it is a shortcut to getting your hamster tame?
I have seen / read that you can sit in a bathtub or in the play pen and hang out with your hamster - is that a better method than box training?
Personally, I had started with the box training, because the box is smaller than a bathtub or a play pen, and then I had switched to the bathtub/play pen.
There is nothing wrong with letting the hamster run with you in the bathtub/play pen, but it is a larger and open area and can be more frightening for your hamster even if you and your legs may occupy a large part of the bathtub.
It is also more difficult for you to reach your hamster in a natural and subtle way if it only stays at your feet, that’s why I would start with the box.
I bought my hamster from a pet shop - will it never get tame?
It is possible to get pet shop hamsters as tame as a hamster from an ethical breeder with the same methods - sometimes it only takes a little longer. But as I said, it is very individual from hamster to hamster how long it takes to get your hamster tame. Some hamsters can be huge "drama queens" and develop late while others are more forward and easy to learn.
The main reason why it is not recommended to buy hamsters from a pet shop but from an ethical breeder who registers his hamsters in an hamster association (if there is one in your country, not all countries have this) - there are also many back yard breeders to be aware of- is the pet shop hamster's "factory upbringing" and that the ones who supplies pet shop hamsters not actively work with the breeding to produce nice and healthy hamsters.
My hamster is a rescue hamster - does the method work on it?
Yes, it works on all hamsters of all ages. Rescue hamsters can be anything from very well-managed hamster to a hamster that has been "forgotten" or even mismanaged. Regardless, all hamsters need time to adapt to a new environment and new people, but not several weeks.
How long should I use the box training method?
It is very individual and cannot be answered. See schedule above as a "guide" for the different steps in the box training method. And trust your own intuition!
Also keep in mind that the hamster enters a teenage period when it is 6-8 weeks and you can sometimes have to "start from the beginning again" with the tameness training until the hormones have stabilized.
I myself do not expect that the tameness training is consolidated until the hamsters are around six months.
Finally, this is one of the methods that we at HofS – Hamsters of Sweden - ourselves uses with good results and advocate, preferably in combination with "walk-in-hand". Maybe the method does not suit you for various reasons. Then do not use it.
I have written this article to facilitate hamster training as it is a topic that is difficult to find facts about. But whatever method you use in your tameness training, you should let it take time and not test new methods each day/every week, unless they are methods that complement each other such as “box training” and “walk-in-hand”.
Many advocate treat/food rewards, which I myself explained above why I personally don’t use, or that you should have your hand in the cage and let the hamster make contact entirely on its own terms, which I also explained why I personally do not. But if that works for you and your hamster - congratulations!
In many hamster forums online you can read about so-called "ghost hamsters", ie hamsters that live their lives completely without contact with their human and where the owner rarely sees it but knows that it’s alive because the food disappears, kind of.
Personally, I think that in 90% of cases of so called "ghost hamsters" it’s bout you as the owner being unsecure of how to handle your hamster, maybe even a little scared of your hamster or getting bitten, or that you have a misguided goodwill in not wanting to "intrude" on your hamsters privacy.
Sometimes it can also be a matter of simply not having the patience / time / energy to train it regularly and "give up". Or a combination of all of the above.
It is important to remember that a Syrian hamster is a solitary animal unlike a dog, which - although some dogs ofc can be scared / shy - will quickly want to have contact with us humans or their immediate family/owner.
A hamster is not "social". It may be more or less curious and / or risk averse.
Just as it is genetically programmed in a dog to want to be part of a herd and socialize with us humans, so it is genetically programmed that a Syrian hamster has no need to socialize even with their own specie (for purposes other than reproduction at specific times).
This is something we must actively teach the hamster, that we humans are nice and "good to have".
It is also genetically programmed that a hamster might "twitch", or seems "afraid" / shy of sudden movements or sounds as they also are prey animals. This usually does not mean that your particular hamster is "abnormally" scared or timid, only that it has a healthy survival instinct. This is something that the hamster learns to handle over time.
So why not just let your hamster "be himself"? Isn’t that the most fair to the hamster? Not in my opinion. As a pet owner, you actually have a legal responsibility to make sure your pet is well.
It does not just mean putting your hamster in a super-large cage with lots of "natural" furnishings and giving it food and water. You must also do regular health checks on your hamster; feel through the body for lumps, wounds or other strange things, make sure that the eyes are ok (dryness can come with age and a hamster that burrows alot easily can get cage material in it's eyes which can lead to infections, you need to check that the teeth are not too long, grow incorrectly or have fallen off/getting wounded and need to be fixed by a vet or if the claws need to be cut.
This is difficult if the hamster is not manageable and gets (hysterically) scared every time.
It is actually very unfair to your hamster that it has to be a stressful moment for your hamster every time it is handled, and you should avoid this to happen as much as possible.
Because maybe something happens in the future that causes your hamster to need medical treatment. Then it is a great advantage to have a tame hamster, it can even be vital that it is possible to medicate a hamster instead of having it to be put down as that would be the least traumatic for it.
Then, of course, there actually are some cases of so-called “ghost hamsters”, but even these must receive a certain amount of training and socialization for above reasons.