Ferret Training - Correcting Unwanted Behaviours
There will always be some unwanted behaviours that you will come across and it is not helpful that some ferrets are very persistent and determined to have it their way. The best advise for persistent ferrets is to have patience and keep trying, because it can take months, and even longer if you don’t, but it is always worth it in the end.
You must never use violence to correct your ferret. Hitting it will just cause the ferret to distrust you more and be mean towards you. You will create a monster ferret that always bites humans. You must never prolong any discipline longer than necessary because it will not be more effective in any way and can worsen the unwanted behaviour.
For example, at some point in your life, you will encounter a ferret scratching at the door. They think that if they scratch long enough, they will be able to go through the other side. It wouldn’t have been a problem if this behaviour didn’t cause the carpet to rip apart where it was scratching. Unfortunately, there is very little you can do about this, so if you do not want ruined carpets, you must use duct tape or glue some plastic (the kind for door mats) onto the surface of the carpet along the edge of the door. This is a pain if your carpet is thick and if the space between your carpet and door is very narrow. But if you can do it, it is well worth it as the ferret gives up eventually. You should also try not to let anyone enter or leave the room during playtime as this is how the behaviour was reinforced in the first place.
The agile ones will always try to climb onto the shelves or anything they can climb onto. There is only one effective way to avoid this, move the shelf to somewhere it cannot reach, or build some barrier to stop it climbing up. Do not leave treats on shelves that are accessible to them because this reinforces the idea of climbing onto the shelves and that becomes a huge problem. I gave up in the end and just let mine climb it. But always I will take them down if they climbed too high. They seemed to get bored after a while and not climb it so often.
Grasping the loose skin on the back of a ferret is a very important, as you will need to do it very often, especially in situations like holding the ferret down for vet injections. It is also a very helpful technique for correction (as you will see in the next paragraph) and it does not hurt the animal, though it is uncomfortable for them. What you want to achieve is a limp ferret that yawns once in a while when you hold it up, by literally taking a handful of its loose skin at the back of the neck. This is also part of training as sometimes you will need the ferret still for taking medication and such. With a large ferret weighing more than a kilo, you will need to use your other hand to lightly support its bottom otherwise it will be painful for it.
Whenever a ferret’s teeth touches human skin, regardless of whether it hurt or not, you must immediately correct the ferret by grasping the loose skin at the back of the neck and say in a low and stern tone, “NO!”. Stay calm and be patient. Keep the ferret held up in this position for about 30 seconds and release it only if is still, otherwise, say “NO!” again and put it down when it is still. If you do not do this, the ferret will learn that every time it struggles, you will put it down, and this will be a problem if you need to save your ferret from an aggressive animal trying to attack it for example.
If the bite was only a nip then that small correction is enough, but if it nips again either immediately or after only a short period of time, you must then repeat the previous and shake it gently. If the ferret is not deaf, then an accompanied hiss can also be effective.
If it nips for a third time then it will get all that and gets put in the carry case or a large plastic bin with high sides for a 5 minute timeout. This is called the caging technique. Any longer than this becomes ineffective as the ferret will forget why it has been separated. For this technique to be effective, the carry case or bin needs to be placed somewhere the ferret can see or hear other ferrets having a good time. You must only let it out when it is quiet and not scratching the case or else it will think that you will let it out if it scratches long enough.
Placing the ferret in its cage for time out is not encouraged by some owners because they think that the ferret will come to resent the cage and therefore cause it to be unhappy. After all, playtime is over when they are placed back into the cage and you do not want to make it more miserable for them.
Most ferrets will not bite you to the point that it takes days for you to recover. Hyperactive young kits will sometimes bite and hold on, but they do not have the strength of an adult ferret but you must let it be known that it is unacceptable behaviour or else you will have a biting adult ferret which is definitely something you do not want. Some ferrets never bite humans at all.
A lot of the time a ferret will bite you to invite play. You will be known to this because the ferret will bite your ankle and then run away for cover. If you know that you cannot catch your ferret in time, don’t bother, because that is exactly what it wants you to do, to chase it. But if you can catch it, scruff it immediately and say “NO” in the low and stern tone and shake it gently a little and it will learn that you are no fun when it invites you for play in that way. Do not make the mistake of playing with it immediately after punishing it!
Sometimes the alpha male will challenge you to its pecking order. This is difficult to tell but he will be persistent until you establish that you are the more dominant one. You will need to only do this a few times to get the message across as the pecking order only lasts a week at most, so it should be the same in this situation. If you suspect that he is challenging your status, you must scruff him, say “NO!” and drag him over a metre over the floor with his full body trailing over the surface. You might want to do this three more times to get the idea across, but it won’t work until he has stopped hissing at you and has become recessive. Sometimes the ferret will whimper. This is when you know he has accepted your dominance! Such acts can last for half an hour, and a persistent dominant male will try to test his position often. Neutering in this case may help alleviate this problem.
Some owners swear that this dragging technique is effective with ferrets which nip. But I find that the ferrets will curse you more by hissing as they will not accept that tolerance and it will be clear from their behaviour afterwards that they do not like you, even if its just for 5 minutes. But you should try this if the scruffing isn’t working.
Problem biters are very difficult to discipline and train. This is because they may have suffered abuse at some point in their lives and to reverse their behaviour can take months.