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NO BITING! - The journey to tame Penny Dreadful!

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

Useful Nip Training Techniques

Meet Penny (or Penny Dreadful as she has been aptly nicknamed!)

Penny came to rescue with her five litter mates. They were surrendered by their owner as she was due a baby and did not want to look after the kits or the two adult jills any longer.

On admission to the rescue, the whole group were a little underweight having only been fed on basic kibble. The jills were very friendly but the kits had had very little handling and were very feisty. They went into foster for a few weeks but proved to be too much for the foster family. We decided to move the kits to a new foster home with time to work on their nip training. They came in to the rescue for microchipping before being relocated. Little Penny was the smallest of the bunch and was struggling to thrive in the group. It was decided that she would stay in the rescue to help build up her condition and overall confidence. The other retrobates were placed with foster carer Misty McCain who is compiling her own accounts of the nip training stages for us. We will share those as we get them.

So, what can we say about Penny?

This feisty little girl is tough, independent, and spirited. She likes to bite very hard, especially the finger tips where it hurts more. She loves to hiss and vocalise to tell you how much she dislikes being told what to do and she give a great stink eye! I will try and catch this expression on camera at our next encounter.

Penny is a tiny, skinny little ball of fury. She frequently rampages around the play pen, teaching the other kits her bad manners. She is lively, playful and extremely active. The most prized thing in Penny's life is a bit of meat and she can tustle with the biggest of ferrets to get the exact piece that she wants (which usually belongs to someone else!).

Penny is always the first to the front of the cage, guarding the door in case it opens and she needs to protect her cage mates from intruders (or get as much of the meat as possible before they wake up and steal it).

While Penny has improved in body condition, she has not progressed much with her attitude modification. After a much needed holiday, in a tent in the rain! I have returned to find all progress that we had made a week ago has dissapeared and she is back to being a feral little devil. I feel that she is the perfect subject to create a nip training blog with.

For all you new kit owners out there, struggling to tame your wild beasties and mould them into some semblance of agreeable cat snake, you are not alone and you have not adopted a wild, untamable beastie, but, you are in for a rough few weeks.

In this blog I will share the highs and lows, the sore fingers and frustrations, nip training techniques and also the failures along the way. We are all human and nip training a tiny Whirling Derbish is not easy. Hopefully you will see that little Penny Dreadful is an extreme case but even she can be transformed from a she-demon to a delightful and agreeable angel. Let the challenge begin!

Day 1

I always recomend that you should start every training session anew. Forget what has past and don't assume that the same will happen so here goes, fresh start, clean slate day one.

As we do every day at the rescue, the kits groups get a big play out in the play pen while their cages are thoroughly cleaned by the poo slave (me!). Penny is happy to be picked up to go for a play and quickly asserts herself as the main instigator in a mass brawl over the fluffy toy. Chaos ensues and the babies have a great time playing and bouncing. The poo slave cleans the pad while this mayhem is in full swing and now it is time for Penny to have some one to one handling. Penny is furious to have her playtime stopped by the annoying human and promptly latches on to a thumb in protest. Agrieved human wants her thumb back but it is mine and she can't have it! Poo picking assistant number two steps in to assist on removal but is far too quick for me to have a piece of her so silly poo slave number one falls victim to a second thumb bite on the opposite side. Cue some very colourful language and a little spilled crimson and we have resorted to the vulcan death grip!

Now as funny as this may sound, it is far from fun to be bitten hard. Kit teeth are very sharp and ferret kits are especially stubborn when they decide not to let go! At this stage the handler does one of two things, either they drop the offending kit back into the pen imediately and nurse their wounds or they do what I did and decide that the little madam will not get her own way and thus ensues the battle of wills!

This battle is crucial to winning the war! if you let go and put her down then she will learn that this is the way to avoid being picked up and she will start to lunge and bite whenever she is picked up. Not safe or ideal, this behaviour must not be rewarded. Unless the bite needs imediate attention to stem the tide then it will wait for five or ten minutes.

I now have in my hands what resembles a tiny Hungarian Horntailed dragon, hissing and scratching with razor sharp talons and I swear I can see smoke coming from her nostrils! I look straight into her fierce, murderously blazing eyes and say the words that I sure will be said at least a million times over the next few weeks! "NO BITING!" She opens her mouth and out comes a furious little hiss. I return the hiss with oue of my own and repeat the words "NO BITING!"

For at least another ten minutes we have a stand off, she fighting tooth and nail and I too stubborn to relent and put her down. Finally she starts to calm and is rewarded with a more relaxed grip and a piece of chicken wing as a treat (I am not averse to bribary!) however, if she wants to eat the chicken wing then she best get comfortable as she will eat it while being held in a gentle but firm hold. The little madam relents and decides that the chicken wing is worth it but gives it a few shakes just to let me know that she is still a vicious little creature from the dark recesses of hell (just in case I have forgotten, which is not likely as I still have the blood smears and throbbing thumbs to remind me!). Round one is about even I would say, wouldn't you?


Day 2

Today we had mice for breakfast (the ferrets, not me!) After morning play Penny was given her mouse but once again she will be eating it from my hands while being held. No matter how many times she tries to take the mouse and escape with it I do not relent. Eventually after a ten minute battle she settles down in a comfortable hold to eat the mouse while I hold it for her. This may seem like very little progress but it is about letting her know that she cannot get her own way. I need to show her that I have staying power and also she needs to experience being held without a tight stressful grip. If she is relaxed and distracted then I am able to hold her gently and comfortably without fight or stress. This will reassure her that she is safe and it is a positive thing to be held.

A common mistake that people make when trying to handle bitey ferrets is to hold on tighter or use a glove. This very rarely works for a number of reasons:

  1. If you hold them tightly it is uncomfortable and sometimes painful

  2. If you are frightened of being bitten and hold tightly then they can feel that you are stressed and anxious which makes them think that there is something to be afraid of

  3. If you hold on tightly then it is more difficult to change holding positions and your hand starts to cramp

  4. If you wear a glove then you cannot feel how tightly you are holding the ferret, they can also dig in to the ferret and cause pain

  5. Gloves smell very unnatural, they may smell of other ferrets or of gardens, oil, or whatever you have been using them for previously. New gloves smell very chemically. This is quite frightening for a ferret

  6. Once the ferret gets used to the gloves and you remove them then you are back to square one getting them used to a new sensation of bare hands.

It is far easier, when handling an aggressive or frightened ferret, to distract the bitey end with a food treat such as oil or lick-e-lix and gently scoop then up to hold them. This is a far nicer experience for the ferret and removes the stressful battle. Once picked up, they will often settle down and accept being held.

Biting is usually a short term problem. Between the age of 16 and 24 weeks most ‘teenage’ ferrets will become a little testy and will push their boundaries, much like their human counterparts. Be compassionate not scary. Build a trusting and loving relationship where they feel safe to come to you for comfort. Put boundaries in place so that when the play becomes painful or excessive, they are given time to cool down. They will grow out of it but only if you teach them a good manners.

I seem to have escaped day 2 without a bite but I have this evenings play to get through so I will not count my chickens before they have hatched! Stay tuned for day 3.


Day 3

I never thought I would say this so soon but I am disapointed at little Penny Dreadful! I have had no bites since Tuesday! She seems to have cottoned on very quickly that biting will not get her put down and today has been picked up with and without meat. Held for a period of time gently and not requiring the vulcan death grip and no bites! How am I supposed to write an engaging blog about nip training a demon if she decides not to cooperate? Phase 2 of interacting during play will start tomorrow so lets see if she can keep up her angel impression!

The progress so far has all been made without needing to resort to any negative punishments at all. At the rescue we never use any methods of training that would cause pain, fear, mistrust or would otherwise be detrimental to the ferret. Kits need consistant and confident handling to help them feel safe and to build trust. We find that punishments, other than a firm teacher voice and a few hisses or time outs, will have the opposit effect of what you are trying to achieve. Negative training methods such as flicking or burning the nose, hitting, pushing your finger forcefully into the mouth, scruffing and yelling at them will not only do precisely zero, it will break trust, make them afraid of you and potentially cause the biting to become worse.

There are a few tricks you can use that will reinforce a positive training regime:

  1. Start every playtime with a clean sheet. If you expect to get bitten then you are likely to be bitten as your body language is not relaxed and happy.

  2. Always have play time after food to reduce Hangry behaviour.

  3. Trade hands for chew toys if the play becomes a chew.

  4. Distraction is the key. when play becomes too rough or the ferret goes to bite when picked up then use treats or toys to distract them and break the cycle. Do not stop the play but make it clear that hands are not for chewing.

  5. When biting occurs imediately stop if it is too hard and say "NO BITING" firmly. Do this twice then time out if a third time occurs. Use a play pen or a carrier for time out (3 minutes at a time).

  6. Have ferret oil of another liquid treat at hand to help remove the ferret from your skin when a bite occurs. If the ferret will not leave go then do not try and pull your skin away as this causes more damage. Use the treat at the side of the mouth so that they get the taste and, almost always, the ferret will safely leave go to lick the treat.

  7. Teach calmness and reward gentle interactions with ferret oil or a tasty treat.

  8. Try to be as confident as possible, especially around the mouth. If the ferret does not get a reaction or you show no fear then the game becomes boring.

  9. Grit your teeth and ride it out while reinforcing good behaviour and proactively managing bad stuff.

This is a perfectly normal stage of kit development. It does get better with good consistent training and confident handling. Don’t panic. Most kit biting isn’t aggression. Be CONSISTENT and PROACTIVE and expect more than a few bites along the way.

Our next step in the training is to start and freely interact with Penny during play. She has a reputation for perfecting the flying ninja attack which is aimed at any bare flesh or at your head if she can climb high enough. She also likes to skim up your legs at lightling speed to try and bite your hands and will relentlessly persue her chosen victim until they either flee in terror or she is safely caged. I am under no illusion that Penny Dreadful is cured of her vampire tendancies and I have the first aid kit ready to patch up her injured victims after play time. Wish me luck, if you don't hear from me by Monday (today is Friday) then send help!

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