While some keepers are happy to just observe their leopard geckos in their enclosure, most are looking for some kind of bond or connection with their little leo.
But building trust and a connection with leopard geckos isn’t always straightforward and when it comes to building bonds reptiles play by different rules compared to mammals.
So how can you build a bond with your leopard gecko?
Start by following all husbandry best practices and always focus on keeping your leopard gecko in a low stress environment both inside and outside their enclosure. Then, use positive reinforcement and a regular routine for handling and feeding to improve your bond over time.
That’s the quick answer but there’s a lot more detail to cover and some special tricks and tips that can make your bond stronger. We’ll cover everything you need to know but first let’s address a core concept behind building bonds so we can set you up for success.
Positive Reinforcement Is The Foundation Of Bond Building
Simply put, positive reinforcement “occurs when a behavior is encouraged by rewards”. If every time your leopard gecko climbs a rock in their enclosure you appear with a crunchy cricket they’ll eventually figure out that climbing the rock leads to a cricket.
However, we’re more interested in reinforcing behaviors that build our bond which include things like crawling into our hand, coming to the front of the cage, or hanging out on our shoulder.
While leopard geckos aren’t exactly brainy, there are plenty of reptiles that have been shown to respond to positive reinforcement training and leopard geckos can certainly figure things out with enough time. Even frogs have been smart enough to connect certain behaviors with a food reward!
You’ll use positive reinforcement to create consistently positive experiences with your leopard gecko. That will help build trust and a connection where your leopard gecko starts to associate you with only good things.
Even though positive reinforcement is most often associated with tricks (at least in the world of dogs), rewarding your leopard gecko with treats when they approach the front of the cage or hang out on your shoulder are both forms of positive reinforcement that can help build bonds and get your leo to like you a little more.
7 Ways To Build A Bond And Get Your Leopard Gecko To Like You
Now that you understand the basics of positive reinforcement let’s dive into the actual techniques for a building bond- many of which include some elements of positive reinforcement.
1. Take Care Of Husbandry First
If your leopard gecko’s basic needs aren’t taken care of then there’s little hope of building a bond.
That means the first thing you need to do is make sure that basic husbandry is under control including proper temperatures (with a warm side and cool side), several hiding spots, and enrichment opportunities climbing or even digging.
At the risk of anthropomorphizing too much, imagine that you’re cold, tired, and have no shelter. In that situation, making friends and building a bond is probably not going to be on the top of your list. Similarly, if your leopard gecko doesn’t have their basic needs met they’re going to have so much constant stress that it will be very difficult to use positive reinforcement to build a bond.
So make sure you have all the basics of leopard gecko care covered before you worry too much about building a bond.
2. Create Your Special Sound
If I click my tongue against the back of my teeth, every animal in my home knows that something good is about to happen- including my leopard gecko.
While that can create some confusion when cats, dogs, and lizards all start looking for treats, it does go to highlight the power of creating your signature sound.
No, I’m not talking about some kind of complicated series of clicks or a special song but just a simple sound that your leopard gecko can easily associate with you and their next meal. Clicking is my preferred method but you can use snaps (as long as they’re not too loud), humming, or anything else.
Turn your sound into something good by making it while you feed your leopard gecko or do anything else they like- but usually, food will be the number method for forming a positive association. It might feel weird at first but this is the same concept behind clicker training (a form of positive reinforcement) but instead of using a clicker you’re making the sound yourself.
Once your leopard gecko firmly associates your special sound with good things like food and fun outside their enclosure, you can start using it to encourage them to come to the front of the cage. Sure, they’ll probably be looking for a snack but that’s still a win when it comes to building a bond and creating trust.
You may also be able to use your special sound to keep leopard geckos calm during stressful situations. For example, maybe your leopard gecko needs a foot bath to help remove stuck-on toe shed and it’s well known that water isn’t exactly a leopard gecko’s favorite thing so using your special sound could help reduce stress during situations like this.
However, this only works after you’ve established your sound and your leopard gecko consistently associates it with good things. What you don’t want to do is accidentally create a negative association by using your special sound during stressful situations before it’s been established as a good thing.
3. Food Time Is Bonding Time
Food is an almost universal language across every species and providing a meal for your leopard gecko is a great way to build a connection.
We’ve already mentioned food as a way to create positive associations with your special sound but simply participating in mealtime is enough to create a bond. You can hand-feed (or better yet use tongs to keep your fingers safe) or just be present while your leopard gecko hunts.
As long as you stay present when your leopard gecko eats, you’ll get the benefit of being positively connected with food. It can also be a good time to work in your special sound.
4. Minimize Stress When Your Leopard Gecko Is Outside Their Enclosure
Remember that by definition positive reinforcement requires something positive. That’s usually food but it could also just be time outside the enclosure where leopard geckos get to explore the world around them.
What’s not positive are loud noises, getting sniffed by other (larger) species, or being exposed to bright lights.
Wild leopard geckos would need to constantly avoid predators, including mammals like foxes so even though your leo may look like they’re playing cool, leopard geckos are likely stressed by interactions with other animals.
While many folks add other animals into the mix of interactions (and it can work if you know what you’re doing) it’s not something you should do when you’re trying to build trust or create a bond. Instead, make time spent with your leopard geckos as stress-free as possible.
While it can be tempting to keep more than one leopard gecko in a tank it almost always leads to more stress for leos.
Adding reptiles of another species as tank mates is even worse but both can lead to excess stress and reduce the chances of building a bond with your leopard gecko.
5. Minimize Stress When Your Leopard Gecko Is Inside Their Enclosure, Too
Don’t forget about animals external to your leopard gecko’s enclosure either!
I know that my cat wants nothing more than to take a seat on the shelf and watch my leopard gecko go about his day…and I’m pretty certain that my cat isn’t trying to build a bond with my little leo.
And it’s not just other pets that you need to worry about. Changes in temperature from fans or direct sunlight can cause problems and heavy fragrances from candles or incense can cause issues too.
The point here is to look at the big picture of your leopard gecko’s enclosure. Not only what you put inside but also what’s happening around it that could cause stress. Too much stress makes positive reinforcement much more difficult and will reduce your chances of bonding with your leopard gecko.
For example, if every time your leopard gecko comes to the front of their cage they’re greeted by an eager cat, they may be more worried about becoming a meal rather than enjoying their next meal with you!
6. Handle Your Leopard Gecko With Care And Love
Okay, handling your leopard gecko with love might sound obvious but it’s often overlooked!
Just because leopard geckos frequently make the list of the most handleable reptiles around doesn’t mean they can be handled any which way and these little lizards still need a delicate touch. After all, leos are quite small with especially small little legs and if every time you handle them it feels like they’re taking off in a fighter jet or you let them fall out of your hands, they may not be too excited about in the future.
As always, it can be tied back to positive reinforcement and anything you can do to make handling an enjoyable experience is likely to help build your bond and increase the chances of your leopard gecko liking you.
That includes having the patience to allow your leopard gecko to crawl into your hand rather than just scooping them up. Food can be a good motivator but you’ll still need to make sure that your leopard gecko doesn’t associate your actual hand with food so much that they decide to give it a taste.
You also want to avoid startling your leopard gecko before handling and that’s where your signature sound can help. A clicking sound or a light snapping (or anything else you go with) can alert your leopard gecko that you’re present and set you up for successful handling.
If you’re new to handling leopard geckos (or reptiles in general) this video does a great job going over everything you need to know in order to make it a positive experience for both you and your leopard gecko:
7. Respect The Routine And Keep It Crepuscular
Leopard geckos often get mislabeled as nocturnal but these little lizards are actually crepuscular which means they’re most active during the early morning and evening hours. In their natural desert habitat, these would be the times when the temperature was most tolerable and even though captive leopard geckos don’t have to deal with harsh desert temperatures their instincts lead them to be most active during these times.
Even though you may be active and wide awake at 1:00 PM, that could be prime sleeping time for your leopard gecko and probably not the best time to start building a bond.
But even if you can’t keep it crepuscular, you should focus on creating a schedule or routine for you and your leopard gecko. Connecting this routine to food is always a good start but even just handling at the same time every day can go a long way to building a bond.
What you don’t want to do is pull your leopard gecko out at random hours throughout the day. Like most creatures, they prefer a routine, and waking them up for random handling could actually cause stress.
Manage Your Expectations
With enough time, you can build a bond with your leopard gecko where they recognize you (or your sound) and are generally happy to interact.
But your leopard gecko is still a reptile and while reptiles aren’t dumb, they’re generally solitary and asocial. That means your leopard gecko probably isn’t going to take the title of “Man’s Best Friend” away from your dog anytime soon.
So while getting your leopard to love you may be a lofty goal, you can certainly get your leopard gecko to at least like you (and the crickets you bring). With enough patience, your leopard gecko can also get used to your routine and even greet you at the front of their enclosure when they hear your signature sound or during your regularly scheduled mealtime.
And that’s a good enough bond for me!
You can form something like a bond with a leopard gecko…or at least a routine that’s based around trust.
What do you think? Are you already using these techniques to build a bond with your leopard gecko?