Training a Companion Rabbit

by Nancy J. LaRoche  Copyright 1995 – All Rights Reserved  (May be copied for free distribution)

Definitions  Certain words used in this article need to be explained in order to increase communication between reader and author:

Those who share a home and consciously interact with each other (a “family”). They may include rabbits, cats, people, dogs, and others who meet these qualifications.
Companions do not own each other!. This is a false notion encouraged by words often paired such as “pet” and “owner”. Ownership indicates the relationship of a living-being in regards to an inanimate object.
Companions usually enjoy mutual benefits of their their relationship, but not always at the same time or to the same degree.
Caretaking is a role played by one companion with respect to another, primarily for the benefit of the other.
Any companion can be a caretaker of any other in some respects, but in this article the term will be used to refer to human companions who have accepted animal companions into their family, thereby incurring responsibility for them. The scope of that responsibility is based on the relative abilities and needs of each, especially in those areas where the results of breeding and human control (resulting in domestication to one degree or another) have taken the ability of independent survival from a species.
An activity in which a caretaker seeks to understand the needs of companion animals in the home and interacts with them in a manner which makes it possible for all of them to live in harmony with each other and allows for everyones’ needs to be met.
Recognition that companions of any species are entitled to be what they are without coercion from another species. Recognition that decisions which can only be made by one on behalf of another, have an affect on the future of and may not reflect the decision which would be made by the other. An example: an animal would not choose to leave a family; respect requires one who has brought the animal into the family to maintain the relationship within the family throughout the animal’s life.

Bases for Rabbit Behavior  It is easier to train rabbits if you understand that their behavior is usually motivated by one of three things:

  • Their natural need and inclination to chew and dig
  • Their need to communicate and our tendency to require words for understanding communications
  • The social structure as seen by rabbits, in which all members of the family relate to them by way of a pecking (nipping?) order

Training does not happen by itself or simply with time. For the companions in a family to live in harmony, a caretaker must be committed to giving time and effort to the animal companions of the family. If you aren’t able or willing to commit to a minimum of 30 minutes a day of concentrated training until the desired results have been reached, you shouldn’t bring companion animals into your home.

Age and Behavior  Young rabbits have more energy, more need to explore, and probably less training than older rabbits. Like puppies, bunnies love to chew. Like older dogs, rabbits may still enjoy chewing, but not to the extent they did when young.

Rabbits chew to wear down their teeth, which grow continuously. They chew non-food items because they need to explore the world through taste and texture, because they need to build strong jaw muscles, and just because it’s fun. Perhaps older rabbits chew less because they know the taste and texture of the world and need only food to keep their teeth worn down and their jaws strong. In any case, time is on your side when it come to a rabbit’s inclination to chew your great-aunt’s antique buffet.

Basics  Rabbits should have a home of their own (we prefer the term Rabbitat to the confinement-oriented “cage”) within the family home, large enough for a litter box, food dishes, toys, and for the rabbits themselves. They should be able to stretch full-length in all directions. Ideally, a shelf or “loft” is provided to give opportunity for vertical jumps.

With such a home, and hopefully, with companionship of another rabbit, bunnies can be kept in their homes full time except for times of supervised outdoor romps and the 30 minutes or more of training they should have daily.

In addition to restricting the time in which they are out to those times when you can watch them with your full attention, you want to restrict the space to which they have access. As they become well-trained within a restricted area, you can gradually increase their boundaries.

Toxic houseplants and electrical wires should be impossible for a rabbit to reach (see our article on Rabbit Proofing Your House). Counting on training or “the way she’s always behaved” with respect to such things is asking for an accident which could leave you deeply grief-stricken and your rabbit in terrible pain or even dead.

Finally, NEVER, EVER attempt to use training alone to keep a rabbit from something which can cause harm or death.

Chewing and Digging  During the training time, do nothing but concentrate on the rabbit. Open the door to her home and let her (or them)come out when she chooses. You may offer toys or treats from your hand, but don’t interfere with her if she wants to explore Watch her carefully throughout the time she is out of her cage.

If the rabbit starts to chew on something you don’t want chewed, immediately offer her as many other things which are okay to chew on as you can. Block whatever she was chewing on so it ceases to be a temptation. Block it well so you aren’t simply challenging the rabbit to break through. If possible, provide something with a similar (or better) taste and texture than what was being chewed. For example, a piece of untreated, unfinished baseboard screwed into something so it doesn’t move instead of the real baseboard; a piece of scrap carpet instead of the real carpet (as long as the rabbit isn’t ingesting pieces pulled out); or a piece of apple branch instead of chair legs.

The same thing applies to digging. If the rabbit loves to dig in the carpet, build a small “digging corner” or “tunnel” with frequently replaced carpeting on the bottom; giving this to distract him. Or make a digging box by blocking the end-opening of a covered litter box and cutting a hole in the side. The rabbit will go in and turn so her body runs the length of the box (providing she is large enough her body doesn’t fit crosswise). The digging material will be flung against the sealed end of the litter box and remain contained. Use something totally dust-free and safe in the digging box.

Rabbits, being the incredibly intelligent little creatures they are, quickly learn what they should and should not use for chewing and digging. Their needs and desires are met by the things you’ve provided which they enjoy and yours are being met because they are leaving your things alone.

As your companion rabbit becomes more trustworthy about leaving your things alone and playing with their own things, you can gradually give them more time out with less intense watchfulness. But above all, don’t hurry this process! You will only find yourself having to return to earlier stages if you do so.

Communicating Without Words  Rabbits need to communicate with their caretakers, but of course, their communication is without words. An obvious example of such communication is struggling when they are picked up. This is simply and obviously saying, “I don’tlike being picked up! Put me down! PLEASE, put me down! I don’t feel safe when you take control of my body this way!”

There are a few instances where it is appropriate for human companions to force their will on a companion animal in this way. Obviously, if a rabbit’s teeth must be examined or clipped because of malocclusion, it is necessary to hold her against her will. But it is inexcusable for companions of one species to force their will on members of another species just to satisfy their own desires.

If you want a rabbit who enjoys jumping on your lap and being stroked, teach him to trust you by never grabbing or holding him against his will when he comes to you. Use treats, nose-to-nose touching, rubbing your chin on the rabbit’s face, rubbing your hands around the ears, etc. – whatever he enjoys – to encourage his pleasure in being with you. And if he happens not to enjoy such activities, so be it. Respect and enjoy him for who he is. After all, you want the same for yourself.

A rabbit who enjoys sitting on your lap and being stroked may nip you sharply if you get distracted enough to strop stroking her. She isn’t trying to hurt you, just to remind you she expects you to get back to the job at hand. When a rabbit nips in an effort to communicateappropriately, such as in this case (inappropriate nipping will be discussed later), he probably doesn’t realize how painful it is nor how severe the resulting bruise may be. SCREECH one high, loud, sudden, and short screech to let the rabbit know he really hurt you. The squeal should be loud, sudden, and high enough to startle the rabbit slightly. The next time he nips appropriately – i.e. for the purpose of communicating, you will be surprised at how much gentler it will be. Continue to squeal when nipped, however, until the nip is gentle enough to cause no pain or bruising. (Note: Use ice on the bruise quickly.)

Behavior Motivated by Social Structure  Finally, we come to behavior motived by the fact that any rabbit wants to be “Top-Rabbit”. Such behaviors have nothing to do with the chewing, digging, litter training, or nipping discussed above, but they can be confused with some of these.

Throughout this discussion, keep in mind your goal is to convince your companion rabbit that you are Top-Rabbit. This is not the same thing as forcing your will on him in a manner ignoring his needs and desires. Rather, it is an important part of establishing a normal companion-companion relationship which will meet his needs as well as yours. Your rabbit will be quite content accepting you as Top-Rabbit and himself as subdominant to you, once he sees you as naturally dominant. It even makes it possible for you to carry out your full function as his caretaker.

If a rabbit jumps onto the couch where you are sitting and nips you deliberately, she is probably trying to take the couch for her own. This is inappropriate nipping. Not only should you screech, but you should firmly, though gently, return her to the floor with a sharp “No!”

If she jumps back up and doesn’t nip you, she’s learned she can share the couch, but not drive you off. If she jumps back up and nips again, you repeat the screech, the “No!” and again return her to the floor.

If she comes back a third time with a nip, it is time for her to “go to her room”. She needs to be herded back to her personal space for a two minute time-out. If she throws a temper tantrum in the cage, shaking the bars and flinging herself around, ignore her. After she’s quiet again, she can come out. If she continues to try to force you from you seat, however, she may need to stay in her area until the next time she would normally be allowed out.

This same general method applies whenever a rabbit attempts to dominate you. He will be much happier when he learns his caretakers are the Top-Rabbits and he is not.

Another behavior related to this attempt to dominate human companions is the most unwelcome one of urinating on the piece of furniture where you often sit or on your bed. This is the equivalent of one rabbit urinating in another rabbit’s cage. The victim may accept the insult, agreeing to the dominance of the aggressor or he may decide to fight it out. Neither of these is appropriate for a human.

You can close the door to your bedroom, controlling his access to the bed (you’re dominant). But it may not be so simple to close off a chair or couch in the family room you share with your companions.

The most effective means I have found to declare the dominance of the human companions over the companion rabbit in this situation is to set “Snappy Trainers” along the edge of the seat. These are safe, mouse trap-like contraptions which can be found in pet stores, each with a plastic fan blade which causes it to fly into the air when bumped. The rabbit jumps onto the seat, the Snappy Trainers fly into the air and a startled rabbit never tries to go on that piece of furniture again. The human companion has control of her chair.

Summary  Training a companion rabbit requires commitment of time, effort, and thought on the part of the rabbit’s human companion. It isn’t just teaching the word “No!” – which will only teach the rabbit to wait until the human isn’t looking. It’s learning to understand the rabbit’s likes and dislikes, working to provide things he really enjoys, thinking up new possibilities when old toys become boring, and making the effort to switch toys regularly to maintain the rabbit’s interest.

Enjoy your companion rabbits to the fullest! Train them well and carefully, love them with all your heart, appreciate them for who and what they are and both of you will experience the great pleasure of sharing your lives with each other in harmony.