People get rabbits all the time, expecting them to be cute little creatures that will be easy to take care of. In fact, that’s somewhat true, as long as you have food, water, and much love for your bunny friend. But, there are other common misconceptions about these big-eared wonders. For starters, some people will get a rabbit that they think will be great for running around the house, and then end up stuffing it in its cage all day ever day, because the rabbit began to scratch, chew, or use the whole floor as its litter box. Well, people should know that when they’re getting a bunny for the first time, that it’s not going to be like a dog or a cat. But can you at least train your rabbit? Of course! However, it’s important to note, that there are many differences between training Flopsy, verses training Rover or Fluffy.
From the Wild to Your House
From hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans have been domesticating all sorts of animals. One of the first was our loyal companions today, the dog, which had come into humans’ lives as a domesticated creature an estimated 13,000 to 30,000 years prior to this day. Why do I bring the dog up? It’s probably the easiest animal to compare the rabbit to when it comes to training techniques and obedience tips.
To state the obvious, because dogs originally came from wolves, who hunted and survived in close-knit families, they are going to be a lot easier to give certain commands to than a rabbit. Today, dogs are forever consumed in an everlasting puppy-hood where they strive to please their owners, or the alpha member of the family (that would be the human if they know what they’re doing).
A rabbit on the other hand, is not like that at all. In the wild, rabbits are social creatures, living not in packs, but in herds. Yes, it’s considered a herd of rabbits. Their natural home is a series of underground burrows that normally link up to one another, which is called a warren. Even though there is a basic pecking order or hierarchy among wild rabbits (one that is generally, and simply based on the individual’s power and size), they don’t have to work together the way wolves did and still do today. Instead of hunting, they eat grass and vegetables, and live by the simple rule of “whoever gets caught, dies.” Besides some sharp claws (they use these normally to dig and as weapons only among other aggressive rabbits), their only real defense is their powerful legs to help them flee swiftly from predators. It’s a basic strategy, one that calls for no security from the most dominant rabbits, and so in the end, their domesticated cousins don’t feel the same urge to please their own human family.
Timeouts and Physical Punishment
Some people will lock up their rabbits if they notice bad behavior. Unfortunately, horrible things can happen by simply keeping your pet locked up in its cage. It can get depressed, aggressive, and to put it bluntly, bored. Who would want to stay in a two by three foot cage all day? But for the human’s sake, no one wants a chewed up carpet either. So there must be a way to train the rabbit effectively.
First off, training can be easy, if you know what to do. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t. There are some who will even hit their rabbits. But delivering physical punishment is the absolute wrong thing to do. It can not only injure the rabbit, but you will indeed create an animal who will not soon forget what you did to them. Yes, even rabbits hold grudges. The abused bunny will become standoffish, or even aggressive, and they certainly will never trust someone who hits them, and many times this results in a fear of all humans. On top of that, hitting a rabbit is just simply, not going to work. They’ll still chew and dig, etc. Luckily there are ways you can still get the point across without physical punishment or locking your furry friend up all day and night.
Deciphering What Needs to Change and How
You need to find what behaviors your rabbit still needs to preform to function right. Unfortunately, chewing, digging, and going to the bathroom are all behaviors that they need to continue to do, in order to live a long and happy life. So, pretty much everything they do now, they’re always going to have to do.
But what happens when you see Flopsy chewing on a power-cord? Well, he still needs to chew, but certainly not on a dangerous, and possibly expensive wire. There are numerous ways to change this behavior. The main thing, is to first make the behavior of chewing on the cord, undesirable, while making chewing on something else, more desirable. Here’s a hint: don’t wait until Flopsy gets electrocuted. There are wire protectors you can get to place over cords, and if you don’t want to fork up the mullah for that, you can always get a cheap spray bottle and give them a quick dowse (obviously avoiding the face and ears, oh, and the wire!), while commanding a stern “No.” Because rabbits have the ability to understand some short words and commands, they’ll associate the tone of your voice and the word “No” with the unpleasant response of getting sprayed. If in the rare case that Flopsy still doesn’t get it after several sprays, either invest in those wire protectors or move the cords out of the way. Or you can move the rabbit to a room without cords or other such dangers.
Your rabbit will also want to chew other things, like the furniture, and the carpet. Why? Because they are an animal that has to chew. Their teeth are constantly growing, so yes, Flopsy will need to chomp his teeth into something. This is where making something else more desirable than getting sprayed every time he goes near your power-cord comes in. There are many chew toys that are sold at pet stores and grocery stores for rabbits, but you can also get macaw-approved chew toys as well. Simply enough, and more wallet friendly, there are also items found around the house or yard that will do the job: clean cardboard (no staples), baskets, toilet paper rolls, pine cones, sticks, etc.
The same rules apply to other behavior that might be desirable for the rabbit, but is certainly not desirable to its human caretakers. Digging will definitely be a factor. Rabbits will not only for dens, but to dull their nails. It’s best to learn how to correctly clip your bunny’s nails, while spraying them every time they decide they’d rather try and make a burrow out of your floor. You can also make it undesirable to dig by putting down white vinegar on the rug. The rabbit can still dig in its cage, and if you can do so, put a pen or a chicken wire enclosure outside so that you can take your bunny out for supervised play-dates with Mother Nature. If you don’t have a yard, you can put up a fenced area in your house while laying down bath mats made out of 100% cotton.
Potty training is another factor. Obviously you can’t stop a rabbit from going to the bathroom, but you can always put down a litter box for them. Because bunnies are natural den animals, they will normally choose their own special place to go. Just put down an easily accessible box in the corner filled with a combination of shredded newspaper and litter or sawdust. It might take a couple firm commands and sprays at first, but they’ll eventually get it. Make sure not to throw any scat they leave around the house away before they know where to potty at; instead, put it in the litter box. If you do this, then soon enough your rabbit will think something along the lines of, “Hey, my ‘business’ is already piled up in that corner, so I should always just go there.”
Living with rabbits is a wonderful experience. Some people just don’t realize what they’re getting when they pick one out from the store or shelter, and assume that they will be easy like a cat, or trainable like a dog. Though they are trainable, they are much different than other house animals, and it takes the right behavior from the human first, to make the rabbit preform the right behavior.
University of Miami: Department of Biology: Dana Krempels (www.bio.miami.edu)