By Dr. Anne McBride
Many of our pet rabbits live in a social group comprising the bunny and its owners. In order to maintain the peace between them and us, humans must establish a stable hierarchy and an appropriate environment. Two simple measures accomplish this.
First, reduce any need to compete by providing your rabbit with plenty of resources, in particular safe places to hide away and several feeding stations for both hay and pelleted food.
Second, establish consistent boundaries of behavior. Achieve this by interacting with your rabbit the way you would with a child or dog. Establish a “please and thank you” regime, or a learn-to-earn program.
Using such a program allows the rabbit to predict its interactions with you and predict the availability of resources. This reduces any anxiety, which is a major component of dominance or resource-related aggression.
For example, if you sometimes let your bunny on the sofa and sometimes do not, but give no clear signal for it to know when it is OK to be there or not, this causes anxiety and possible issues of aggression when you try to get your pet off the sofa.
Meet Rabbit Expectations
A learn-to-earn program requires the rabbit to comply with a command before it gets a resource, whether that resource is a bowl of food or jumping up on the sofa. The rules are simple, if not always so easy to remember to put into practice.
Your bunny must learn that you are “top rabbit,” without using any force or aggression. To do this, you must control all the resources important to the rabbit, such as food, toys and your attention.
Your attention is very important — rabbits are social animals and soon learn what works to get your attention. If you place little importance on giving attention to your pet, then so will your rabbit — and your place in the hierarchy slips.
Teach your rabbit some tricks, such as “sit up” or “high five.” Training rabbits is easy; after all they are intelligent creatures. An excellent method is clicker training, as used for training dogs. If you are not familiar with it, refer to books, such as Getting Started: Clicker Training With Your Rabbit by Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin.
Once you teach your rabbit a few tricks, use these commands in your learn-to-earn program for your rabbit to earn food, toys, sofa privileges and attention. These tricks are now the rabbit’s way of saying “please,” but only when you ask it to.
Rules Of The Learn-To-Earn Program
- Toys, food, the sofa and your attention belong to you, so ensure you are in control of these resources.
- Your rabbit has to say “please” in some way to ask for these resources.
- Humans start all interactions.
- Humans finish all interactions.
- Ignore all your rabbit’s attempts to start interactions or prolong interactions.
The rule about attention is the hardest to implement. Most people forget to control it, and it is often the resource that your social bunny wants most! Your attention, as with all other important resources like food, belongs to you. You must decide when to give it and when to take it away. There are no restrictions at all as to how many times you interact with your rabbit during the day —– in fact the more times the better. But you must start and finish every interaction.
If your rabbit comes to you to ask for attention, ignore it, even if it nudges you or nibbles your feet. It is nice that your rabbit comes up to say “hello,” but such behavior must be ignored in order for the bunny to learn that you are now in control.
When you first ignore a rabbit’s pleas for attention, your bunny’s response might be to try harder. After all, it previously got what it wanted from you when it wanted it.
Being ignored frustrates your rabbit, so it tries harder with its particular attention-seeking behavior, it might even employ new behaviors. This can be very difficult to ignore, but it must be for the message to get through. You might need to wear some bunny-proof shoes if your pet resorts to nipping. Once your rabbit gives up and leaves you alone, call it back, ask it to do a trick you taught it and give it lots of attention. Remember that this is not a no-attention program, but an owner-in-control-of-attention program.
So, just as with food, toys and access to the sofa, ask your rabbit to say “please” for your attention. When you call him or her to you, ask for one of the commands you taught before giving it what it wants.
Happy Days Ahead With Your Rabbit
Reward behaviors that you want, and ignore behaviors that you don’t want. Doing so makes behaviors that you want more frequent, and decreases other behaviors. Try not to respond to any aggression, find other ways to deal with it.
For example, in the case of the bunny that is aggressive over its pelleted food, temporarily scatter some on the floor to keep it occupied while you put down its bowl. Do this until the rabbit learns the new rules and its place in the group. Once it does, your pet will give you a “high five” on command in order to earn its bowl of food.
Rabbits display aggression toward people for a variety of reasons. Anxiety and fear are the cause in many cases. If your rabbit shows aggression, first take it to the veterinarian for a health check and then consider other possible reasons for its behavior. My book Why Does My Rabbit? may help. If necessary, ask your veterinarian to refer you to a behavior counselor.
Rabbits can live happily and peacefully with us if we provide an appropriate upbringing, suitable environment, and be gentle and consistent in our interactions. Remember that a rabbit is, first and foremost, a prey animal. When we respect our bunny for what it is and behave accordingly, we can look forward to many years of close companionship with one of the world’s most fascinating and cute creatures.
Excerpt from the annual magazine Rabbits USA, 2008 issue, with permission from its publisher, Lumina Media.