I work with rabbits at the animal shelter to socialize and teach them to be friendly. Some rabbits come to the shelter and are already very confident bunnies. But many more are very shy and anxious around people. Whether it be from past treatment or unfamiliar sounds and smells, this behavior ultimately stems from fear. Your job is to prove to your rabbit that they can trust you.
If you’re dealing with a shy bunny, you can help your rabbit gain confidence and learn to trust people again. Quietly sit with your rabbit every day, they will slowly learn to trust you. You can teach your rabbit to trust you and be more friendly around people.
Through the years I’ve learned some tips and tricks to help these rabbits gain confidence and learn that they don’t have to be afraid. I’ve come up with a step by step guide to help you bond with your shy rabbit.
Before you start: A few tips for the set-up
You need to set up your rabbit’s home in a quiet environment that has limited distractions. This way your rabbit can learn to trust you at their own pace. Here are a couple quick tips to help you get the setup right, so that you and your rabbit will bond in no time.
• Pick a quiet room
Some houses can get a little hectic at times, especially if you have kids or other pets. When you set up your rabbits enclosure, put it in a quiet part of the house.
If you have kids, teach them to be quiet and respectful around the bunny. For the time being, you’ll want to tell them to not pet or pick up the rabbit. There will be time to teach your kids how to interact with a pet rabbit after the shy bunny gains some confidence.
• Set up the enclosure so your rabbit can get in and out without being picked up.
Most bunnies don’t enjoy being held. Even rabbits that have been socialized from a young age will try to avoid being picked up. A rabbit’s main defense is their ability to run away. When they are being held, bunnies will feel trapped and scared.
If a rabbit is picked up every time a human comes to interact with them, that bunny will start to associate humans with the fear of being held. They will learn to run away and hide from people. Some may even get aggressive and start lashing out.
Since shy rabbits are often very afraid of being picked up, you want to make sure they are able to get in and out of their enclosure without any help from you.
If you use a rabbit playpen or a ground level enclosure, then you already have this taken care of. But if not, move the cage or hutch to the ground or include a ramp for your rabbit to use.
• Have some hidey boxes
Hidey boxes give a shy bunny a safe place to hide when they are scared. They help the rabbit feel more in control of the situation. It’s good to have more than one scattered around the room so the rabbit can have safe places to run to when they are starting to get curious and explore.
You could get a fancy hidey house from a pet store, but a plain old cardboard box will also work just fine. Just make sure it is big enough for your rabbit to fit in.
• No slick floors
If you are in a room with hardwood or tile floors, put down a couple mats or an area rug for your rabbit to step on. Rabbit paws can’t get any grip on slick floors so they have a tendency to slip and slide. This is very scary to rabbits who aren’t used to it.
Step 1: Leave a treat and go away
You want to start by using this basic conditioning technique by giving your rabbit treats. The goal is to teach your rabbit to associate humans with good things (treats). This is what you want to do:
- go up to your rabbit enclosure/area and make sure your rabbit knows you are there.
- Place a couple treats for your rabbit.
- Leave the area without trying to interact with your rabbit.
- Repeat a few times a day for at least a couple of days.
You may be able to skip this step if your rabbit already knows that people bring the food. If they come out of hiding to eat right away after you feed them, then that’s a good indication that it’s okay to move on to step 2.
Tips to help with step 1
Make sure your rabbit sees you
There are a couple things to keep in mind as you go through this step. Your rabbit has to see you put the treats down. If not, your rabbit might think the treats are just magically appearing. They won’t make the positive connection between humans and treats.
Choose a treat your rabbit likes
If your rabbit doesn’t eat the food after you leave, you may need to experiment with different types of treats to figure out what they like best. All the rabbits I’ve worked with have been food motivated; it was just a matter of figuring out which treats they like best.
Don’t try to pick up or pet your rabbit
I know it’s really hard to resist, but for now you need to leave your rabbit alone. Your number one priority is to make your rabbit feel safe. That means letting them get used to you and their living environment on their own terms.
Repeat as often as necessary
Try to quietly repeat these steps at least a few times every day. You can watch from across the room to see if your rabbit comes to take the treat right away, or keeps hiding for a while.
Step 2: Sit with your rabbit
- Place a couple treats out for your rabbit.
- Give your rabbit a place to hide (a hidey house or a cardboard box).
- Quietly sit down on the floor inside your rabbit’s pen, or outside their hutch (you’ll probably want to have a book or some quiet entertainment with you).
- If your rabbit is very shy, try to face away from them when you are sitting; rabbits will be less afraid if they think you can’t see them.
- Wait to give your rabbit a chance to come out of hiding.
- Stay with your rabbit for at least 15-30 minutes. Don’t try to pet them or pick them up. Try to pay as little attention to them as possible and wait for your rabbit to make the first move.
The goal here is for your rabbit to curiously come toward you of their own volition, NOT to force an interaction. It’s possible that the first few days you do this, your rabbit will warily watch you and not come out. But rabbits are curious creatures. If you quietly sit and offer them treats every day, they will eventually come and check you out.
Tips to help with step 2
Place a treat outside their hidey box or enclosure
Depending on how you have the room set up, your rabbit will probably start out hiding in a box or in their cage. You want to place a treat right outside of their hiding place so that your rabbit will have to come partially out of hiding to get the treat. Then sit a little farther away and wait to see what your rabbit does.
If your rabbit comes out, get’s the treat and goes back into hiding (which is usually the case), then place another treat a little farther away from the hiding spot. Keep doing this, placing the treat a little farther from the hiding spot and a little closer to you every time your shy bunny comes out of hiding to eat the treat.
Be quiet and let your rabbit approach you
Once your bunny realizes that you have the treats, they will start to come toward you on their own. At this stage, your shy rabbit will still be very skittish, so try to be as still and quiet as possible. Sometimes your bunny will run away at just the sound of a sigh or the small movement from turning the page of a book. That’s okay. Just keep sitting quietly and wait for your rabbit to try coming up to you again. Do not try to pet your rabbit yet (I know, it’s so hard to resist their cuteness!).
Reward curious behavior
Give your rabbit the incentive to come up to you without forcing them to interact with you. You want to make sure to reward your rabbit for being brave and coming out of hiding, so make sure you have some treats already in your hand. The process of reaching for a treat bag can scare the rabbit away, so you want to be prepared ahead of time.
After your rabbit gets comfortable with coming up to you, start holding the treats in your hand instead of putting them on the ground. It can even be a good idea to avoid looking at them at first, since eye contact can make a rabbit nervous. Continue to do this until they are confident enough to come up to you without much hesitation.
Step 3: Slowly start petting your rabbit
Here’s the stage where we finally start to try petting the rabbit. You want to start slow!
- Slowly reach to pet your rabbit. If your rabbit backs away, pause until they come back for another treat.
- Give your rabbit one head pet while you give them a treat.
- Most shy rabbits will flinch away, but quickly come back to you for another treat.
- Keep trying to gently pat them on the head when you give them a treat until they stop flinching away from your hand.
- After your rabbit is comfortable with you touching them, start experimenting with petting them behind the ears or stroking them all the way down their back.
For some rabbit’s it won’t go quite so smoothly. If your rabbit runs away when you try to pet them and doesn’t come back for another treat, move back to step two and try again. You will need time and patience to desensitize your rabbit to your touch. So take it just one pet at a time. It will take a while, but your patience will payoff tenfold in the end when you have a happy loving rabbit as a companion.
Tips to help with step 3
Make sure you take it slow. Don’t make any fast movements with your hands. Start by very slowly reaching out toward your rabbit while you give them a treat. If they flinch away, pause until they are confident enough to come back on their own, then try again.
Try more petting
If your rabbit is reacting well to gentle pats on the head, then it’s time to give them a couple more scritches on the head or behind their ears. Always watch their behavior to make sure your rabbit is comfortable and happy.
After you’ve reached this stage, see if your rabbit enjoys a full body massage. If the bunny isn’t running away at this point, then you’re rabbit is really starting to trust you.
This may take a while, but most rabbits I’ve worked with do like to be pet, they are just afraid that you will try to hurt them or pick them. So if you teach them that you are just petting them, then they will learn that there is nothing to be afraid of. They will probably even love to be pet and will start to come to you demanding more.
Move at your rabbits pace
This whole process is not intended to take just one day. The amount of time it takes is going to depend on the personality of your rabbit. I’ve worked with rabbits where this process took less than a week, and I’ve worked with rabbits where this process took 2-3 months. Above all, be patient and proceed at your rabbit’s pace. Over time your rabbit will learn to trust you and come up to you right away.
Step 4: After you have gained your rabbit’s trust
After you’ve spent all this time gaining your rabbit’s trust, you have to try to keep it. This means you can’t fall into old habits of picking your rabbit up all the time, and you need to continue to spend time with your bunny.
Interact with your rabbit on their level
Once your rabbit trusts you, it is okay to start picking them up every once in a while. However, don’t start picking up your rabbit every time you interact with them. That will only scare the bunny away again.
Instead, try interacting with your rabbit on their level. If you’re spending time scrolling through your phone, sit on the floor and let your rabbit come up to you. Or when you notice your rabbit is being irresistibly cute, give them an awesome massage instead of picking them up.
Teach kids how to play with the bunny
If you have kids who really want a turn to play with the bunny, then it’s important to show them how to respect your rabbit. Supervise your child as you teach them how to gently pet them. If the rabbit runs away, take it as a chance to teach your child to be patient and not to chase after the bunny.
While your bunny might not be quite the cuddly pet you expected, they are still a great addition to the household. Once the shy bunny starts to come out of their shell and bond with the family, you’ll be glad you took the time to gain your rabbit’s trust.
How do you play with a bunny?
You can play with a bunny by giving them some fun chew toys. Sit on the floor with your rabbit and offer them some toys to toss around. You can also encourage them to climb on your lap by luring them with treats.
Where does a bunny like to be pet?
Pretty much all rabbits like to be pet on top of their head and behind their ears. Many rabbits also like to be stroked all the way down their back, and on their cheeks. The main places you want to avoid are the rabbit’s back feet and the rabbit’s tail.
- “Shy Rabbits.” House Rabbit Society, Jul. 10, 2011, rabbit.org/faq-shy-rabbits.
- Krempels, Dana, Ph.D. “Winning Over a Shy Bunny.” University of Miami: Department of Biology. www.bio.miami.edu/hare/shybun.html.