Most people don't think of rabbits when it comes to training because they don't think it's possible. However, if you understand how animals learn, you can train any species to do lots of fun and useful behaviors. Believe it or not, training a rabbit is similar to training your dog or cat. You can even train a rabbit to use a litterbox, which makes cleaning up after them much easier!
Training a Rabbit
The key to training a rabbit involves understanding what motivates your rabbit and how to "mark" their behaviors so they know they did something right. This can be accomplished by using some form of positive reinforcement training. Essentially, the behavior comes with a reward. Like dogs, when you're training your rabbit to do fun tricks, you will also be sharing a bonding experience that is important not only for socialization but for their overall happiness and well-being.
Marking the Bunny's Behavior
Popularly known as "clicker training," using a marker is a way that professional animal trainers let an animal know they've done something right. A clicker works great with bunnies but you can also use a verbal marker which is a short word like "yes!" or "OK!" For any behavior, you will use your marker signal this way:
Timing is very important, so if you're using a clicker, have it ready in your hand and your treats in the other hand. When the rabbit performs the behavior, immediately click and give them the treat. If you're using a verbal signal, say it in a happy, excited tone of voice and give them the treat. Eventually, when the rabbit is doing the behavior about 80 percent of the time when asked, you can fade out using the marker and start to give treats randomly, but also add in large amounts of veggies as a reward.
In some cases, you may need to break the behavior down into tiny increments, so you'll be clicking and marking small movements toward the behavior rather than the full behavior itself. This is known as "shaping."
Fun Tricks to Teach Your Rabbit
There are many tricks you can teach your rabbit, and once your rabbit understands the marker, you can be as creative as you like. Always work at your rabbit's level. Shyer rabbits may take longer to learn a trick, so keep your training sessions short and positive, and remember to be patient!
Your Bunny's Name
A great first "trick" to teach your rabbit is to recognize their name. This is helpful for teaching future tricks since it's a way to get their attention. It's best to do this in an area where you're sitting on the floor and your rabbit can move around freely, such as a room with a closed door or a playpen. Sitting with your rabbit on a large raised surface like a table can work, as well.
First, place the bunny on the surface or floor and pull out a treat so your rabbit is aware of it. When the rabbit comes to you, say their name, and then hand them the treat. Either wait for the rabbit to move their attention away from you, or move them a bit away from you yourself. Continue to repeat this process. Do this several times a day for short increments, such as five minutes.
Begin to say their name before producing the treat. If the rabbit comes hurrying over when you say their name, mark them as they get to you and give them a treat.
Coming When Called
Teaching a bunny to come when called is the next step after teaching them their name. It's a useful command for getting your bunny to come to you, particularly if you're outside in your yard with them and need them to get to you quickly.
To teach this trick, put your bunny down on the floor or table and move a small distance of a few feet away from them. Call their name and hold a treat out in front of you where they can see it. You should be squatting down or sitting on the floor while doing this. When they begin to move toward you, mark the behavior and toss the bunny a treat.
Repeat as they come closer to you. Continue repeating in 5-minute increments for as long as it takes for them to learn to come to you. Once your bunny is consistently coming to you after a few sessions, add in your word, such as "come."
When you call your bunny's name, use the word you've chosen as they are moving toward you and while you are marking the behavior. In other words, you want them to associate "come" with moving toward you rather than you saying it when they're not moving.
Eventually, once they're reliably coming to you, you can begin to phase out using the marker and vary out the rewards, so they may get a treat the first time they come, no treat but brushing the second time they follow the command, a big jackpot reward the third time they come, and so on and so forth.
Work on increasing the distance between you and the bunny. You may notice the behavior breaking down when you do this, so go slowly and at your bunny's pace until they're able to come to you from the other side of a room.
Teaching a rabbit to roll over can be really adorable, but you may not find this as easy to do if the rabbit is shy, since this will involve some handling on your part.
Start by holding a treat in front of the rabbit's nose so they can sniff it but not get it. Then, pull the treat under their nose and back around so their nose is following the treat while turning their head back. Your goal is to get them to turn their head all the way around so that eventually it becomes more comfortable for them to roll onto their back to keep the treat in front of their nose.
This takes some time and practice, so be patient! Some rabbits will also do this behavior naturally, so carry your clicker around with you and some treats and mark the behavior with a click/treat whenever you see your rabbit doing it. An animal will tend to "offer" behaviors if it is being reinforced more often. Once you can get your rabbit comfortable doing this, you can add in the word or a hand signal to associate with the behavior, such as "roll over!"
Bunny High Five
Even more adorable than the roll over is teaching your bunny to high five (with one paw) or high 10 (with both paws). To teach this trick, with your rabbit in front of you, hold your hand flat out with your palm up and use a treat in your other hand to lure your rabbit forward. When your rabbit has walked forward so that their paw is now on your hand, reward them with the treat and click.
Once your bunny is doing this reliably, start by slowing raising your hand up, about a ½ to ¼ of an inch up, depending on how big your bunny is (smaller increments for smaller bunnies). Repeat the process but this time your rabbit will have to reach their paw up to get onto your palm and they may also start having to sit up a bit.
Reward them when they put their paw on your hand and mark the behavior. Once they're doing this reliably, you will want to turn your hand so that your fingers are pointing up and your palm is facing your rabbit like the traditional high five stance.
You may have to do this change in slow increments, so you may start with flipping your hand over so it's still flat but with palm down and get your rabbit to touch it in this stance. Next, slowly angle your hand so your fingers are pointing diagonally up, and so on until you are finally in the correct position. Remember, take your time and be patient!
Put your palm right in front of your rabbit's face and lure them to it with a treat. Reward and mark the behavior when your rabbit touches their paw to your hand like a high five. Repeat the entire process with your other hand and your rabbit's other paw. Once they're doing a high five with either paw, you can hold up both hands to encourage them to give you a double high five. You can also try alternating and doing a left paw high five, then a right paw high five and go back and forth.
For a really fun trick that's also terrific exercise, try teaching your bunny some rabbit agility. Just like a dog agility course, bunnies can learn how to jump over and go through obstacles. In fact, there are even competitions internationally for rabbits to do agility courses and rabbit hopping!
If you want to make some small jumps for your bunny, you can accomplish this with some PVC following dog agility equipment plans. You can also buy small-size agility equipment made specifically for smaller animals. Or, you can also just use simple "around the house" items to make jumps or even your arm or leg. Once your bunny learns to jump on command, your obstacles can vary.
You can teach them to jump by luring them with a treat over the obstacle, but another easy way to do this is to use a target stick. You can purchase a target stick at any pet store or just make your own using a dowel, wooden ruler, or any similar thin, long item. Hold the tip of the target stick out in front of your bunny and use a treat to lure their nose to touch the end of it. Mark and provide a treat when they accomplish this task.
Repeat this process and eventually remove the lure and just hold the stick out. Mark and reward when your bunny touches the tip with their nose on their own. You can also add in a word if you like, such as "touch!" Now, start to move the stick around a few inches and see if your bunny follows it. If they don't, or they seem to be confused, it just means you're going too fast, so move it in much smaller increments.
Once you can work up to your bunny reliably following the stick, you can then use it to target and train them to jump. Lay on the floor with your legs out in front of you. With your bunny on one side of your legs, hold the target stick out and move it from just in front of your bunny's face to over your legs. Reward and mark when they jump over your legs to touch the target stick. You can add in a word like "jump!" or "over!" at this point.
Repeat this process and then slowly move one leg up about ¼ to ½ inch up and repeat. You can eventually work up to doing this with your leg higher in the air. Try also switching it out to have your bunny jump over one foot while you're standing, or over an outstretched arm, or make a physical jump.
You can also use the target stick to train to go through obstacles, such as a small cat tunnel. Have the tunnel mostly closed and lure them through with the target stick. Once they are going through the "ring" reliably, start expanding the size and repeat the process, until eventually you can have the tunnel fully extended. You can pair in a word like "tunnel!" once they understand what you want from them.
Reinforcers are what trainers use to teach an animal they've done something correctly. For example, in dog training, a reinforcer would be a dog treat, a toss of a tennis ball, or some tugging play on a toy. With rabbits, your best reinforcer will be food and ideally, you should use food that's "special" and not normally on their daily menu, like pellets. Ideas include apples, bananas, bell peppers, blueberries, broccoli stems (broccoli tops can give rabbits gas), carrots, celery, pears, raspberries, or strawberries.
Rabbits also enjoy leafy greens, such as basil, broccoli leaves, cilantro, kale, and more but these may be harder to chop up and handle as easily as "harder" fruits and vegetables. Before starting any training regimen, test out the treats you will use in your rabbit's diet beforehand for at least two weeks to make sure they don't produce diarrhea.
Teach Your Bunny Tricks
Once you start teaching your rabbit tricks, you'll probably catch the training "bug" when you realize how much fun it is and how smart rabbits are. It's also a wonderful way to bond with your rabbit and develop a stronger relationship. Be creative and have fun!