Many pets like to play, not only when they are young. But have you ever played hide-and-seek with one? And I’m not talking about only you hiding so that your dog can sniff you out. I’m talking about the game we probably all know from childhood where one person stays in one place, while the other hides and waits to be found by the first one. And afterwards, the roles are reversed!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t me playing hide-and-seek with rats, but researchers from Germany. They trained the rats to play both seeker and hider.
When seeking, rats were locked in a central box and released remotely once the researcher had hidden themselves behind one of several cardboard covers. As soon as the rat found the researcher, they got a reward. Not a tasty treat, but an interaction, like tickling, rough-and-tumble-like play and petting.
When hiding, the rat was placed in an open central box. The researcher sat next to it, loudly counting. The rat had 90 second to hide. If it was hidden behind a cover or in one of the boxes and stayed there till the researcher found it, it got a reward of interaction.
The rats were successful at both hiding and seeking and they could easily switch between the roles.
Moreover, they used strategies I recognise from my own childhood, even though they were not explicitly trained to use them!
When seeking rats moved more, checking different locations in a systematic manner and they used visual cues. They also checked previous hiding locations of humans more often (sometimes researchers kept on hiding in the same place) while rarely entering small boxes.
When hiding, their movement was more directed and they changed hiding locations between trials and stayed quiet (also in the ultrasound range they normally use for communication) while hiding.
And it seems that the rats were not playing just to get a reward, but that they actually had fun!
They performed joy jumps, and when found they often cut short the reward interaction, ran away and re-hid, thus prolonging the game and delaying the reward!
I wonder, shall I also train my rats to play hide-and-seek? But I have a feeling that they would rather choose pumpkin seeds as a reward than tickling…
You can watch the recording of the game here.
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Lovely piece. Absolutely fascinating and delightful!