Tonawanda News

May 27, 2014

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Train rabbits like other pets


The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Being a responsible pet columnist, I believe now is an appropriate time to have waited after Easter to once again talk about rabbits as critter companions. I was in preschool and visited my grandmother in Fort Erie, Canada, when I encountered my first rabbit. Mysteriously — and legally, I might add — the rabbit crossed the border and lived with my family for several years in a hutch.

Professionally, I have taken care of quite a few rabbits. The breeds included show-worthy lionhead rabbits, a pair of Dutch rabbits named Zach and Zoe and a white-mutt rabbit appropriately named Cadbury.

A lionhead rabbit is a small breed of rabbit that has a long furred mane and front legs to give the appearance of a lion’s front half. The rest of the body has short fur that is silky soft. They come in a large range of colors and adults can weigh up to 3.75 pounds.

Dutch rabbits are also consider a small breed of rabbit weighing between 3.5 and 5.5 pounds. They can come in six different colors (black, blue, chocolate, grey, steel and tortoise) but always have a white stripe across their nose and midsection; their feet are white as well. Zach was very sweet, coming over to the door as you opened it, and would wait patiently for you to snuggle. Zoe on the other hand, was harder to bond with. Once you grabbed her, she would calm down.

Fast-forward a few years, and my training skills have improved. I find myself with another rabbit that is showing signs of discontent when I try and pet and hold it. It appears that it is a mix between fear and fear-based aggression. I look back to grabbing Zoe, and think to myself how it could have been much more positive for our relationship if I would have used training, rather than dominance-based methods.

Earlier this month, Storey Publishing released a book titled “The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver” by Karen Patry, illustrated by Elara Tanguy. The illustrations are a great reference to get a clear understanding of what normal or abnormal rabbit behavior looks like.

Patry runs the website www.raising-rabbits.com, which sees up to 18,500 rabbit pet owners and breeders a month. A majority of her book is a Q&A outline. This style makes it very easy to get quick answers to your rabbit needs.

When I received this book, I quickly looked for the topic of fearful and aggressive rabbits to find aid on how to train my new un-huggable rabbit. Unfortunately, I was not pleased with the answers.

For aggressive rabbits, the author recommends a technique called pinning.

“Pinning is the same behavior rabbits use to exert dominance or to reprimand subordinate rabbits,” the author explained. She then goes on to explain how to put yourself in charge. “When you open the cage, quickly swoop your hand in from above, like a hawk, and press (or pin) the rabbit’s head or shoulders firmly to the floor so it cannot use its teeth or claws.” It goes on to say to hold the rabbit until it stops growling or struggling.

For timid rabbits, the author asks, “Does the rabbit think it’s the boss?” suggesting that dominant rabbits may charge at their caregiver but also may also act timid — and if that is the case, you should pin the timid rabbit.

This, to me, seems like an “old-school” method of rabbit care. This old school method works; if it didn’t, people would have stopped doing it a while ago.  But what I am going to do for my mostly fearful, sometimes aggressive rabbit is what I would do for almost any animal — use a food reward to hopefully increase behaviors such as sitting still, allowing a gentle single pat on the back and approaching me slowly.

The author does conclude the timid and “Being the Boss Bunny” section with, “Additionally, you can reward the rabbit with petting and treats when it behaves nicely” — which is what I would have elaborated on, if I had written the book. I also would have not mentioned pinning or forcing the timid or aggressive rabbit into my arms. I would also like to note that the trainee — in this case, the rabbit — decides what is reinforcing. So touching (petting) a rabbit that is timid might not be reinforcing good behavior if it is scared.

After several days or weeks of gently tossing tasty tidbits to the rabbit for calm behavior, I will then slowly increase my criteria. If I was rewarding the rabbit for approaching me within 3 feet, I will now only reward the rabbit when it comes within 2 feet. Eventually, I will only reinforce the rabbit when it has voluntarily come over and walked over my leg or sat on my lap. Patry has two full pages of safe snacks to be used for training rabbits.

Aside from the two pages I have harped on, I believe this 319-page book is a good reference for rabbit farmers and pet owners.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior and is a certified professional bird trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board. Please email your questions to kenny.coogan@yahoo.com, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.