Have you seen those fun youtube videos with the rabbits who can do cute tricks? Do you want to teach your bunny something cool? Here’s a little secret: rabbits are actually very smart creatures. It doesn’t take an exceptionally smart rabbit to learn tricks, it just takes a little patience and planning. You can train your rabbit to do tricks too!
You can train your rabbit to do anything from coming back to their enclosure and giving you high fives, to running through an entire agility course. Even better, rabbit training is great for keeping your rabbit’s mind engaged, and it’s great for bonding with your rabbit!
The first trick is always the hardest to teach. This is because you, as the trainer, are inexperienced and need to learn how to motivate your rabbit, and it’s also because the rabbit is just figuring out the transaction of doing a trick for treats. Once the two of you figure out how to work together and learn one trick, you’ll be able to learn new ones much faster.
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What motivates a rabbit?
Most rabbits are highly treat motivated and have a big sweet tooth. They’ll do anything for those delicious pieces of fruit or bunny treats. Luckily, this makes it a lot easier to train a rabbit. They will follow the treat, or quickly figure out what they have to do to get another one.
I have met a few rabbits that were not so treat motivated though. These guys are a little harder to train but there are other ways of encouraging them to perform tricks. For example, many of them really love to be pet and will gladly perform tricks for the promise of more petting. So if you can’t find a treat that your rabbit is head over heels for, try to find other ways to motivate their behavior.
The Three Training Techniques
There are a number of techniques that can be used to train your rabbit. I’ll be going over the most common training techniques here. But as you work with your rabbit, adjust and combine them as necessary. You can even create completely new techniques as you learn what your rabbit responds to.
1. Classical conditioning
Classical conditioning is the most basic and passive form of training. This is how you can naturally teach your rabbit over time. You use a cue or signal and link it to a behavior using a reward (or punishment, but we only do positive reinforcement here!). You are probably already using this technique without even realizing it. Have you noticed that when you crinkle a treat bag, your rabbit comes running? This is because your rabbit has learned to associate the crinkling sound with the reward of getting a treat.
This phenomena was first observed by the physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the 1890’s. First he observed that his dogs’ natural response to seeing food was to start salivating in anticipation. Pavlov started playing the tone of a bell just before feeding his dogs every day. At the end of the experiment, he played the tone of the bell without the food, and found that his dogs were salivating just as much as if there was food present.
Okay, we’re not trying to make our rabbits drool (this is actually a sign your rabbits teeth may need to be trimmed), so how can we use this technique?
When to use classical conditioning
Because classical conditioning is a natural way of learning through life, your rabbit will already be making associations between behaviors and rewards. Your job is to start being more intentional with the way you condition your rabbit. This way you can teach them the behaviors you want them to learn. Here are a couple ideas for you to get started.
Teach your rabbit their name. This is something that I’ve been working on with my Elusive lately. I say her name every single time I give her a treat. The hope is that she will over time associate her name with the reward and come running.
I have seen this in action with my roommate’s rabbits. She started making a clucking sound every time she gave her boys a treat, and in no time they would come running every single time she made that same sound.
Teach your rabbit to come back to their pen
Go into your rabbit pen, or stand next to their enclosure, and offer your rabbit a treat when they go inside every day. Make sure to stand in the same spot every time. Eventually your rabbit will begin to associate the place you are standing with getting a reward and they’ll come running.
Teach fearful rabbits to be friendly
I use classical conditioning with fearful rabbits at the shelter (and cats and dogs) all the time. Animals are much more likely to be adopted if they are comfortable coming up to people and being friendly. What I do is:
- Go up to the enclosure
- Make sure the rabbit sees me
- Leave a treat
- Go away
This teaches the rabbit to associate seeing a person with the excitement of getting a treat, instead of the stress of having an unwanted social interaction. It was the first thing I learned when I started volunteering at the animal shelter since it is the base for all other training.
You might accidentally be teaching the wrong things
Okay, you’re starting to see all the advantages that come from learning how to condition the behavior of your rabbit, but what are some ways that you’ve been accidentally conditioning your rabbit already?
If you pick up your rabbit every time you interact with them
This is a big one! Rabbits are sooo cute and we just can’t help but want to pick them up and cuddle them. Sadly, almost all rabbits I have worked with hate being picked up. Rabbits are prey animals, so they like to have at least their back feet on the ground at all times so they can run away at a moments notice.
This means that if you pick your rabbit up every time you interact with your rabbit, they will learn to associate you approaching with the fear of being picked up, and they’ll run away from you, or worse lash out and attack you.
So how do we remedy this? You’ll need to work to replace the association your rabbit has of “human interaction = punishment” into “human interaction = reward.” Basically you will need to help your rabbit relearn that humans give them treats and massages and they don’t need to be scared of you.
Only after your rabbit has learned to trust you, should you start picking them up again. And even then, try to make sure it’s not every time, or you’ll have to go through this process all over again.
If you try to chase your rabbit back into their pen
If you find it is difficult to get your rabbit back into their enclosure when you need to, it is probably because your rabbit is associating the act of being chased with knowing they are going to lose freedom. The technique mentioned earlier of giving a treat to your rabbit instead of chasing them around will help you a lot here. But let’s also consider why the rabbit doesn’t want to go back to their pen?
Sometimes, a rabbit doesn’t like being closed into their pen because their enclosure is too small. It makes the rabbit feel like they’re being trapped in a shoebox, which feels like a punishment to them.
For aggressive rabbits: if you go away when they lunge at you
Most of the time when a rabbit is afraid, he will run away and hide. But sometimes if they feel cornered or just have a more stubborn personality, rabbits will act out aggressively by swatting or lunging at you. If you get scared and go away from your rabbit every time he acts out like this, he will be conditioned to learn that his aggressive behavior will get you to go away, which is what he wants.
Start by wearing thick layers of clothing (including gloves and boots) and wait to leave your rabbit until he calms down and stops behaving aggressively. That way he will begin to associate his calm behavior with getting his desired result. You can read more about how to deal with aggressive rabbits here.
2. Clicker Training
At its core, clicker training is a positive reinforcement technique used to help an animal associate a desired behavior with a reward. As soon as your pet performs your desired behavior, you click the clicker and give them a treat. Your rabbit will quickly begin to associate the sound of the clicker with getting a reward and will try to figure out what they have to do to keep getting that reward.
You can use this technique by itself and in combination with luring techniques to get your rabbit to learn some cute tricks. I find that having both the auditory clicker queue and a visual lure queue can be very helpful for most tricks.
What is a clicker
You can find clickers at most pet stores or online. They are often used for dog training, so they’re a pretty common tool. If you don’t have a clicker, you can still try making a clucking or kissing sound with your mouth, but it’s important that you are able to make the same sound over and over again. So a clicker might be the better option.
Tips for clicker training
1. Click = Treat
No matter what, if you click your bun gets a treat. Sometimes you’ll make a mistake. You’ll be watching your rabbit closely. Hand on the clicker. Watching for the her paw to lift and give you a high-five. She’s about to do it, and click — Oops! She started licking her paw instead…
That’s okay, mistakes happen. It’s impossible to know exactly what your bun is thinking. But even if you make a mistake, you have to give them a treat if you hit the clicker. You want to make sure your rabbit continues to associate the sound of the clicker with receiving a treat. If not they’re likely to get frustrated or give up.
2. It’s all about the timing!
When I learned about clicker training from my local animal shelter, the first thing they had me do was learn to time the click with the bounce of a tennis ball. I had a lot of difficulty at first because I kept anticipating when the ball would hit the ground and hitting the clicker early. This (or hitting the clicker too late) is often something that happens when working with animals.
Working with these intelligent animals is a bit more difficult than working with a tennis ball, but the principle is the same. Like me, you will need to practice to learn how to correctly time your click with the desired behavior of your rabbit so that you’re not anticipating or being too slow to react. This will keep your rabbit from getting confused, and it will ensure that your rabbit gets consistent feedback for what she’s doing to deserve the treat.
3. Take it one step at a time
You can’t expect you rabbit to understand that they need to give you a high-five the very first time you start clicker training. That’s not something a rabbit will naturally understand. So you need to start with baby steps.
For example, if you want your rabbit to start giving you high fives. Start by clicking when they raise one paw. Once they figure that out, you can move on to the next step, like putting your hand near where your rabbit is and click when she touches down on your hand. Once they figure that out, try moving your hand farther away.Give your rabbit a chance to figure out each step little by little so that eventually she’s doing the trick with no problem.
Sometimes your rabbit will have trouble figuring out what you want her to do. Usually when this happens, it means you’re asking your rabbit to do something that is too difficult and you need to break down your steps to be even simpler. Sometimes it means you need to try a completely different tactic altogether and start from scratch.
4. Keep it short
You want to keep clicker sessions short, especially when your just learning the ropes. The longer the clicker session the more likely your rabbit will start to get frustrated, and if they get frustrated your rabbit will be less likely to want to come back for another session later. It’s also important to limit the number of treats a rabbit gets because of their sensitive digestive system. Limiting the amount of time spent, will also limit the amount of treats you give them.
The step-by-step technique
- Make sure you have your clicker in your hand and high value treats nearby. Make sure you cut your treats into small pieces. Rabbit digestive systems can be very sensitive so you don’t want to risk giving them too many sugary treats.
- Decide what you want your rabbit to do and break it down into steps for your rabbit. If you want your rabbit to give you kisses, day one would be lifting their head up toward your face.
- Time your clicker with the desired behavior of the rabbit. Rabbit’s are pretty smart, so if you’re timing it correctly, you’ll be seeing progress pretty quickly.
- If your rabbit can’t figure it out or is getting frustrated, you might need to break it down into simpler steps.
- Keep your clicker sessions to 5 minutes or less.
When to use clicker training
Clicker training is what you will need to use for more complicated tricks. When there are a lot of steps involved in a trick, or when you will not be able to give your rabbit a treat immediately when they perform the correct action, clicker training is the way to go.
I use clicker training for teaching high fives, and following the pointer. You’ll need to use this technique if you want your rabbit to try any agility course tricks too. I also often use clicker training in combination with the luring technique to add a little bit of reinforcement to the learned behavior.
For example, when teaching them to spin I’ll lure the rabbit in a circle. When I present them with a treat as they complete the circle, I will also give a little click so the rabbit will have a better understanding of what they need to do to get the treat.
What if my rabbit is scared of the clicker sound?
Many Rabbits are scared of loud or sudden sounds. When the clicker goes off they will immediately run away or go on high alert. Luckily there are some alternatives that are just as effective. You’ll have to work with your rabbit’s personality to figure out what works best. Here are a few ideas for you:
- Use the clicker behind your back. This can distance the sound enough that it doesn’t startle your rabbit.
- Make a clucking or kissing sound instead. Using your own voice is usually less jarring than an object for a rabbit. They already know and are comfortable with your voice, and usually you won’t be as loud as the clicker.
- Try using hand movements as visual queues instead. Some rabbits are just too skittish to use a sound, so we have to focus on using visual indicators instead. This is a little more difficult, but I have found that using a consistent hand motion that immediately presents the rabbit with a treat can also work.
One of the easiest training techniques that I use is called luring. This is when you use a high value treat to entice your rabbit to perform the desired behavior. Most rabbits are very food motivated, and will do anything to get that treat! That’s why this is my technique of choice when teaching rabbits to spin or get on someone’s lap. Just like with clicker training, you’re going to want to use this in combination with cues so your rabbit will be able to learn how to do their tricks even when you don’t have treats on hand.
Luring is a way to entice your rabbit into a position or behavior without physically moving them there. You take a treat in your hand and use it to directly lead your rabbit to do what you want to do.
I use this technique to convince shelter rabbits to get onto people’s laps. If someone picked them up and put them on their lap, the rabbit would often just try to run away. If you teach your rabbit the behavior by luring them, you let them make the choice to hop up on your lap. Over time they become more comfortable with this behavior and will start getting into you lap without a lure.
Compared with a technique like clicker training, luring is a very quick way to teach behaviors. But it is limited in the behaviors you can teach. You have to focus on behaviors that are simple, and you have to be able to immediately reward your rabbit. But if you use the two techniques together and you can teach your rabbit almost anything.
When to use luring
Luring is best used for tricks where a rabbit can follow a treat and be immediately rewarded when they complete the desired behavior. I use this technique to teach rabbits to spin in a circle and to train them to hop onto my lap. I also use a slightly modified version of luring to teach rabbits to give people kisses.
While you can usually teach your rabbit very quickly with this technique, you’ll still need to make sure your moving at your rabbits pace. Sometimes your rabbit just isn’t ready to do the trick, or gets frustrated and gives up. So when this happens try breaking the behavior down into simpler steps.
For example, when you’re trying to get your rabbit to climb into your lap, they may not want to climb up right away and think that you’re just going to keep taking the treat away from them. So you’ll want to start with rewarding your rabbit after you lure them into a position with their front paws on your lap. Eventually you can up the ante and try to lure them all the way onto your lap again.
In order to have successful training sessions, you need to make an environment that your rabbit can succeed in. This means understanding your rabbits needs and motivations so they will pay attention to you and want to succeed.
Rabbit attention span
Rabbits have a relatively short attention span. If training sessions are too long, they’ll start to get distracted or frustrated. As you’re just getting started training your rabbit, they might also get exhausted from using too much brain power. Over time they’ll gain more mental stamina and be able to have longer training sessions with you.
Hand motions vs. verbal commands
As you train your rabbit, you’ll want to use hand motions or verbal cues so that they know which trick you want them to perform and can learn to do them on command. Personally I find using hand motion cues much easier to use than verbal commands. In general, it seems more intuitive for rabbits to follow my hands around then listen to the intonation of my voice.
If you do want to train them with verbal commands, you will want to make sure you choose short words that you can say with the same tone of voice every time. For example, when I taught my rabbit to come at her name, I used her nickname “Ellie” instead of her full name “Elusive.” This way, I could use a shorter word and be more consistent in the way I called her name, so she will be more likely to recognize the command.
A quiet place without too many distractions
Rabbits can be distracted very easily. So if you want a few minutes to work with your bun, try to make sure there’s not too much else happening in the room. If not, your rabbit will find some other interest before she has time to figure out any tricks. Sometimes the best place to train your rabbit is inside their pen, since they won’t be off exploring before you have a chance to work with them.
A rabbit’s choice
It is very important that you never pick up or physically force your rabbit to do anything. This is more likely to scare your rabbit than get them to perform the trick, and they won’t have gained the confidence they get when they figure something out for themselves.
Training your rabbit is about teaching them to learn and figure things out for themselves. It would defeat the purpose if you tried to force them into the behavior you want. So be patient and accept the challenge!
Using treats for training
You need to give your rabbit incentive to work hard and figure out what you want them to do, so that means breaking out the good stuff! You can use whatever your bun’s favorite treat is, but make sure you cut the treats up into little pieces so you don’t give your rabbit too much.
I like to get bags of dried fruit treats from my favorite online pet store, Small Pet Select. They have a wide variety of different fruit treats available with absolutely no added sugar in them. My rabbit particularly enjoys the banana and papaya! These treats do come in large chunks, though, so you’ll have to cut them up into smaller pieces before starting the training session. (and you can get 15% off your order by using the code BUNNYLADY at checkout)
You want to make sure you use treats that your rabbit loves. A rabbit may give up on if the reward isn’t good enough.
You also want to be careful for your fingers. Most rabbits have very good manners and will be very gentle when taking treats from your hands. But every once in a while, I run into a rabbit that’s a little overenthusiastic and tries to get at your hand to get at the treat. If this is your rabbit, I recommend using a spoon instead of your hand to hold the treat.
What are High Value Treats?
High value treats are exactly what they sound like. These are snacks for your bun that are their favorite. Something that they absolutely cannot turn down. You want to make sure these treats are safe for your rabbit, of course. But that still leaves a lot of options open. Don’t know what your rabbit’s favorite is? Experiment or mix it up every now and then.
For the most part, you want to reserve these treats so that your rabbit only gets them when they’re doing tricks. But if you’ve given your rabbit too many treats already, or you rabbit has a very sensitive stomach there are still options for you.
Fruits and Vegetables
Whether fresh or dried, small pieces of fruits and vegetables are great options for training your rabbit. Pick your food of choice (or your rabbit’s choice) and cut it up into small, bite-sized pieces for your rabbit.
Some bunny favorites that I’ve used are bananas, apples, and strawberries. Raisins or other dried fruit (cut into small pieces) are also a great choice, especially since they have a longer shelf life. Just remember that while these sweet treats are the best for motivating your rabbit, you should only give them about a tablespoon per day. This is plenty for one training session, but you won’t be able to give your rabbit any other sweet treats later in the day (no matter how much they beg).
Pellets or Oats
For some rabbits, they love their pellets enough that this will also count as a high value treat. For example, my Elusive absolutely loves her pellets. If I’ve already given her enough of the sweet treats for the day, I can switch over to using her pellets and she’ll still be very excited.
For many rabbits this won’t work because it breaks the rules of high value treats. Many rabbits are smart enough to know that they’ll get daily pellets without having to do any extra work. But it’s a great loophole to take advantage of when you can.
Another dry food option is regular old oats. The same kind that you get when you buy plain oatmeal for yourself (but don’t cook them). These are great because they already come in bite size pieces and they’ll stay fresh on your shelf for a very long time. While not quite as bad for your rabbit as the sweet alternatives, you do still want to be careful about how much you give your rabbit. Too much can cause your rabbit to gain weight, which can cause a number of health problems. So as always, remember to give your rabbit everything in moderation.
Another good option for training your rabbit is using a portion of their daily fresh greens. You can cut or tear the greens up into smaller pieces so you can use them as rewards. This does break the rules of high value treats a little, but often times your rabbit will love their greens enough that they’ll work for it anyway. You could also experiment with always having your training sessions right before you give your rabbit their greens every day. This can help your rabbit associate doing tricks with getting a big reward.
All things said, when picking the right treat for your rabbit, you want to make sure that it is something your rabbit loves, and you want to make sure you keep your rabbit’s health in mind by not give them too many treats.
Phasing out the treats
After your rabbit is really good at their new trick, you can start phasing out the treats. Their trick will become a habit over time, so they won’t need the incentive to perform it anymore. This way you can avoid giving your rabbit too many treats as you begin to train them with new tricks.
You don’t want to get rid of the treats all at once though. That would only frustrate your rabbit. Instead, start by giving them treats only every other time when they perform the trick. Slowly make the treat dispensing less and less frequent.
Personally, I never completely phase out the treats. Every once in a while, especially if the treat bag is nearby, I’ll still give my rabbit a treat for doing her old tricks. It’s up to you and your bunny to decide how often they get those yummy treats.