Everything we do at House Rabbit Society must pass a simple test: the rabbit comes first. We adapt ourselves and our environment to meet their needs, because we love and respect them-and because the reverse ethic prevails out in the wide world. Our rabbits don’t have to earn their keep by popping out of a magician’s hat, or sitting on our laps. They have only to be themselves, cranky or affectionate, lively or spud-like. As the authors emphasize, training should be enjoyable, a fun way to spend quality time together. -Amy Espie
Please take a bite of parsley, please,” I cooed and wiggled the parsley enticingly under Vern’s nose. Vern was not having it. He huddled miserably in his litter box. He was sliding into GI stasis on a Saturday night. Not a vet in sight. Then I thought, “Vern is clicker trained! He is trained to touch my hand, get a click and eat; can I get him to eat that way tonight?” I held out my hand, Vern touched it; I clicked and held out the parsley. He ate it! Thanks to the clicker, Vern ate that night and the next morning. After that he was fine.
Welcome to the wonderful world of clicker training. Rooted in behavior modification, Clicker Training says: If a behavior has a good result, Thumper will do it again. With a clicker, and rewards, you can train many bunnies to do anything of which they are physically able. Health behaviors like peeing on cue for a disabled bunny. Substitute a more desired behavior for another: bow for a pet instead of pouncing or biting. The best part is that many bunnies love to do it.
This is how clicker training works.
If a behavior gets Daisy something she wants, she will try it again. The challenge is to tell your bunny: “Yes, exactly that behavior is the one we want! ” If she sits up, her front feet will be back on the floor before you can feed her a treat. If she thinks, “Wow, I get a treat for having my front feet on the floor,” those feet are there for a long time. The click communicates the precise behavior that earns the reward. How cool is that? You make a click using a clicker, a ballpoint pen or even your tongue.
In clicker training the rabbit decides what the rewards are. Rewards include food, petting, freedom, home, companions, or access to favorite spots. Experiment. Offer Bunny a plate with different foods, and use the food he eats first. Sometimes your bunny will refuse a treat and look at you expectantly. He is asking for something different, and awaiting your reply. Isn’t communication great!
Start before a meal with 15 bunny-bite sized treats. Rabbit pellets can work, as can bite-sized pieces of vegetables. Feed one treat and as they chew, click once. When they stop chewing, feed another bite and click. Feed and click until the treats are gone. Stop.
Bunny links the sound of the click to food. As you train, the response becomes stronger. The click says food is coming. The two of you can use this one piece of information to start some very interesting conversations. Wait a while, and prepare 15 treats. The smaller the treat, the faster the training. Fast training keeps both you and your bunny interested. Deliver the treat within 5 seconds of the click. This should be entertainment for the bunny, not work. Make sure it is fun, fast paced and very rewarding.
Start by teaching Thumper to touch a target like a jingle bell on a stick. With your treats close by, hold your target within one inch of Thumper’s nose. The second he starts to turn his head to look, click and treat. Keep the target very close to his head and repeat this sequence 15 times. Move the target to the left, to the right, above and below his head. Each time he turns to look, click and treat. Your goal is to get him to touch the target. The first time he touches the target, click and give him 6 treats very fast. JACKPOT! Stop before he gets bored.
Several times a day for 15 treats, practice targeting. Gradually move your target farther away. He needs to touch the target and earn his reward 85% of the time. If he is not, you have moved the target too far and should shorten the distance. Soon he will follow the target in an effort to touch it.
Gradually raise the standard for earning a click and treat. Delay the click one extra second for a longer sit. Ask for two behaviors before you click and treat. As Thumper’s skill increases he will enjoy having the challenge increase. If he doesn’t, return to the level where he last enjoyed this game. Delaying the click a smidge or asking for more than one behavior also rewards persistence.
Add verbal cues. Say “sit” and using the target have the bunny sit up; click and treat. Use this word only when you have the rabbit sit up. Do not use it for other behaviors. Be ready to click even if the bunny stretches upwards. Gradually delay offering the target after the verbal cue. Eventually, he may sit up at the word “sit” and you can begin to use the target less.
Why tricks you ask? You and your bunny want to learn what to expect while practicing with fun, easy behaviors. The tricks set you up for success when you are ready to solve or prevent behavior problems.
Once your bunny and you are clicker-wise, use the click to capture a behavior. If your bunny is doing the Indy Five Hundred around your feet, reward him for staying in a safe place. Click and reward whenever he comes close to the spot you selected. Gradually reduce the area where rewards are earned. Add a verbal cue. Lewin taught her bunnies to “wait” on a special blanket by clicking them every time they wandered onto the blanket. Now all her bunnies are “portable” since they have learned their blanket is a safe and special place to be!
In the most loving way we impose human behaviors (holding and lifting) on our rabbits, bearing in mind that from their viewpoint, being reached for and then lifted off the ground means the hawk or raccoon has you in his grasp and is about to make you his supper. Clicker training can help our bunnies feel less stressed during routine handling such as vet exam and nail trim.
Visit clickerbunny.com to find out more.
By Teresa Lewin, Andrea Bratt Frick and Jean Silva
House Rabbit Journal Fall 2005/Winter 2006: Volume IV, Number 12