House Rabbit Society
Miami , FL
(305) 666- BUNN
We have to be honest with you. Rabbits cannot generally be obedience trained the way dogs can. This does not mean rabbits are stupid! On the contrary, a rabbit may understand very clearly that you are trying to get him to do something, but will simply give you a baleful stare and continue doing his business as if to say, “Yeah, I hear you. But what is in it for me?” This irritates you until a minute later, when your adorably manipulative bunny comes running for kisses and cuddles. Are rabbits intelligent? You had better believe it. Do they like to obey?
Why is a Rabbit Not Like a Dog?
Let’s compare a rabbit to a dog, that quintessential model of (potential) obedience. The ancestral dog was a cooperative pack animal. He was utterly submissive to his “alpha” dog: the chief of the pack. Humans took that characteristic and bred domestic dogs to have a very strong desire to please their new alpha, the Human Master. Most dogs have a puppy like desire to please their perceived alpha, and this is what makes them so easy to train (at least in the hands of an experienced dog trainer who understands the way a dog’s mind works).
Now consider the rabbit. The wild rabbits from whom our domestic friends are descended are indeed social creatures-but they are herbivores who have not had the evolutionary pressure to be highly cooperative. The family group lives in a series of excavated tunnels (the warren) in the earth. There is a social hierarchy, but is generally based on which rabbit is the strongest and toughest. Rabbits “cooperate” only in the sense their evolutionary programmed alarm systems benefit the entire warren. Rabbits can certainly be extremely affectionate with one another, but they also have distinct likes and dislikes of other rabbits. It is often impossible for a human to guess which rabbits will fall in love, and which ones will hate each other from the start and never learn to get along. Surprisingly, it is often easier for a rabbit to get along with a human, cat, dog, guinea pig or other animal than with an unfamiliar member of his or her own species!
Unlike dogs, rabbits have no innate desire to please an “alpha”. If the human caregiver becomes so frustrated with the apparent disobedience of the rabbit that she or he becomes physically abusive, the rabbit will begin to consider the human as an enemy, and never forget the physical punishment. Hitting a rabbit is not only dangerous to the animal (the skeleton is extremely fragile), but unproductive. The rabbit is subjected to physical punishment may become extremely aggressive, hopelessly fearful or – believe it or not – vindictive. With love and patience, the human caregiver can teach the bunny what is acceptable and what is not. The only effective way to train a rabbit away from undesirable behaviors is with positive reinforcement and very gentle negative reinforcement, such as a squirt with a water bottle and a firm “No!” when the bunny is being “naughty.”
Naughty is as Naughty Does
…Which brings us to the question, “What is “naughty” for a rabbit?” The human caregiver must accept that certain behaviors we might consider “naughty” (such as chewing furniture, digging carpet, marking with urine in a corner) are not “naughty” to the bunny, and are, in fact, extensions of the rabbit’s natural behavior. If the bunny is chewing furniture, you can dab some nail biting remedy on the problem areas – but do not forget to provide the bunny with chew toys (untreated toys, etc.) as a substitute. If the bunny is digging the carpet, and you do not have access to a safe, fenced area where the bunny can have some supervised digging time, cover the problem areas with 100% cotton bath mats and provide a large litter box full of organic litter and shredded paper or a paper grocery bag filled with fresh grass hay. If the bunny is insistent about using a particular corner for urination, even after repeated warnings and white vinegar deodorizing, give in and put a coordinated litter box in that corner.
Living with a rabbit can mean learning to compromise, but it tends to make us better, more tolerant people in the long run. We highly recommend it!