Certain words used in this article need to be explained in order to increase communication between reader and writer:
- Those who share a home and consciously interact with each other (a “family”). Companions do not “own” each other (a false notion encouraged by words often paired together such as “pet” and “owner”). “Ownership” is a position of a living being with respect to an inanimate object. Companions usually enjoy mutual benefits of their relationship, but not always at the same time, or to the same degree.
- Caretaking is a role played by one companion with respect to another, primarily for the benefit of the other. Any companion can be a caretaker of any other in some respects, but in this article, the term will be used to refer to companion (human)s who have accepted companion (animal)s into their family, thereby incurring responsibility for them. The scope of that responsibility is based on the relative abilities and needs of each, especially in those areas where breeding and human control have taken the ability of independent survival from a species.
- An activity in which a companion (human) seeks to understand the needs of companion (animal)s in the home, and interacts with them in a manner that makes it possible for all of them to live in harmony with each other with everyone’s’ needs met.
- Recognition that companions of any species are entitled to be what they are, without coercion from other species, and that decisions that can only be made by one on behalf of another impinge on future decisions of that one (e.g., an animal would not choose to leave a family after being part of it, so respect requires one who has brought an animal into the family, to maintain its relationship within the family throughout its life).
Basics of rabbit behavior
It is easier to train rabbits if you understand that their behavior is usually motivated by one of three things:
- their natural need and inclination to chew and dig;
- their need to communicate and our tendency to require words for understanding communications; and
- the social structure as seen by rabbits, in which all members of the family relate to them by way of a pecking (nipping?) order.
Age and behavior
Young rabbits have more energy, more need to explore, and (hopefully) less training than older rabbits have. Like puppies, bunnies love to chew. Like older dogs, rabbits may still enjoy chewing, but not to the extent they did when young. Rabbits chew to wear down their teeth, which grow continuously, but they chew non-food items because they need to explore the world through taste and texture, they need to build strong jaw muscles, and just because it’s fun. Perhaps older rabbits chew less because they know the taste and texture of the world and need only food to keep their teeth worn-down and their jaws strong. In any case, time is on your side when it comes to a rabbit’s inclination to chew your great-aunt’s antique buffet. On the other hand, training does not happen by itself or simply with time.
For the companions in a family to live in harmony, a companion (human) must be committed to giving time and effort to the companion (animals) of the family. If you aren’t able or willing to commit to a minimum of 30 minutes a day of concentrated training, until the desired results have been achieved, you shouldn’t bring companion (animal)s into your home.
Rabbits should have a home of their own (in the past, called a “cage”) within the family home, large enough for a litter box, food dishes, toys, and them. They should be able to stretch full-length in all directions. Ideally, a “shelf” or “loft” is provided to give opportunity for vertical jumps. With such a home, and hopefully, with companionship of another rabbit, rabbits can be kept in their homes full time except for times of supervised outdoor romps and the 30 minutes (or more) of training they should have daily. In addition to restricting the time in which they are out to those times when you can watch them with your full attention, you want to restrict the space they have access to. As they become well-trained within a restricted area, you can gradually increase their boundaries.
Finally, NEVER, EVER attempt to use training alone to keep a rabbit from something that can cause harm or death. Toxic house plants and electrical wires should be impossible for a rabbit to reach (see article on rabbit-proofing). Counting on training or “the way she’s always behaved” with respect to such things is asking for an accident that could leave you deeply grief- stricken and your rabbit in terrible pain or even dead.
Chewing and digging
During the training time, do nothing but concentrate on the rabbit. Open the door to her home and let her (or them) come out when she chooses. You may offer toys or treats from your hand, but don’t interfere with her if she wants to explore. And watch her carefully throughout the time she is out of her cage. If the rabbit starts to chew on something you don’t want chewed, immediately offer him as many other things that are okay to chew on as you can. Block whatever he was chewing on so it ceases to be a temptation (block it well, so you aren’t simply challenging the rabbit to break through).
If possible, provide something with a similar (or better) taste and texture to what is being chewed. For example, a piece of untreated, unfinished baseboard (screwed into something so it doesn’t move) instead of the real baseboard; or a piece of scrap carpet instead of the real carpet (as long as the rabbit isn’t ingesting the pieces he pulls out); or a piece of apple branch instead of chair legs.
The same thing applies to digging. If the rabbit loves to dig in the carpet, build a small “corner” or “tunnel” with carpeting on the bottom (frequently replaced) and give this to him to distract him. Or make a digging box by blocking the end-opening of a covered litter box and cutting a hole in the side. The rabbit will go in, turn so her body runs the length of the box (providing she is large enough that her body doesn’t fit cross- wise). The digging material will be flung against the sealed end of the litter box and remain contained. Use something totally dust-free and safe in the digging box (see the litter faq). Rabbits, being the incredibly intelligent little creatures that they are, quickly learn.
Communicating without words
Rabbits need to communicate with their companion (human)s, but of course, their communication is without words. One obvious example of such communication is struggling when they are picked up. This is simply (and obviously) saying “I don’t like being picked up! Put me down! PLEASE put me down! I don’t feel safe when you take control of my body this way!” There are few instances where it is appropriate for companion (human)s to force their will on a companion of another species in this way. Obviously, if a rabbit’s teeth must be examined or clipped because of malocclusion, it is necessary to hold her against her will. But it is inexcusable for companions of one species to force their wills on those of another just to satisfy their own desires.
If you want a rabbit who enjoys jumping on your lap and being stroked, teach him to trust you, by never grabbing or holding him against his will when he comes to you. Use treats, nose-to-nose-touching, chin-rubbing (your chin on the rabbit’s face), rubbing around the ears, etc.–whatever he enjoys–to encourage his pleasure in being with you. And if he happens not to enjoy such activities, so be it. Respect and enjoy him for who he is. After all, you want the same for yourself.
A rabbit who enjoys sitting on your lap and being stroked may nip you sharply if you get distracted enough to stop stroking her. She isn’t trying to hurt you, just to remind you that she expects you to get back to the job at hand. When a rabbit nips in an effort to communicate appropriately such as in this case (inappropriate nipping will be discussed later), he probably doesn’t realize how painful it is nor how severe the resulting bruise may be. SCREECH one high, loud, sudden, and short screech to let the rabbit know that he really hurt you. The squeal should be loud, sudden, and high enough to startle the rabbit slightly. The next time he nips (appropriately–i.e., for the purpose of communicating), you will be surprised at how much gentler it will be. Continue to squeal when nipped, however, until the nip is gentle enough to cause no pain or bruising. (Note: use ice on the bruise quickly.)
Behavior motivated by social structure
Finally, we come to behavior motivated by the fact that any rabbit wants to be top-rabbit. Such behaviors have nothing to do with the chewing, digging, litter training, or nipping discussed above, but they can be confused with some of these. Throughout this discussion, keep in mind that your goal is to convince your companion (rabbit) that you are top-rabbit. This is not the same thing as forcing your will on him in a manner that ignores his needs and desires. Rather, it is an important part of establishing a normal companion-companion relationship that will meet his needs as well as yours (he will be quite content accepting you as top-rabbit and himself as subdominant to you, once he sees you as naturally dominant). It even makes it possible for you to carry out your full function as his caretaker.
If a rabbit jumps onto the couch where you are sitting and nips you deliberately, she is probably trying to take the couch for her own. (This is “inappropriate nipping.”) Not only should you screech, but you should firmly (though gently), return her to the floor with a sharp “No!” If she jumps back up and doesn’t nip you, she’s learned that she can share the couch, but not drive you off. If she jumps back up and nips again, you repeat the screech, the “No!” and the return to the floor. If she comes back a third time with a nip, it is time for her to “go to her room” (i.e., she needs to be herded back to her “cage” for a two-minute time-out). If she throws a temper tantrum in the cage, shaking the “bars” and flinging herself around, ignore her. After she’s quiet again, she can come out. If she continues to try to force you from your seat, however, she may need to stay in her room (cage) until the next time she would normally be allowed out. This same general method applies whenever a rabbit attempts to dominate you. He will be much happier when he learns that his companion (human)s are top-rabbits and he isn’t.
Another behavior related to this attempt to dominate companion (human)s is the most unwelcome one of urinating on the piece of furniture where you often sit, or on your bed. This is the equivalent of one rabbit urinating in another rabbit’s cage. The victim may accept the insult, agreeing to the dominance of the aggressor, or he may decide to fight it out. Neither of these is appropriate for a human. You can close the door to your bedroom, controlling his access to the bed (you’re dominant). But it may not be so simple to close off a chair or couch in the family room you share with your companions. The most effective means I have found to declare the dominance of the companion (human) over the companion (rabbit) in this situation is to set “Snappy Trainers” (safe, mouse-trap like contraptions that can be found in “pet stores,” each with a plastic fan blade that causes it to fly into the air when bumped) along the edge of the seat. The rabbit jumps onto the seat, the Snappy Trainers fly into the air, and a startled rabbit never tries to go on that piece of furniture again. The companion (human) has control of her chair.
Training a companion (rabbit) requires commitment of time, effort, and thought on the part of the rabbit’s companion (human). It isn’t just teaching the word “No!” (which will only teach the rabbit to wait until the human isn’t looking). It’s learning to understand the rabbit’s likes and dislikes, working to provide things he really enjoys, thinking up new possibilities when old toys become boring, and making the effort to switch toys regularly to maintain interest.
Enjoy your companion (rabbit)s to the fullest! Train them well and carefully, love them with all your heart, appreciate them for who and what they are, and both of you will experience the great pleasure of sharing your lives with each other in harmony.
Primary Author(s): Nancy LaRoche
Sources: HRH, various articles from the HRJ
Last Modified: 3/3/96