At some point, most of us rabbit owners will need to travel with our pet (like the veterinary clinic, or a holiday, etc.). If you are planning to take your rabbit out, it’s best to leash train them so that they can stay safe while still having room to move and jump around.
While it’s true that some rabbits can find new activities like leash/harness training stressful, outdoor activities or travelling should generally be a pleasant experience for you and your fluffy friend. With time, patience and plenty of positive reinforcement, you’ll be able to walk your rabbit on a leash easily and without fuss.
Here are the best tips to keep in mind when leash training your rabbit:
Start slowly and earn their trust.
If your rabbit already has a calm and/or curious demeanour, you may find it quicker and easier to train them up. However, with any rabbit it’s important to have them trust you before introducing them to training. Start off by waiting for your rabbit to come to you, and giving them treats when they do so. Speak softly, and don’t rush to pet them if they don’t seem comfortable - they need to explore and learn for themselves that you are not a threat. Over time and with your positive reinforcement, they will associate your presence with reward and affection, which will greatly help when you start leash training them.
Get them comfortable with the harness.
Since rabbits have relatively fragile skeletal systems, it’s advised that you use a harness (rather than a collar) to minimise any chance of discomfort or escape. When finding the best rabbit harness, look for one that is lightweight and secure enough on their body without being too tight.
Once you’ve found one, get down to your rabbit’s level and hold them gently but firmly. Slowly slide the harness on without securing the buckles. Continue the positive reinforcement by giving them treats as you put the harness on - this will help them associate putting on the harness with a reward.
If your bunny seems comfortable with the harness, take it off and pop it back on a few more times (unbuckled) to help them get used to the motion. If they seem stressed out, remove the harness quickly but try again slowly a day or two later. Your bunny may just need a little more time (and treats) to adjust!
Practice regularly, but keep sessions short and sweet.
Try popping the harness on several times a day, unbuckled at first. Keep training sessions short (15 minutes or less) and make sure you give your bunny plenty of positive reinforcement. If your rabbit is now showing that it’s comfortable roaming around with the harness on, try and buckle it up. If they continue to react well, let them wear it buckled for 3-5 minutes. If they don’t, remove it and try again slowly at a later stage.
Stay indoors at the start.
Make sure that you hold any training session indoors at the start, where your rabbit is likely to feel safer in the surroundings. Don’t take them outdoors until they seem perfectly comfortable with 1) wearing the harness and 2) moving around the house in it. This could take anywhere from a few days to weeks - it depends on how your rabbit feels.
Try steering the harness (gently).
By now, your rabbit should be quite happy to move around in their harness. At this stage, you can attach the leash while they’re wearing it and start getting them accustomed to a few gentle tugs to steer them the way you want. Never give hard tugs or pulls as this can cause them to dislike the experience.
You should also start scoping good locations outside (in your backyard, for instance) in anticipation for outside training sessions.
Give them plenty of supervision outside.
Once your rabbit is ready to head outside on the leash, take them to your backyard and walk with them a few times a day, for a few minutes at a time. Don’t overwhelm them with longer walks or foreign locations - this can come later once they have fully adapted to the leash. As you walk them, make sure to give them a gentle tug or stop them from jumping into any bushes or trees where the leash may get tangled and entrap or stress them out.
After they start adjusting to outside walks, take them out for longer walks (10-20 minutes a day) and give them plenty of rewards, gentle pats and soft words of encouragement while you’re out together.
Remember, it’s important to continuously look out for your rabbits safety - this includes being gentle with the harness, leash and not forcing them to do anything against their will. Depending on the nature of your bunny, leash training may take longer or it may be off the cards completely. That’s doesn’t mean they still can’t enjoy heading outdoors in a rabbit travel carrier or playpen. Whatever you do, make sure that you stay patience, always supervise your bunny and give them lots of positive reinforcement where you can!