Train Your Rabbit The Positive Way

Reinforcing your rabbit’s behavior with gentle methods can put your pet on the fast track to learning.

Most rabbit enthusiasts enjoy the adorable antics of their furry friend, but few have tapped into their rabbit’s full potential. Rabbits are learning machines; with the right instruction they can learn to present a vast array of behaviors. Positive reinforcement training is the ideal tool for training rabbits. It is based in kind and gentle methods that teach your pet learning is fun. Furthermore, because it focuses on trust-building approaches, it greatly enhances the relationship between you and your rabbit. You aren’t just training cute tricks; you are bonding with your bunny.


Positive Reinforcement
Reinforcement means to increase behavior. This means trying to get a behavior to happen more frequently. An example of a behavior you may want to happen often is for your rabbit to climb into your lap or run over to see you when you call its name. 

Positive reinforcement means adding something to the environment the moment your rabbit does the desired behavior. This may mean he gets a treat, ear massage or access to a favorite toy. What happens is your pet quickly learns his actions just earned him desired consequences. This makes it more likely your rabbit will do the behavior again and again.

In other words, whenever your animal does something you like, something good is going to happen. If your rabbit comes to you when you call him, offer your pet his favorite treat. Your rabbit will learn there is value in coming to you when you call his name and will likely recall again when the opportunity arises.

Shaping With Approximations
Many times your rabbit won’t present the behavior you want automatically, so break it down into small steps or approximations that you can reinforce. For example, to get your rabbit started on retrieving a toy, first reinforce him for walking up to the toy, and then for sniffing it, and then for touching it with his mouth, followed by moving it slightly, and then for picking the object up in his mouth. When you break it down into steps it makes it easy for your pet to succeed and stay interested in training.

Capturing Behavior
Behaviors can also be trained by capturing them. Instead of breaking an action down into small steps, observe your pet and wait for the moment he presents the behavior you want. For example, if you like it when your bunny sits up on his hind legs, whenever he does this action on his own, reinforce it. Soon your rabbit will start offering this behavior in order to earn a treat or reward. Once you observe this happening you can predict when you think your rabbit might offer the behavior and insert a cue just before it happens. By pairing the cue with the action followed by the reinforcer your pet can learn to present the behavior when requested.

Bridge Or Event Marker
An important goal when training your rabbit is to get the treat or other reinforcer to your pet as soon as he does what you want. The better your timing is the faster your rabbit will learn. Sometimes pets move really fast and sometimes they do good behaviors and are far away from you. In those moments you can’t get the reinforcer to the animal the moment the behavior happens. These are great moments to use a bridge.

A bridge is a sound or signal your rabbit can learn that means he just did exactly what you wanted and here comes a treat or other reinforcer. If your animal is far away, a bridge gives you a few seconds to get the treat to him. If your animal is moving fast, it helps communicate which behavior of the many he may present was the one you wish to reinforce. Some people like to use a clicker or whistle as a bridge. Some like to use the word “good.” 

If you are careful to reinforce in direct conjunction with the behavior, the bridge is not necessary. Once your rabbit understands what you are reinforcing, you can phase out the bridge. However do not phase out the reinforcer. That is the real power tool of training.

Reinforcers for training are anything your rabbit enjoys and seeks to acquire. This can include different food treats, toys, attention, access to other people, or pet friends and more. Each animal is an individual, so you need to assess your pet’s interest in different reinforcers. Once your rabbit’s favorite things are identified, make them super powerful by saving them for training and rewarding good behavior.

Start A Behavior 
When you first start to train a new behavior, it is sometimes difficult to visualize how you will get the first action started so you can reinforce and start teaching your rabbit what you want him to do. Here are a few things you can try.
1. Show the reinforcer: Sometimes showing your rabbit what you have will get a response. If he sees or smells his favorite treat, he might take a step toward you. This could be your first approximation to reinforce. Over time, phase out showing the reinforcer so your rabbit doesn’t learn to rely on seeing the treat.
2. Use a target: Targeting involves teaching your rabbit to orient a body part toward a designated object. For small mammals this is usually their nose oriented toward a ball on the end of a stick. Your pet can quickly learn that putting his nose to the target earns him a treat. Pretty soon, he will follow the target wherever it is. This is a great way to get your rabbit to move in the direction you want without having to pick him up.
3. Apply free shaping: This method takes good observational skills. Instead of prompting your rabbit to present some action using treats or targets, you just wait and watch. The moment your rabbit presents the tiniest approximation toward your goal behavior, bridge and reinforce it. This method can take some practice, but it does teach your pet to think about what he is doing that earns him reinforcers. If you apply this technique well, your rabbit will offer many behaviors in hopes of earning a reward.
4. Create the action: Sometimes rabbits present desired behavior when doing something else. For example, if your bunny knows how to sit up on his hind legs on cue and you place your open palm near his front feet, he might rest his paws on your hand for balance. You can then reinforce this action. This is an easy way to train your bunny to “give you 10.” You create the action using another behavior and strategic placement of your hands.

rabbit by ball
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Publishing
Shape a behavior by reinforcing it when your rabbit performs it naturally.

Training Sessions
Training sessions with rabbits can be short. Usually five to 10 minutes is sufficient. Smaller animals tend to satiate on the treats quickly. 

Try several short sessions a day to keep the momentum going. If you can’t train every day, that’s OK. Your rabbit will still learn. It will just take a little longer to reach your training goal.

Try to time your sessions for when your rabbit is most active. Many small mammals are more active in the morning or evening. Some are most active after the sun goes down. Some rabbits are also very fast moving. This means your session will go very quickly. This is usually ideal for people who only have a few minutes a day to train.

When your rabbit is learning a new behavior your training sessions will be very helpful. Once the behavior is learned, however, you no longer need to practice the behavior in a training session. Just be sure to ask for it on occasion and reward your rabbit to maintain the behavior.

Training Treats
Many rabbits enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables. You can use apple, banana, carrot, fresh cilantro, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and greens. Use the smallest training treat your bunny will accept. This will allow for more repetitions before your rabbit gets full. 

Limit how many treats you use for training, especially treats that are sweet or high in fat. Rabbits can be very susceptible to gastrointestinal disorders. This can be a life-threatening problem if not treated right away. Too many treats could lead to digestive problems. Keep an eye on your rabbit’s droppings when you first start a training program to make sure there is no evidence of diarrhea.

Targeting is the first behavior to train when getting started with an animal. When you train an animal to target, you teach him to orient a body part toward something. Most animals tend to target with the body part they use to explore the world. For most mammals this tends to be their nose. 

Some rabbits will immediately sniff a target out of curiosity. If your rabbit does this, bridge and reinforce the behavior right away. Some rabbits might be frightened of the target or just indifferent. Try rubbing some banana on the target. This often causes a bunny to come over and investigate.

Every time your bunny touches the target, reinforce him with a treat. This teaches your rabbit that it is important to touch the target. Once your rabbit has the idea, move the target short distances and your rabbit will go to the target. At first pick a specific distance for your bunny to travel to get to the target. In the beginning this won’t be very far. For each repetition, move the target to another location and wait for your rabbit to approach the target. Once your rabbit seems to understand the process, add more distance. Eventually you will be able to move the target and your rabbit will follow. This can then be used to train other behaviors.

Once your rabbit knows how to target, use targeting to teach your rabbit to recall. Tap the target on the ground as a cue for a rabbit to come. The movement and the sound provide a visual and audio cue for your rabbit. If your rabbit responds to the tapping by coming over to touch the target, offer him a treat. Start with short distances. Over time you can increase the distance your rabbit must travel to get to the target.

If your rabbit does not respond to your cue right away, do not continue tapping. Wait until you think your rabbit will likely respond and then cue. This will create the situation in which you will be pairing quick response to the cue with the action of coming to you and getting reinforced. This is how you train a strong recall. 

Jumping Over Hurdles
Your target can be used to train other behavior, such as jumping over hurdles. Use your target to prompt your bunny to approach the hurdle and eventually jump over it. One strategy that can be helpful is to place your hurdle so that one side is against a wall. This helps make it more likely your rabbit will go over the jump rather than around it. This gives you the opportunity to reinforce the action you desire. Once your bunny has enough repetition of being reinforced for jumping over the hurdle, move the hurdle away from the wall and your rabbit will likely go over the jump without the need for a barrier on one side. 

Once your rabbit understands the concept, add a second hurdle. Put sufficient distance in between your jumps. Your rabbit needs enough space to extend his body to clear the hurdles and prepare for the next leap. Your goal is to make it super easy for your rabbit to do the behaviors, so he will be eager to participate.

Agility Training And Back Chaining
Once you understand the basics of training with positive reinforcement, you will find your rabbit is capable of amazing things, including agility. My own Holland lop rabbit has been trained to run a seven-prop agility course. You can see video of her demonstrating her skills at my BunnyTraining website. 

To start training your rabbit for agility, use your target to train your bunny to interact with each element in your agility course separately. This may include walking over a teeter-totter, going through a tunnel and climbing over an A-frame. Once each prop is mastered, link the behaviors together to train your rabbit to run the entire course. Do this using a strategy called back chaining. When you back chain a series of behaviors you train the behavior backwards. In other words, you start with the final behavior of the behavior chain and then add each behavior that precedes it.

When you chain behaviors together, the animal is offered the reinforcer after the last behavior in the chain is presented. The idea is that the opportunity to do the next behavior in the chain has reinforcing value because it leads to the final behavior.

Because agility training involves more steps it can take time to train. However many behaviors can be trained in one session. This includes behaviors such as targeting, recalling, jumping hurdles, spinning in a circle, standing on hind legs and more. 

Next time you spend quality time with your rabbit, try training a new behavior. It is thrilling to watch your pet have his “light bulb” moment when he understands what you are trying to teach him. You’ll discover positive reinforcement training is a wonderful new way for you to have fun with your rabbit. 

This article originally appeared in the Rabbits USA 2012 annual magazine.  

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