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What? Train a Rabbit?

Originally published 04/01/2010

Editor's note: Excerpted from Clicking with Your Rabbit. Joan Orr is the producer of the popular Clicker Puppy DVD and a member of the ClickerExpo faculty. She is a pioneer in the field of clicker training rabbits.

What? Train a Rabbit?

Rabbit going through a hoop

Rabbits are furry and lovable, of course; quirky and silly, sometimes; full of energy and mischief, undoubtedly; but trainable? You bet! You're probably training your rabbit without even realizing it. Is he litter-box trained? Does he come to see you when you go to his cage? Then you've already taken your first steps.

There's so much more your rabbit can learn! Have you ever seen a rabbit fetch? Or play basketball? (Rabbit-sized, of course.) What about navigating a course of jumps and weaves and tunnels? These are all tricks you can teach your pet bunny. You can also teach her some tricks to make your life together easier. How would you like it if your rabbit sat still while you trimmed her nails or came when you called her name? All it takes is a little training.

Training is actually good for your rabbit. In the wild, activities such as finding food, creating a home, and staying safe require quite a bit of physical and mental effort that a pet rabbit just doesn't get to do. When the training is based on positive reinforcement, or what is popularly called "clicker training," it is not only good for your rabbit, but fun for both of you. Clicker training is a kind of "mental enrichment" that replaces many of the activities and problem-solving tasks that your rabbit would do naturally in the wild. This contributes to a longer, healthier, happier life for your pet.

Clicker trained rabbits are also able to spend more time out of their pens or cages and more time with you. Isn't it easier to have him out and about if you can trust him to use his litter box or to come out from behind the refrigerator when you call him? By teaching your pet just a few basic behaviors, you'll be able to reduce the amount of time he spends in his cage, increase his socialization, and improve his quality of life.

"Clicking with small pets brightens their lives, exercises their surprisingly lively minds, and brings out their endearing personalities." —Karen Pryor

One of the most important benefits to clicker training, however, is stress reduction. There's probably nothing as scary to a rabbit as living in an animal shelter. Andrea Bratt Frick and Jean Silva of B.U.N.S. (Bunnies Urgently Needing Shelter) in California have been clicking shelter rabbits to enrich their lives and make them more adoptable. "Once you get started and learn how to clicker train, you and your rabbit become hooked,'" they rave. "It's simple to do, and the results are so powerful! We have been clicking to get all our bunnies to come to the front of their cages to appear friendly and help them become more adoptable. Also, we have taught them little tricks such as give me ten' so that the bunnies (who were fearful at first) would now interact with potential adoptees."

Your rabbit may not ever experience life in a shelter, but that doesn't mean his life is stress-free. To many rabbits, anything new is stressful. Being restrained and having his nails clipped is terrifying. A trip to the vet can be traumatic. Even trips to the fair or to playgroups with other rabbits and their owners can be scary. Training your rabbit gives you tools to make those experiences easier and less stressful—and, in some cases, as fun as you hoped they'd be.

And, you can learn to train your rabbit all on your own. You don't have to find a professional rabbit trainer or go to rabbit obedience classes to learn how. All you need is a small noisemaker called a clicker, some tiny food treats your rabbit loves, props for your tricks, and a sense of humor. In the following chapters we'll explain how to use these simple tools to teach a variety of fun and useful behaviors and to solve some common behavior problems.

Skeptical? Not sure your rabbit is the learning type? We have yet to encounter a pet that cannot be clicker trained. Even fish can be clicker trained. Some pets learn more quickly and some will work longer and some get bored easily, but any pet that can be motivated by something you have can be clicker trained.

Not all rabbits learn at the same pace—and that's okay. Sometimes it takes a bunny a long time to get used to the sound of the clicker or to learn that the sound of a click means a treat is coming. Some catch on right away. We have trained many rabbits, and even within this one species there is a wide range of aptitude and acceptance for training. Some rabbits take weeks to start playing the clicker game, and others are right with you after a few clicks. But they can all learn!

As you begin to experiment, don't be surprised if you find a creative, engaging, intelligent personality hidden behind those long ears and that wiggling nose. In just a few short lessons, you may find you have a livelier, more interesting pet than you ever suspected.

Training your rabbit to jump on cue

There are many different ways a bunny can jump. She can jump over a pole, through a hoop, onto a platform, or into a basket. This trick teaches your bunny to jump over a pole, but with some creative baby steps, jumping can easily be generalized to jumping in other situations. Be certain that you train this trick on a non-slippery surface.

  • Place a wooden dowel or other "bar" for jumping on the floor of the training area. Train your bunny to follow a target stick over the bar. Use a target stick to guide your rabbit over the bar. Click when the back feet go over. Sometimes rabbits will jump over an object just because it is there. Terrific! Click at the height of the jump.
  • Raise one end of the bar about an inch. Use the target stick to lead your rabbit across, clicking when the back feet go over the bar, or, click when she jumps on her own.
  • Set both ends of the jump about one inch off the ground, and click for crossing it. To avoid a risk of injury, make sure the bar will fall if it's bumped by your rabbit. Don't click if she knocks over the bar.
  • Use baby steps to raise the bar to the point that your rabbit is jumping, rather than stepping, over it.
  • Add a cue, "Jump." Give the cue, then present the target stick, if necessary, on the other side.
  • If you're still using the target stick, fade it from the picture. Give the verbal cue, but don't present the target stick. Click your bunny for jumping the bar.
  • Place your rabbit a few inches further away from the jump. Cue the jump.
  • Use baby steps to add distance between your rabbit and the jump.
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