Rabbits are incredibly social animals. To live a happy and healthy life, they need time to socialize with other people or animals (other rabbits) in the household. But as prey animals, rabbits are often scared to interact with new people. They’ll be quick to run away if any loud sound or sudden movement startles them.
It’s your job to teach your rabbit to be brave! You can spend some quality time with your rabbit to help them feel safe and learn how to trust. This is great for the rabbit, because they’ll be able to be their happy, bouncy self without fear or stress. And it’s great for you because you get to have a beautiful friendship with your rabbit. In the end, the two of you will have a deep and unbreakable bond.
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1. Sit with your rabbit
The most effective action you can take is to sit or lay with your rabbit. When you’re standing, or even sitting up on a chair, your rabbit will only have contact with your legs. They’ll see you as a big scary giant, and are more likely to be wary or run away in fear.
Bring yourself down to their level so that you’re no longer towering over your rabbit. You can sit with a book or your phone and just hang out on the floor with your rabbit. The goal isn’t to force your rabbit to come up to you and interact, but to give them the option. By sitting quietly on the floor in a place your rabbit has access to, they will eventually get curious and come up to you all on their own.
You can also try laying on the ground instead of sitting. This brings you even closer to the rabbit’s level and will be less frightening. Your rabbit might even take the opportunity to hop up on top of you to explore.
If your rabbit is very shy, they might not come up to you at all the first couple of times you hang out with them, and that’s okay. They’ll still be getting used to your presence little by little. Over time, they’ll learn that you’re not a scary giant coming to get them. If you make it a habit to sit with your rabbit for some quality time every day, your bond will strengthen.
I make it part of my nighttime routine to spend some extra time with my rabbit, Ellie. I’ll spend an hour on the floor reading to give her a chance to come up to me if she wants to. This way we are able to reinforce our bond with each other every single day.
2. Let your rabbit come to you
Instead of forcing your rabbit into an interaction, you need to let them choose to come to you so you can gain their trust. Rabbits are prey animals, and that means they’ll start to feel very scared if they feel cornered. Forcing your rabbit to interact with you, or chasing them until they have nowhere to run, are quick ways to make a rabbit scared and distrustful.
When you sit somewhere on your rabbit’s level and allow them to approach you in their own time, it builds trust. Your rabbit will learn that you are not so scary. They’ll be more likely to be brave and approach you again in the future. Having some small treats with you to reward your rabbit’s curiosity can also help reinforce the behavior.
You’re also helping them build up their own confidence. Sometimes shy rabbits can feel afraid of everything. If you help them become a more confident rabbit, they’ll start to feel braver and have a better overall quality of live
3. Have a daily routine
Rabbits thrive with the predictability of a routine. Because rabbits are prey animals, anything unexpected can easily put them on the alert. To help them feel safe and comfortable in their environment, you’ll want to adopt a daily routine or schedule. A rabbit that feels safe in their surroundings will also be braver and more likely to spend time with you and other members of the household.
Some ways to develop a daily routine that your rabbit can depend on:
- Feeding routine: Keeping a consistent feeding schedule is the easiest way to help your rabbit settle into a routine. You’ll want to feed them around the same time every day. This way they’ll feel assured that they don’t need to worry about their next meal. This will also teach them to be excited to see you, knowing they’ll be getting food out of it. My rabbit even started running happy circles around my feet when I bring her daily fresh leafy greens over from the kitchen.
- Exercise schedule: If your rabbit is kept in an enclosure, they’ll need a lot of daily exercise. If you keep this at the same time every day, your rabbit will start to get excited, ready to zoom around the room. Your rabbit will be more active and happy when they are out, giving you the chance to spend time with your rabbit while they’re in a good mood.
- Daily interaction: Instead of randomly choosing times to interact with a rabbit, they will usually be happier with the interaction if they expect it. Choose a few times a day to consistently sit with your rabbit so they’ll learn to be ready for you.
4. Train your rabbit
It can be really adorable to teach a rabbit some cute tricks, but the real value of training a bunny is in the bond it creates between you and your rabbit. Training means you are spending quality time with each other. Your rabbit is using their brain to get a yummy treat and trusting that you will eventually give it to them. You are getting intimately familiar with your rabbit’s body language to help them figure out how to do the trick.
By training your rabbit you are not only teaching them cool tricks, but you’re also teaching them to trust you. Your rabbit will be excited to spend time with you, knowing they’ll have fun exercising their brain and figuring out how to get treats.
Training also encourages a rabbit to readily approach you without expecting a treat right off the bat. While it’s good to give a shy rabbit a treat for approaching you (coming up to you is the first trick that they learn!), you don’t want them to expect a treat every time after they have become a friendly rabbit. That could inadvertently lead to the rabbit getting impatient and nipping at your hands. Training your rabbit will teach them to slow down and earn their treats, while also keeping them from losing interest in you just because you don’t have any treats on hand.
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5. Avoid picking up or cornering your rabbit
Rabbits are prey animals, which means they survived in the wild by being ready to run and hide at any second. This means that anything you do that makes a rabbit feel trapped will instantly make them trust you less. To bond with your rabbit, you want to avoid cornering them or picking them up whenever possible.
Whenever you are interacting with your rabbit, you want to make sure that they have an escape route. This could mean giving your rabbit a place to hide, or simply leaving space so they can run away around you. A cornered rabbit might even lash out aggressively by biting or scratching. Rabbits will be more likely to confidently approach you and bond with you if they feel they have a choice in the interaction.
Most rabbits absolutely hate to be held. When rabbits are held in someone’s arms, they no longer have the ability to run away. They may even feel that they have been caught by a big predator. If you pick your rabbit up all the time, they will start to associate you with that feeling of being trapped and scared. Rabbits will avoid anyone who comes and tries to pick them up all the time.
There will be times when you have to pick up your rabbit for their own health and safety. For example, when you clip their nails, give them a health check, or remove them from a dangerous situation. To keep rabbits from being so scared that they injure themselves, hold them securely against your body until they calm down. You may want to practice picking your rabbit up occasionally. That way you’ll know you have the skills you need when the time comes. However, you should avoid picking your rabbit up most of the time if you want to have a happy relationship with your rabbit.
6. Give your rabbit treats (but not too much!)
Treats are a great way to gain the favor of a rabbit. Almost every rabbit I’ve interacted with had some kind of treat that they loved. It was just a matter of finding their special treat that will motivate them.
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Giving a shy rabbit a treat when they approach you is a form of reward training. You give them positive reinforcement for their curious and brave behavior. You’ll help your rabbit associate you with getting their favorite treat, making it more likely your rabbit will approach you again in the future. Over time, your rabbit will no longer hesitate. They’ll come up to you right away because they know that only good things come from you.
You do want to be careful with the amount of treats you give your rabbit, though. Too many sugary treats are not good for a rabbit’s health and can lead to a gut slow-down or dental problems. Try to only give your rabbit fresh or dried fruits and vegetables as treats, and keep them to less than 1-2 Tablespoons per day.
7. Pet your rabbit
Most rabbits really enjoy being pet. Some even enjoy getting a good massage more than they like to get treats! Teaching your rabbit to not be afraid of hands and petting them is an excellent way to bond with your rabbit.
Young rabbits seem to be the exception to this, but not because they don’t enjoy being pet. Instead it’s because they just have too much energy to sit still. As they get older, rabbits will inevitably start to mellow out and enjoy being pet more, though.
How to teach a rabbit not to be fearful of hands
Many rabbits will very readily accept being pet and will quickly learn to settle down while you give them a nice massage. However, sometimes rabbits will be afraid of hands at first and flinch away from any hands that come toward them.
This is most likely due to some past trauma that causes the rabbit to be fearful of people’s hands. It may be because the rabbit used to be picked up all the time and has associated people’s hands with the fear of being held. If your rabbit was adopted, it could be from a more serious trauma from your rabbit’s past.
To teach a rabbit that they don’t have to be afraid of your hands:
- While you give your rabbit a treat, slowly move your hand toward your rabbit. If they run away, don’t chase them, wait for them to come back for another treat.
- When the rabbit doesn’t flinch away from your hand coming toward them, gently touch them on the forehead while you give them the treat. Just one small touch.
- As the rabbit gets used to one touch, try giving them little scritches on their forehead and behind the ears.
- Once your rabbit gets used to that, try giving them longer strokes down their back.
During the whole process keep an eye on your rabbit’s body language to make sure you are not stressing them out. Giving your rabbit a treat at the same time as you pet them, helps the rabbit to associate being pet with getting a treat. It will slowly desensitize your rabbit to being touched so that they will be able to enjoy a nice massage.
In my experience, some of the rabbits who enjoy being pet the most are the ones who were completely afraid of it when I first met them. My Elusive, for example, was one of those rabbits. She would come up to me, snatch a treat and run away as soon as I tried to pet her. But now she’s turned into a bunny who demands petting all day long.
8. Spay or neuter your rabbit
If your young rabbit is reaching maturity, it may seem like they suddenly hate everyone. As many sweet bunnies reach adolescence, they may develop some territorial and aggressive rabbit behaviors that make it difficult to bond with your rabbit.
At this point it will be important to bring your bunny to a rabbit-savvy veterinarian to be spayed or neutered. This will solve many of the behavioral issues that cause a rabbit to act out, making it much easier for you and your rabbit to bond.
Getting a rabbit spayed or neutered also solves many health issues that are common in unaltered rabbits. Female rabbits, for example, have a very high chance of developing uterine cancer by the time they are 6 years old. That’s only about half the average lifespan of a rabbit. It’s important to get your rabbit fixed to give the the best chance at a long and healthy life.
9. Keep quiet around your bunny
Rabbits can be easily startled by loud noises. They are unlikely to approach anyone who is making a lot of noise, and will continue to hide away until the loud noise goes away.
You don’t need to be completely silent around your rabbit, but keep the noises you make to a minimum. Speak in a soft and gentle voice. You can even consider singing or humming softly around your rabbit.
When sitting with your rabbit, you’ll also want to pick quiet activities to keep you occupied while they decide whether or not to approach you. Reading a book can be a great quiet activity. If you’re scrolling through your phone or playing a game, make sure to use headphones for anything that will generate noise. If you’re not using a noisy app, it’s still a good idea to turn the volume on your phone off. Even the notification beeps can be enough to startle a rabbit sometimes.
10. Give your rabbit space
Rabbits will feel more confident and in control if they have more space. It means they’ll have more places to run or hide if they start to feel scared. This goes for the space in their enclosure and outside of it for exercise time.
Make sure your rabbit’s enclosure is large enough for them. Rabbit enclosures should be at least 3 to 4 times the length of the rabbit. This will give your rabbit enough space to hop around and feel confident in their own home. I always recommend getting a rabbit exercise pen to use as their enclosure (such as this one!). It gives your rabbit lots of space and it’s a lot easier to clean!
To make your rabbit feel safe, you’ll want to make sure they feel that they own this territory. As much as you can, interact with them when they are outside the enclosure and leave them alone when they retreat back to their home. This will give your rabbit a home base they can escape to whenever they need to.
You also want to give your rabbit a lot of space for exercise outside of the enclosure. This will give them space to zoom around and explore without feeling cornered and unsafe.
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11. Learn to understand your rabbit’s body language
Rabbit body language is not the same as a cat or dog. It will take some practice to learn everything there is to know about your rabbit’s behavior. To start with, just spend some time watching your rabbit. If you’re a little stuck on how to start understanding your rabbit, check out my article that goes into all the behaviors you can expect to see from your pet rabbit (with pictures!).
Observe how your rabbit reacts to new places. Do they confidently zoom into the middle of the room, or do they sneak around the walls or hide under furniture? Do they get immediately startled by new sounds, or are they more interested in checking it out? Watch your rabbit to try to get a feel for what scares them and what makes them happy, so you can be ready to meet them where they are.
12. Copy your rabbit’s behaviors
Just like humans don’t automatically understand rabbit body language, rabbits don’t usually understand what we’re trying to tell them either. We may not be able to exactly copy our rabbits behaviors, since our anatomy is so different, but we can do our best to mimic them and see if they understand.
You can try twitching your nose at your rabbit, to tell them that you are interested and curious in them. Or you can try giving your head a little shake or jumping up and down to mimic a binky and tell your rabbit that you’re happy.
You can lay down near your rabbit to let them know that you trust them. Petting is also a way of mimicking grooming behavior, telling your rabbit that you love them and see them as part of the family. Watch your rabbit and see what other behaviors you can copy to try to tell your rabbit how much you love them!
13. Give your rabbit toys
Even if you are not directly interacting with your rabbit, giving them fun toys to play with will make them happy and excited. This is especially true of toys that are puzzles with treats hidden inside for your rabbit to find. They’ll be so excited trying to find the treat in the toy that they’ll happily play, even when you’re sitting right next to them.
My favorite toy for bonding with my rabbit is a ball food dispenser (check it out here). I’ll put a small handful of her pellets inside so she can roll it around a figure out how to get the food out. You can also make a number of hidden treat DIY toys. I’ve made a step by step guide for how to make some of these fun toys using only toilet paper rolls and some other simple objects you probably have lying around your house.
14. Give your rabbit places to hide
To bond with your rabbit, you will want to make sure they always have places they can run to and hide. Even if they never actually run for it, having places to hide will help your rabbit feel more confident. They’ll know that if something happens, there will always be someplace nearby they can bolt to.
Some ideas to make the perfect environment for your rabbit full of hiding places:
- Hidey houses: These are small wooden or hay based rabbit houses. They will usually only have an opening on one or two sides and allow your rabbit to feel safe inside while also having a vantage point of the room.
- Boxes: A cardboard or plastic box on its side can make a great hiding house for a rabbit. For plastic boxes, include a towel or mat so that their feet don’t slip and slide on the bottom.
- Space under furniture: The space under sofas, chairs, and beds can serve as a safe hiding spot for rabbits. You might want to cover any carpet under these pieces of furniture. Rabbits will sometimes try to burrow into it.
- Space in back of furniture: The space behind sofas, bookshelves, and other pieces of furniture can also be good hiding places for rabbits. Just be sure there are no wires hanging there that your rabbit might try to chew on.
- Bookshelves: Rabbits can also hide in the bottom shelves of bookcases, especially if they are narrower cubby holes.
15. Respect your rabbit’s boundaries
If you want to bond with your rabbit and teach them to trust you, above all you have to remember to respect your rabbit’s boundaries. When they don’t want to interact right now, then leave them alone. If your rabbit leaves in the middle of an interaction, let them. Don’t chase them or force them to come back. Watch your rabbit’s body language, and back off if they are squirming away or starting to show more aggressive body language.
Most of the time when rabbits are eating, pooping, sleeping, or grooming themselves they won’t want to interact with people. Wait until they are finished with their solitary activity and then see if they’re interested in spending time with you. If they still prefer to be left alone, then respect that and give your rabbit their space.
Obviously, if there is some kind of health concern that you need to check up on, then you will need to handle your rabbit even if they don’t want you to. But don’t force your rabbit into an interaction if it’s only for your own entertainment.
Rabbits can be wonderful, social pets if you give them the chance to come up and interact with you on their own terms. So just be patient with your rabbit and the two of you will be best friends in no time.
- Krempels, Dana Ph.D. “Winning Over a Shy Bunny.” University of Miami: Biology Departments. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/shybun.html.
- Ramnaraine, Amy. “Bonding With Your Rabbit.” House Rabbit Society. January 12, 2017. https://rabbit.org/bonding-with-your-rabbit.
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