Snakes are a unique kind of pet, so having one makes you stand out from typical dog or cat owners. However, when owning a pet, some of the appeal comes from teaching them cool tricks, and bonding with them through that experience. Unfortunately, you can’t expect a snake to learn to sit, roll over, or come when called, but there are things that snakes can do.
Snakes can’t learn tricks, but they can advance by learning trained behaviors. You can train a snake to become accustomed to a new environment or diet, and you can teach it to trust you.
So, how exactly can a pet snake be trained? Here, we’ll discuss the intelligence of snakes and the challenges that you’ll face. Then, we’ll explore steps on how to encourage specific behaviors from your snake.
Can You Train a Snake?
When you think of animal training, you likely think of a dog offering its paw for you to shake, a horse jumping over a hurdle, or a parrot saying “Hello!” An image of a snake performing one of these “trick” behaviors seems strange, and for good reason.
Snakes have a simpler brain structure than mammals and birds. As a result, snakes are incapable of learning complicated tricks. Snakes are also not known to respond to explicit human commands.
However, snakes are capable of learning. A snake is not the stereotypical goldfish, always surprised by its forgotten surroundings. Snakes can and do grow accustomed to new environments, and they can learn to associate events with each other.
They can also learn that you, their owner, mean them no harm. This means less defensive behavior and fewer bites from snakes.
What Can Snakes Learn?
Let’s take a look at what researchers have learned about snakes. If snakes cannot learn tricks, what can they learn?
It’s well known that researchers experiment with rats in mazes. The Journal of Comparative Psychology relates a study in which a similar experiment was conducted on water snakes.
These snakes were placed in a maze of cold water, connected to a compartment full of warm water, which is a strong motivator for the snakes. Over time, and with repeated trials in the maze, these snakes came to navigate the maze more quickly and efficiently.
This shows that the snakes were learning from their previous experiences. They had a spatial awareness of their surroundings, allowing them to navigate to their goal and remember the result of past decisions.
Snakes have the ability to know where they are, and to differentiate one corridor from another. As such, your snake can recognize the difference between rooms in a house, or between animal enclosures.
When you train your snake, keep in mind that the snake will draw associations between its surroundings and your behavior.
What Food to Eat or Avoid Eating
Scientists at Peabody College learned that snakes can notice and learn from negative experiences with food. They took garter snakes, which eat fish and earthworms, and performed an experiment.
After the snakes ate a meal of earthworms, the scientists injected the snakes with either a harmless saline fluid, or a lithium chloride injection. The lithium chloride caused a simulated illness in the snakes.
The snakes who received the harmless saline showed no change in behavior. However, the snakes which received the lithium chloride and fell ill would refuse to eat future earthworms. These snakes would still eat fish when presented with it.
This indicates that snakes have a sense of cause and effect. The snakes realized that after eating earthworms, they had a negative physical response. As a result, in the future, these snakes refused to eat earthworms, but didn’t avoid eating altogether. The creatures learned to associate the earthworms with illness.
Snakes can be picky eaters, just like human children. A snake that is used to eating one kind of food might not easily come around to a new kind of food. Also, if a snake has a negative experience with one meal, it’s unlikely to eat that food again.
When introducing a new food source, remember to be patient with your snake. Just like with other animals, it may take time and repetition for your snake to become comfortable eating something unusual.
Why Are Snakes Difficult To Train?
Snakes clearly have the ability to learn from their experiences. However, you still cannot expect them to learn to obey your commands. Let’s talk about the unique challenges that snakes present as trainable animals.
1/ Not Social Animals
Animals that are typically chosen as pets are very social. They take care of each other, and they are drawn to cuddle and play with other creatures.
Snakes do not have this drive to be social. They are solitary animals with small brains. As a result, your snake will not feel the need to please you by doing what you say, as a dog would. The snake will also not respond to your attempts to praise or pet it, as it has no need for physical affection.
2/ Prone to Biting in Self-Defense
Snakes may not have claws, but snakes do have teeth, and they’re not afraid to use them. They also have a tendency to be skittish, especially if you are much bigger than they are.
This can lead to a snake striking out in fear or aggression if you startle it. Depending on how big its teeth are, you could get hurt and bleed quite heavily from a bad bite.
Remember that a snake bite is not the end of the world. Wounds can be disinfected and healed.
3/ Learning the Wrong Behavior
Earlier, we learned that snakes have a sense of cause and effect. However, as non-social animals, they are unable to determine your expectations for them. This can lead to snakes coming to an unexpected conclusion about the meaning of your actions.
For example, many snake keepers make the mistake of only opening their snake’s cage to feed them. This means that the snake will learn to associate “the cage door opened” with “I get food!”
As a result, the snake will immediately strike out at the first thing that comes in through the cage door, expecting it to be food. If it’s actually your hand, this leads to a painful bite.
The way around this is to interact with your snake more often, aside from just feeding time. Keep in mind that the snake is trying to learn about its environment.
Give it a regular schedule to grow accustomed to, and it will know that the cage opening at this time means food, while at this other time, it means getting handled.
How to Train a Pet Snake
Now that you understand what snakes are capable of, let’s talk about how to teach your snake certain information and behaviors.
How to Teach a Snake That It’s Feeding Time
A snake can learn that when its cage is opened, it’s feeding time. To avoid getting bitten, focus on teaching your snake when it’s time to eat. Try feeding your snake in a different container than its cage. Here’s how:
- Collect your tools. This includes a separate container, such as a plastic tub with a lid, or even an additional cage. You also need a snake hook to help you pick up the hungry snake
- At feeding time, use the hook to move the snake from its home cage to its feeding enclosure. Only feed it when it is in the separate enclosure
- Once the snake is done eating, return it to the original habitat
Remember to do this process every time you feed your snake, right from the first day you bring it home.
This will teach your snake that food comes in this enclosure, not that one. As a result, the snake will not assume that your hand is food.
How to Get Your Snake to Eat Food
Snakes usually hunt and eat their prey while it’s alive. However, this is a diet that can be difficult for human owners to replicate. Few pet stores will sell you large amounts of live mice to feed your snake. Additionally, you might not find it pleasant to feed a live animal to your snake.
Make The Food Come Alive
When presenting a snake with a dead source of food, do not simply drop the food into the enclosure. Instead, use a pair of long tweezers to move the food around the enclosure. This indicates to the snake that the meal is alive and can be hunted.
After several meals, the snake will grow used to the taste and texture of the dead food source. You should not need to move the food for long before your snake will eagerly strike and eat the food without encouragement.
Vary the Diet
You may also discover that your snake has a diet that’s hard to supply in captivity. For example, green tree pythons usually eat insects, frogs, or lizards when they are young, instead of rodents. It is difficult for amateur snake keepers to get their hands on a supply of lizards to feed their snakes, while it is easier to supply a meal of rodents.
- Get a piece of lizard skin
- Rub the lizard skin on the rodent meal. This will make the dead rodent smell a bit like a lizard
- Present the meal to the snake
- After repeating this for several meals, introduce the snake to an unscented rodent
How To Teach a Snake Not To Bite
Let It Adjust
When you first bring your snake home, do not be surprised or turned off by its defensive behavior. The snake is in a new environment and confused about what is or isn’t a threat!
Give Them Human Exposure
Set up the snake’s habitat somewhere humans walk through often. This could be your bedroom, dining room, or living room. The frequent presence of humans will help the snake become used to your sound and scent.
Give It Hiding Places
Make sure that your snake has plenty of furnishings or “hides” in its habitat. If a snake feels the need to flee from you, it will be far more comfortable with hiding instead of confronting you. These hides can include small boxes, caves, and tunnels.
Play With The Snake Regularly
Interact often and regularly with your snake. Open up its enclosure and hold the snake. Allow the snake to slither around you if it wants to.
It’s important for the snake to adjust to interacting with you, and without coming to harm. Interact with your snake more than twice each week.
Snakes are wild animals, and they make great pets, too. While you shouldn’t expect to train your snake to perform jumps in the circus, you can teach your snake to live happily in your home.
By allowing your snake to grow accustomed to you and the presence of other humans, you can train them to be calm and trusting.
By giving your snake regular opportunities to learn about new, safe foods, you can teach them to eat any food you provide. With careful scheduling, you can teach your snake that your hand is not food, too.
Training a snake takes patience, but is well worth the effort.