Randy Horton, director of Especially Ferrets, the largest ferret shelter in North America, located in suburban Denver, insists he once saw a ferret play "Chopsticks" on the piano. He has never been able to teach one of his own animals a trick quite so astounding. "I haven't got any to hold still long enough to play dead," says Horton, but he says more run-of-the-mill tricks such as "sit," "come," "roll over" and "beg" are easily within the average ferret's training repertoire. In short, if a dog can learn to do something, so can a ferret.
Make It Fun
As with any sort of training - whether it's teaching your ferret to dance the macarena or simply to use the litter box - the key is to make it fun for the animal. That means lots of praise, lots of treats and short lessons. "If you make it a chore, they resist learning," says Horton.
As with training a dog, the best place to start is by getting the ferret to recognize her name and respond to it. To do this, say the ferret's name over and over again. When your ferret finally looks up at you when you say her name, reward her with a treat. Keep saying her name - and rewarding her every time she looks at you in response. Eventually, the ferret will drop what she's doing and come running whenever she hears you calling - as long as she knows you'll make it worth her while.
Ferrets Expect a Payoff
That may be the chief difference between training a dog and training a ferret. Both animals are bright, say behaviorists, but ferrets are much less motivated to do anything just to please their human companion. With ferrets, this trick business is just that: a business. They expect to receive a payoff.
After your ferret learns to respond to her name, the next step on the trick ladder is typically to teach the animal to "sit." To train your ferret to sit on command, hold a treat above her head high enough so she'll have to sit up to reach it. While she's reaching for the treat, say "sit.'' Each time you repeat this, move the treat a bit higher. Eventually, your ferret will sit up even when she can't see the treat - though as noted earlier, there had better be a treat at the end or the game is over fast.
Teaching Her to "Roll Over"
"Roll over" is also simple to teach. Just get your ferret to lie on her belly - then give her a treat. Then roll her over on her back while saying "roll over" and scratching her belly - and give her a treat. Keep rolling her over, giving her bodacious scratches - and plenty of treats. "Next thing you know, she's rolling over all over the place, trying to get a treat," Horton says.
Riding around on a human shoulder is a popular ferret trick. Trainers advise that it's best to begin while sitting on a bed or other soft place so no one gets injured in an accidental fall. Gently stroke the ferret, offering her treats for calm, still behavior. The ferret will soon learn that sitting still and riding around up high off the ground is fun.
Horton says he's sometimes been surprised at the tricks that ferrets have learned on their own. He remembers the night Linus, a female ferret at the shelter, got into a pile of toys that had been donated earlier in the day and hadn't yet been distributed. "We had about 50 toys on the floor," he says. "She got into them and sorted them all by color. She had them all in a bunch of little piles. There was a little pile of pink rats over here, a pile of yellow birds over there, all stacked nice and neat. That was the most extraordinary thing I ever saw."