Many people who don’t understand tortoises, turtles or reptiles in general, believe that they’re just dumb creatures that can’t be trained. The assumption is that tortoises (as well as turtles) simply don’t respond to their owners or are not smart enough to learn a trick or two like dear old Fido can. But is that actually true? Of course, we’ve got an answer for you.
Can you train a tortoise to do tricks? You can train a tortoise to do tricks with quite a bit of persistent training on your part. Some tortoises can be taught simple tricks while others may eventually learn more complex ones. Breed, training tactics, and age all play a role in how much a tortoise can learn to do.
There are many factors that decide how much a tortoise can learn and how easily they can be trained. That doesn’t mean a very old or stubborn tortoise can’t learn, but it does mean you’ll need to adjust how you tackle the process. Ready to learn more?
How exactly do you teach a tortoise tricks?
Dogs learn tricks pretty quickly because they want to please their owners and get affection. Tortoises generally don’t care as much about making humans happy or earning belly rubs. But that didn’t stop inventive and quick-thinking tortoise owners from finding out just what motivates our beloved shelled buddies.
Food as a motivator
The good news is that, unlike some other reptiles, tortoises are very food motivated. This makes it easier to reward them for performing something you would like them to do. Just by giving them their favorite treat after they do something you want them to, you’re already on your way to teaching your tortoise.
This can be as simple as rewarding him for coming when you call his name or clap your hands. Even if it was the tempting leaf of kale you were waving around that he came to and not you calling his name, you’re still reinforcing the behavior. It doesn’t take long for tortoises to realize those sounds coming out of your mouth mean he’s going to get a snack.
Attention as a motivator
Not as commonly, some tortoises actually seem to respond to affection, or at least more attention, as a reward for tricks. This is not a typical tortoise behavior, but it’s been seen in well-socialized tortoises who are used to being handled.
Maybe it’s just the promise of a warm lap to lounge in, or maybe the tortoise actually enjoys being held. Who knows? Whatever reason they have, some tortoises will gladly come when called or climb up on a little pedestal and look adorable for an extra head scratch or pat on the shell.
What Kinds of Tricks Can a Tortoise Learn?
Every tortoise is different. Whether it’s a breed thing or an individual personality thing, your tortoise isn’t going to behave exactly like every other tortoise. That makes it hard to predict what your tortoise will be willing and able to learn. But it’s a good thing, too.
By understanding your tortoise’s personality, you can fine-tune your training to get the most out of every moment. Here’s a list of some things to try.
Coming when called
Tortoises can learn their names. In fact, this is less a trick and more just a way to bond with your reptile friend. Usually, if a tortoise is interested in bonding with you, it will learn its name within a few months of bringing her home.
You can help the process along by offering a special treat once or twice a day while softly saying her name. If your tortoise likes to be patted, scratched, or stroked, use this in place of treats and repeat her name over and over while you do so.
Eventually, you should be able to say your tort’s name and she’ll either look your direction or come right to you. It takes time to build that trust, so be patient. Once she learns this behavior, however, the other tricks should come much easier.
Climbing onto an object
It may not seem very impressive to non-reptile people, but teaching a tortoise to climb onto an object on command is pretty cool. It’s also a useful, utilitarian trick. Imagine how much easier it would be to do your daily inspections and care routine if your tortoise climbed onto a little platform and held still while you finished your task?
This trick is easiest to teach after he knows his name. But it can still be taught, even if your tortie refuses to come when called. For this trick, most torties prefer a reward in the shape of a delicious treat. Hold the treat above the object you want him to climb, encouraging him to come get it.
If you’d like your tortoise to perform this trick without the promise of a treat, you can choose a command word to go with it or teach him to climb when you tap the object. The choice is yours.
One of the funniest things to teach a tortoise is how to run a maze. Before you balk at that sentence, yes, tortoises can run!
But speed isn’t the point here. Tortoises are clever reptiles. They like to solve puzzles, especially if there’s something yummy at the other end. Start teaching your tortoise to solve a maze by building a very simple one at first and rewarding her when she completes it.
A simple maze may only have one or two turns in it. That’s okay. Once your tortoise understands that this is a game and that she’ll get a tasty treat if she wins, she’ll be all too happy to climb inside and have another go. You can add more turns, tunnels, things to climb over, and simple puzzles to solve.
Asking to be let in or out
One of the most surprising things a tortoise can learn is to knock on a door. They understand the concept of “outside” and “inside” if they are lucky enough to get time outdoors. After a while, and after your tortoise is big enough to do so, you can try teaching him to knock on the door to go out or come in.
This one can be tougher to teach, but if your tortoise has learned other tricks already, you might be able to teach this showstopper. Simply kneel next to your tortoise by the door. Let him see you knock two or three times, then immediately open the door for him. Show him this each time he goes in or out and he may start to understand that the action of knocking on the door will get you to open it.
To be effective, you must answer your tortoise’s knock right away. Too much of a delay and he will give up. If he does, it’s less likely he’ll try again in the future.
Drawbacks to training a tortoise
While it’s great news that tortoises can be tempted into action by treats or affection and that they can learn lots of fun tricks, this news comes with a few downsides.
Massive time sink
The first bit of bad news is that training could take a very long time. Do not try to speed up the learning process. Don’t try cramming a single day full of teaching your tortoise. You may just make your tortoise sick from over-feeding or stress, and that’s no good. Neither of you will have fun.
You must accept that if you wish to teach your tortoise a trick or behavior, it could very well take weeks or months. Some owners, for example, report success in teaching their torties to come when called, but that it took upwards of a full year!
Though tortoises were designed to carry that heavy shell around their whole lives, it doesn’t mean it’s not tiring. Reptiles can get worn out quickly. Keep in mind that they were never meant to do a lot of activity for an extended period. They burn through their energy rather quickly.
Stress can affect both the human trying to train and the tortoise trying to learn. Since we don’t speak reptile and we can only decipher so much tortoise body language, it can be hard to communicate. Even though tortoises don’t have the same responses as dogs or other mammals, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel stress and frustration.
Keep training sessions short and positive. And if your tortoise seems stressed or scared, skip training for the day.
Tummy aches or bad habits
If your tortoise is only food-motivated, and you try to speed up training with long, daily sessions, you may end up with a sick tortoise. Even worse, you could end up with an obese one. Obesity in tortoises and turtles is reaching epidemic levels, so try to keep the extra treats to a minimum.
Even if obesity isn’t a real issue for your svelte little tortie buddy, you should keep an eye on how many treats you offer. Tortoises don’t always stop eating when they’re full. They’ll happily chow down on whatever you offer them, ignoring their aching bellies along the way.
How can you tell if you’ve fed your tortoise too many treats during training?
This may not be apparent right away. Likely, your tortoise will continue to ask for more treats for as long as you’re offering. The real clue to an upset tummy comes later.
If your tortoise eats much less at dinner time than usual, or even refuses her normal foods completely, you may have overdone it on the treats. Tortoises aren’t stupid. If you’ve spent the last five days feeding her treat after treat just for a simple trick, she’s going to figure it out. If she knows she can get strawberries all day long, why would she even bother with boring kale?
The danger of malnutrition due to overfeeding treats during training
Extended overfeeding of treats, even when the tortoise doesn’t eat much during real meals, can lead to major health issues. I don’t say this to scare you, but you need to be aware. Tortoises don’t understand macronutrients. They’ll eat the tastiest things you give them, even if they’re severely lacking important nutrients from their regular meals.
A tortoise stuffed on too much fruit will be missing important nutrients from their regular diet of kale, dandelions, collard greens, and other leafy vegetables. Fruits are also much higher in sugar, which can be deadly in large doses and over an extended period of time.
It’s fun to teach tortoises tricks. I’m not sure why so many people believe it’s not possible, but I’m happy to help dispel that myth. Tortoises are smart and full of personality. They can get bored, despite what nonbelievers say. By teaching your tortoise tricks, you can help relieve some of their boredom, keep their brains active, and keep their bodies healthy.
Just remember to limit the treats, keep the sessions short, and pay attention to your tortoise’s mood.
Are tortoises smart enough to learn tricks? As we’ve seen, the answer is yes. Tortoises are smart enough to learn simple tricks. Some are even capable of learning more complex tricks such as knocking on the door to come inside or getting your attention to be let outside.
Do tortoises recognize their owners? Yes, a tortoise can recognize his or her owner. This comes with time and patience, however. Be sure to talk to your tortoise, take good care of him, and pay attention to him every day. The more time you spend with your tortoise, the quicker he’ll recognize you.