Training a rabbit
Rabbits learn exceptionally well with positive reinforcement based training. This can include methods such as clicker training and lure/reward training. In both cases, the rabbit will receive a reward, usually a small food reward for completing good behavior. Owners can teach their bunnies interesting and complex behaviors for fun ("tricks") but also teach them things such as accepting nail clipping, grooming, handling, and management behaviors such as going home on cue or coming when called.
- Bunnies start to view their owners as the source of good things instead of the "enforcer" or a scary person that puts an end to their fun.
- Increases your bunnies confidence around their owners and makes them less shy.
- Good management behaviors such as going home with cues or coming when called decreases the need to chase down and catch a bunny (which can make them less accepting of handling).
For clicker training, all you need are the following:
- A rabbit to train.
- A clicker. We would suggest using a quieter clicker such as the i-Click Clicker or the Trixie Soft Clicker for Clicker Training so that the noise will not startle your rabbit.
- Bag of treats. These treats should be in very small pieces so that you can feed many of them in one session. Pellets and small pieces of carrot or celery are easy to have on hand.
A clicker is not completely necessary since you can also train your rabbit to respond to a verbal cue such as "Yes!" However, humans tend not to be consistent with their verbal cues like a mechanical sound with tone and inflection. Consistency is key when clicker training. Flicking the clip of a pen cap or clicking your tongue against the roof of your mouth would also work.
A book devoted to the subject that you can also buy is Getting Started: Clicking with Your Rabbit by Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin.
For luring, no clicker is needed. However, you may need to be more creative with teaching the rabbit tricks as it will be more imprecise at marking what specific behavior you are asking from your rabbit.
Clicker training with a rabbit is rather straightforward. The clicker is used to mark the specific behavior that you wish your rabbit to repeat. You must treat your rabbit with food or another tangible reward such as toys and attention every time you click to insure that your rabbit will associate the click with something desirable and want to work with you. Do not use the clicker to grab a rabbit's attention; that is not the purpose of a clicker.
Most rabbits will learn to play along happily when using pellets or small pieces of carrot or celery as a treat. Identify the best reward for your rabbit by seeing what makes it happy. For food rewards, mix multiple types of food in a small bowl and see what your rabbit picks out to eat first. The best treats to use are small in size and can be consumed quickly. Make sure that your treats are "good" and insure that it is more interesting to the rabbit than any distractions in the vicinity. Use a variety of treats to keep it interesting and use "jackpots" of larger or special treats to reward especially good performance. Be sure that your rabbit is healthy and has free access to hay and water at all times.
To start clicker training, reward any sort of movement with a click and an immediate treat. Treats should be fed within 5 seconds of the click. However, if your rabbit is hesitant at accepting food from your hand, place the treat on the floor near you first. Click immediately when you see the rabbit pick up the treat to eat. Eventually, focus on one specific action such as lifting a paw to click and treat. Your rabbit will quickly learn to repeat this behavior to get a click.
Once a rabbit has been reliably offering a specific behavior to earn your click, a cue can be added at the same time the behavior is happening. This can be a hand gesture, a word, an object, or anything that a rabbit can discriminate. Then, when offering the cue can reliably result in your rabbit doing the expected behavior, the clicker can slowly be faded out by using it less frequently yet still every once in a while to keep the behavior strong.
Do not rush to complete each step of learning a trick. The longer you reinforce a trick with a click and treat, the more likely the rabbit will remember and repeat it. If a rabbit seems to have forgotten an old trick, start over from the beginning, and the trick will be back in your rabbit's repertoire usually more quickly than the first time.
Rabbits who are advanced at the clicker game will learn to offer behaviors to earn a click and treat. You can also work at shaping behaviors with your rabbit where you incrementally develop a behavior one step at a time. Clicker training can be used slowly raise the criteria of a trick to earn a treat. For instance, if you would like your rabbit to beg, first reward for any feet off the ground and then only reward for both paws off the ground. The key to shaping is ignoring any behavior that you don't want and only reward the behaviors that are close to what you want. If the rabbit is not meeting your criteria to earn a click when it gets more specific, don't hesitate to go back a step and reward for something easier. If your rabbit makes too many mistakes and doesn't earn a treat, he will likely get frustrated and not want to play anymore.
Keep training sessions to 5 minutes or shorter to insure that you keep your rabbit's attention, and try to end each session on a high note. If that is not possible, quit while you are ahead.
Below are some links with more information on how to clicker train your rabbit to do specific tricks.
- Joan Orr, Train Your Bunny to Sit in an Easter Basket
- Joan Orr, Training Your Rabbit to Jump on Cue
Here are some video links to other interesting tricks you can try to train.
- ClickFlicks, Rabbit Agility
- Stand a little bit away from your rabbit. Kneel down and say "NAME, come!" If the rabbit makes any motion to move towards you, click. Treat when they get to you.
- Move and repeat. Move further and further away as your rabbit gets better at responding to the call. Try going around corners and hiding behind furniture.
- Slowly fade out treats and clicks so that you will only need to say the command to have your rabbit check in with you from where it is.
Rabbits can be taught to follow or touch a target for a treat. This target can be used to shape other more complex behaviors such as jumping over an object. You can use your palm as a target or an object such as a target stick, ping pong ball at the end of a chopstick, a margarine container lid, or anything else that is large enough for a rabbit to easily see and touch. Remember that rabbits have a 10 degree blind spot in front of their nose so make sure you use a target that is larger than that.
- Hold out the target. Click for any attention given to the target, whether it be a head movement, nosing, bumping, or licking. Give a treat after the click. Repeat multiple times by moving the target around close to the rabbit's face.
- Move the target in various positions around the head -- to the left, right, above, and below. Click and treat for any touches to the target.
- Hold the target further away from the rabbit and reward for hopping towards it. Click after the rabbit has started hopping to enforce the movement as what you are expecting.
- See if you can get the rabbit to reach for the target in various positions such as high above his head or on the ground. Make sure to build the behavior in small steps to make it easy to earn a treat. Remember to keep sessions short to under 5 minutes to keep the rabbit interested in playing.
- When your rabbit is eagerly following the target around, make the criteria harder and harder. Only reward for nose touches to the target and not the side of the face or a paw. Ask for two or three touches before clicking. Move the target around for a longer period of time and click if he takes multiple steps.
- Hold a treat above their head. Click immediately once they raise their front paws off the ground and treat.
- Slowly raise expectations, and don't click until they're begging completely upright.
- Once they beg reliably with a hand cue without a treat, start adding in your verbal cue "beg." Say "NAME, beg!" then give the hand cue. Click and reward once they're begging upright.
- Slowly fade out the hand signal and give only the verbal cue. Click and reward for success. Eventually, you can also fade out the clicker.
Below are videos demonstrating a couple behaviors that clicker training can be used to shape.
See Walking a rabbit for more information on how to train your rabbit to a harness and leash.
- Clicker Bunny, Karen Pryor, Clicker Training
- A sample of Getting Started: Clicking with Your Rabbit
- Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin, Clicker Training Your Rabbit
- Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin, Clicker Training for Small Pets
- Joan Orr, What? Train a Rabbit?
- Karen Pryor, Clicker Trained Bunnies Gain Confidence
- House Rabbit Society, Teresa Lewin, Andrea Bratt Frick and Jean Silva, Have You Clicked Your Bunny Today? Clicker training to address behavior problems
- House Rabbit Network, Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin, Clicker Training Your Rabbit
- Rabbit Advocates, The Rabbit Advocate, Summer 2014
- BUNS, Heidi Greer, Tricks are for Rabbits: How to Clicker-Train Your Bunny
- Instructables, How to teach your bunny simple tricks!
- Eve Alexander, Interview: Andrea Bratt Frick about clicker training rabbits
- BUNS, Andrea Bratt Frick and Jean Silva, Taming Shy or Feral Rabbits Using Clicker Training
- Silicon Valley Humane Society, Intro To Clicker/Bridge Training
Here are some anecdotes about clicker training rabbits.
- Best Friends, Clicking for carrots and love
- afFURmation, Melissa Jolene Viera, Helping Rabbits Build Confidence with Clicker Training