Porcupines - perhaps the ultimate homesteader pet

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Sure, I would love to tell you about our porcupines. They are interesting animals, and I remember reading about people who have tamed them in the wild. They have great memories and they recognise different people. You just need to be patient with them.

In Alberta, it used to be illegal to kill porcupines, as they were the only critter that a starving homesteader could overtake and kill with a stick. Maybe that is why there are so many of them around. There are still recipes around for porcupine.

I originally captured our first porcupine (Oswald) in order to aversion train my dogs. One of my high drive dogs had nearly died from a porcupine encounter. As well as getting a faceful of quills, the porcupine had wacked him in the stomach with its tail, leaving quills embedded in his abdomen, resulting in the dog going into shock, needing quite extensive Vet care.

Aside from the practical use in aversion training, it made sense that if we were going to keep a porcupine captive, that it only made sense to tame it in order to handle it easier and make life less stressful for the porcupine... it took a few months to tame Oswald (who was probably about 2 or 3 years old), but it was really very easy, patience, alfalfa blossoms, food, water, exposure. Now he comes when he is called, allows even strangers to stroke him and does *anything* for an apple.

Following our experience with Oswald, we caught Kate. I was out running pups in the woods when one came out yelping with a lone, tiny quill in her nose, from the size of the quill I knew they had found a young porcupine. I took the pups back home and took one of my hunting dogs out to the area to find the porcupine, and we were in luck, Sage pointed the porcupine, who was proably 6 months old, no bigger than a loaf of sourdough bread. She has been much easier to tame (probably because she is so much younger), and she comes running when she is called. She also does not hesitate to tell you when she is miffed, she has a little voice and sounds like a spoiled child when apples are not forthcoming, or you want to pick her up.

We also have a third porcupine who has a completely different temperament from the first two. He has remained very wild and has been completely disinterested in becoming tamed. He is the same age as Kate, but has no curiosity at all toward people, he usually goes and hides when he hears us coming and is just now starting to trust us enough to hesitantly eat from our hand. We will probably release him this coming spring, and just keep the two that have become tamed the easiest.

As well as using the porcupines to aversion train my own dogs, I also do aversion training for other people, it is great that keeping these porcupines can help others make sure their dogs learn to avoid the "Quilled One" and thus avoid possible injury.

They are housed in a large covered kennel area with some cut trees in it and they have a large dog-house to shelter in. They eat almost anything vegetative, weeds, hay, grass, apples, strawberries, grain, carrots, and Kate is more explorative, she even eats peaches. They are quite active at night, but will wake up to visit during the daytime. They humm-humm-humm-humm when they are happy or hoping to get attention, they squeal when they are impatient or dislike something.

So, here we are with our porcupines, as pets they are quiet gentle creatures, not at all aggressive, and yet very able to take care of themselves. Even when tamed, wild born are not imprinted on people, so are always wild inside. They respond instantly to threat (or the thought of threat) by going into a defensive mode.... so you do have to be careful of what you expect from them. The first time I had Oswald in the house he was calm and curious until he saw a dog, then he instantly turned into a 15 lb pincushion, with the pins pointy side up!

Finally, some sunshine today


-- Shannon Ford (huntress_609@hotmail.com), March 16, 2002


What a great story! I grew up with a pet skunk, opossum, raccoon, monkey, honey bear, and many other odd animals. Living here I have tons of porccupines on the property. I think they are very cute and love the way they walk on their heels. Thanks for sharing!


-- Susan in Mn (nanaboo@paulbunyan.net), March 16, 2002.


-- Jim-mi (hartalteng@voyager.net), March 16, 2002.

Just curious about the "aversion" part of the training. I'm sure that you aren't letting the dogs get quilled. We have lots of skunks up here as well as porkies and I was wondering? Kim

-- kim in CO (kimk61252@hotmail.com), March 17, 2002.

Shannon, "handle" Porkies? Good grief! I'm impressed. This is wonderful. I have been so worried about one particular dog of mine encountering the resident porky at my place. I would pay for the kind of aversion training you are talking about. Can you travel to Michigan for it? Haha. Where are you? I could travel to you. If this is impractical....can you give us some hints about how you aversion train? This is such valuable info....please please?

-- Susan in Northern Mitten Michigan (cobwoman@yahoo.com), March 17, 2002.

Very interesting, thanks for posting this! I handled very young porcupines at a wildlife "zoo" many years ago. Little buggers thought I might be a tasty tree and tried gnawing on me. Cute though. I've heard you can "pet" them using a backscratcher -- get in amongst the quills and give them a good skritch.

I'm interested too in knowing how the dogs get an aversion -- do you let them get quilled? Please describe.

-- Joy F {in Southern Wisconsin} (CatFlunky@excite.com), March 18, 2002.

Aversion training is simply a process of exposing the dog in such a way that the dog chooses to avoid a certain type of critter. Aversion training can be done on porcupines, skunks, snakes, deer, sheep, cows, etc. Anything inappropriate for the dog might treat as prey.

Aversion training is most effective if done before the dog has the chance to chase or worry a particular animal. Once the dog has had the experience of the chase or attack, it is harder to convince them that that animal is not good to chase and might hurt them.

So, that means for porcupine aversion training, it is best done before the dog has met his first porcupine, and before he has had the thrill of barking, the adreneline rush of the attack and quilling. Before I started aversion training, some of our Griffons would get more determined with each encounter with porcupines (hence more quills with each encounter) .... and as you might expect, these dogs were hardest to aversion train when compared to a dog that was properly aversion trained before it encountered a porcupine in the wild.

The idea behind aversion training is to have the dog avoid the sight, the sound, and the scent... sound is hard with a porcupine as they are not normally too vocal (on the other hand, sound is easy with a rattle snake, though sight is harder with a snake). I use an electric collar in my aversion training, which is placed on the dog much in advance so the dog doesn't notice the new thing on his neck.

To set up the situation, I place Oswald in a large, rusted, wire dog crate, the kind that folds down when not in use. I use a rusted cage so that there are no glints of metal around the porcupine. Usually, he gets an apple or some tastey weeds to munch on when he is in the cage, so he probably thinks aversion training is fun. I put him into my car and we drive off to an area where there is good "porcupine habitat". It is best to use an area where the dog would normally encounter a porcupine.

So, with Oswald (in his cage) in a likely area, we go and get the dog. Usually the owner will not be present, but sometimes they are. I keep the dog on a long checkline, so that I have some control.

First the dog is brought in upwind, so that he can't smell the porcupine, but can see it. As soon as I know he has seen the porcupine and is making a decision to go to it, he receives some pretty heavy stimulation from the collar (depending on the dog how heavy the stimulation is). If a dog has already encountered a porcupine, he may run at the porcupine, so you have to be good with your timing on the collar. You need to have your timing right, so that the dog will associate the stimulation with the porcupine. The collars I use have the control on the transmitter, so that you can instantly dial up a more intense stimulation if needed. You also really need to be aware of canine behaviour, and make sure that you know the dog is thinking about the *porcupine* when he receives stimulation... be sure the dogs is not looking at/thinking about the tree, or the fence, or the rope, or you, or the bird that just flew out of the next thicket when he receives stimulation, or he will associate the wrong thing.

Next step, the dog has made a decision to turn away from the porcupine, and then is taken away to think... porcupine is moved to a different location... and the same thing occurs, only this time the dog is brought in downwind so it scents the porcupine, but does not see it.

With most dogs, you might use as few as one location for each sight and smell, or as many as two different locations on both sight and smell before you can see the wheels turning and the dogs making a clear decision not to approach the porcupine. Usually they indicate this by not even looking at the area that they know the porcupine to be. It is amazing how well this method works with most dogs.

With a dog who has experienced the Thrill of the Quill, it may take more, but not normally more than 3 exposures on each, usually need a higher level of stimulation for these dogs.

Dogs who have demonstrated a tendency to go after inappropriate quarry may need to be re-exposed every 8-12 months. I have worked with a number of different breeds now, and it is pretty much the same for each dog, more a matter of whether they have attacked a porcupine before or not.

Most of my dogs wear a collar while they are hunting, just in case we encounter a skunk or porcupine.... or a young dog may decide to course a deer, in which case if you see what is going on you can use the collar in the field.... as long as the batteries are charged, that is.

Happily, most of my Griffons point porcupines, and the dogs that point have not been aversion trained on porcupines... who knows, one day I may want to try one of those porcupine recipes... :o)

Hope this helps,

Cold again today, but supposed to be warmer next week!



-- Shannon Ford (huntress_609@hotmail.com), March 18, 2002.

I have a webpage about experimentation with aversion training, http://www.griffonpoint.com/aversiontraining.htm there are also some links to a page for Oswald and Kate, and a page of photos of the dog I almost lost (taken just before he went into shock).

It is great to hear from so many people that are animal lovers, and who have experience with interesting animals, including porcupines.

Petting a porcupine is easy as long as you pet them "with the grain". So, you stroke with the quills, and they do like a scratch under the chin or on the belly. They have little "thumb nubs" that they grip with, their front paws are very strong, they will grip your hand in order to hold it beside them while they eat whatever you are holding. Haven't had any bites from our porcupines, but they are prone to taste-test leather boots or the rubber on sneakers. Also, when I pick one up, I wear thick leather gloves (or the plastic gloves for handling wire), and wear a leather coat, as it is easy to push against the wrong porky-part, and those quills do hurt! When we first got Kate, she was so cute and fluffy looking it was hard to keep in mind that beneath all that fluff was a nest-full of quills, I got quilled a couple of times. They have quills everywhere, even short, sort-of-blunt quills on their cheeks. The only place there are no quills - on the stomach and on the legs.

I really enjoy training animals, and have had tremendous fun with our porcupines.


-- Shannon Ford (huntress_609@hotmail.com), March 18, 2002.

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