Thoughts on PD Behavior
We bought a little girl PD from a local pet store here in Houston called Pet City, which occasionally has semi-exotic critters. We also bought her a huge cage with what we thought were all the accouterments. Unfortunately however they did not have good advice for keeping them and were obviously not aware of proper PD care. I suspected this when we bought her so I went home and did a bunch of research and sure enough I found out that the food they'd sold us was not adequate.
So the next day we took a trip to S&S Exotics which is also here in Houston and the fellow there was much more helpful. They had a whole PD package of different foods including a calcium supplement to mix with her water, and we picked up a few more things for her cage, too, including one of those reptile warming pads to put under her "igloo" so that she can keep warm at night.
What difference the right things made! I can't overemphasize how important it is for new PD owners to get the right diet and environment for their PD. We named her Peepers because of how much she loves to ride in our pockets and peep out at the world.
PD Behavior Observations
I bought a book by John L. Hoogland called The Black-Tailed Prairie Dog which I have found very helpful and I recommend it to PD owners. It is a little pricey because it is an academic book, but I found it used on Amazon for $30. Even though it is academic, it is quite readable. A lot of the advice on the Internet about PDs as pets is limited, and it didn't really help me to understand her instincts and behavior with any depth. Learning about how they live in the wild really made a difference in how I look at her as a pet. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts based on what I've read and my observations. I might be wrong, but it seemed like it was worth sharing to see what experiences others might have had and if I'm on the right track.
For instance, we now try to let her be outside of her cage as much as possible when we're available to supervise. I'm home all day since I work out of the house and my husband works at night so he's around during the day too, even if it's just to provide a warm place for her to snuggle while he sleeps. She goes through cycles of being hyper and needing a nap, just like I'd expect from a little kid, so we let her play when she's up and put her back for her naps. When she's ready to sleep, she goes right to bed. We also put her in her cage to eat and drink, but we'll leave the door open so she can come out if she still wants to play.
We do have to keep an eye on her when she's exploring to make sure she doesn't get into things she isn't supposed to, but for the most part, she prefers to be around us anyway so it isn't very difficult to keep track of her.
Some people advised against giving in when they ask to be let out, but I think that's actually really hard on them psychologically, especially as little ones.
PDs allolactate and alloparent, which means that they will nurse and parent children who are not theirs. This is why PD babies can bond with people so well -- they are naturally inclined to accept food and care from anyone who offers. They evolved this trait so that the responsibilities are spread over more parents, giving the children a better chance of survival because they are not left alone and the mommy is able to forage. So it is difficult for a PD to understand why it can't be with its human "parents" for very long, especially if they can see you but they can't reach you. This is probably the reason why PDs get depressed and go crazy when they are left alone for too long. In the wild, there is no such thing as a cage that keeps them in a place where they can see their family, but not reach them.
We got her one of those plastic balls for rodents that they can run around in on the floor but she's not keen on having the little door to it closed yet. Her prey instincts are still very high because she's so little and she's sensitive to being out in the open. She will play in an open space if we are sitting there with her, but on her own when she explores, she prefers to stay close to dark places. The ball keeps her from being able to duck under the bed or dresser, or slip underneath the bedcovers when she's feeling insecure. So if I were to guess, I think that the feeling is that she is trapped in a small space, but she's not hidden, and it makes her feel vulnerable. So right now we're leaving it in the cage with her so she can get used to it. Once she starts going in on her own, we'll try again. It may get easier when she's older and has more confidence about her environment, too.
Based upon what I have learned about their social behavior, I think it is important that people only get PDs if they have the time and ability to let them out of their cage to spend supervised time with them when they ask for it in order to make for a well-balanced PD mind. Of course many people probably don't know that until after they get them (I didn't) so this isn't a moralistic lecture, and it isn't possible to do every time they want attention. But it's just a fact that PDs aren't made to live alone and it does affect them when they can't be with their family.
I'd guess this probably accounts for a lot of behavior problems and probably exacerbates the behavior during rutting season, especially among males, because normally they'd be able to rove to find a mate.
Learning By Example
Because they are raised as a group, I thought that it would be helpful to hand-feed her so she would recognize us as her new parents. This worked very fast to form that bond. In fact, nothing made such a difference as handing her some grass seeds and letting her take them out of my palm. I would suggest that new PD owners hand feed their PDs before grabbing them too much. Though she accepted being held before I started feeding her, she acted much like any prey animal -- like she expected to be eaten and was just holding very still in fear. Over time I suspect that fear can be overcome just through experience, but feeding changes the psychology and now she comes when called after only a week of being with us.
When I bring something to her that is new and not a standard feed item like grass, such as a vegetable or fruit, she will hesitate to eat it until I demonstrate by sampling it myself. I'm sure she would have eventually figured it out on her own, but it reinforces the bond by showing her that certain foods are okay since mom eats them. She also tries the food much faster while it's still fresh. PD's are very capable of learning by example from my observations.
This does however mean that she expects to be able to try anything that we eat, which obviously isn't acceptable. Therefor, I advise against eating things in front of your PD that she can't have. It is probably confusing to them since they are trying to learn from you, and it might result in food theft when you aren't looking.
Once she learned to trust me about food, she was able to trust my example about many other things. I can easily draw her attention to things that I want her to explore, such as new toys. It is very easy to get her to come away from something she shouldn't be around by scratching the ground near me and making the jump-yip sound. Speaking of that...
Prairie Dog Language
So far everything I've read from the scientific community suggests that they don't really know exactly what the jump-yip means. Their best guess is that it is an "all clear" signal after a predator leaves. However, I have found that this sound causes my PD to immediately come to me when I make it, so I wonder if instead of just being an "all clear" sound, it might also be a way of saying "Come here!" In any case, it must be pretty important because she comes without fail even if she really was into doing something else or was sound asleep in a safe dark place. She does not respond as readily to other sounds that I make. This might be why they jump-yip when they want to be let out of their cage. That might be the PD saying, "Hey come here!"
It is possible that I'm not making the jump yip call, but rather some other call instead, but the jump yip is what I've been trying to mimic. I learned to do the jump-yip by listening to her and listening to videos on YouTube and I mimicked them until I got that response from her and then I knew I must have said something to get the point across (whatever it is since I'm just guessing). It could be that I'm saying something else in PD language that only sounds close to the jump-yip to me. I certainly don't sound exactly right, but the closer I get to it, the more quickly she responds. It is the most effective way of getting her to come to me if she's doing something she shouldn't or finding her if she's slipped beneath the bed.
Coughing and sneezing also elicits a response, but not the same one as the jump-yip, interestingly. She will "answer" when someone coughs (my husband has bad allergies, so they have lots of conversations during high pollen count days), but I have yet to see her try to come in the way that she does for the jump-yip. So I don't know what she hears in PD language in the cough, but apparently she thinks that she has to reply. There are so many reasons that she could be replying that I really don't want to try to guess what it means.
Anyway, this is what I've learned so far about my PD and I'm interested in your experiences, too. PD's are so intelligent and social for rodents, and she's unlike any pet I've ever had. If these notes are useful I'll keep posting more as I notice them.