More than just a quivering nose and long ears, rabbits are intelligent, fun-loving animals that can be trained to jump, spin and come when called. Clicker training is a great way to do this, and will enrich both your lives in the process.
The basics of clicker training
Clicker training is fun and can produce highly reliable behaviour. It is used by the elite animal trainers of the world to train zoo and aquarium animals, free-swimming navy dolphins, police dogs, drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs, service dogs, guide animals for the blind, and movie animals. Even young children and people with physical disabilities can be great clicker trainers.
Clicker training is a marker-based teaching system that uses a clicking sound to let your rabbit know when it has done something right. The precision and consistency of the clicking sound makes this a far superior approach to training using food without a marker, or the use of a verbal marker such as ‘good’ or ‘yes’ on its own. To get started you need a clicker – available from most pet stores – and some treats such as raisins or bananas. Squish up the food and put it in a syringe (without the needle) and you have a great way to give the rabbit tiny tastes without filling it up. Using a syringe also means you can click and treat through the bars of your rabbit’s hutch if it is shy, fearful or aggressive.
Getting started with training
Take your clicker, treats and rabbit to a quiet place where the rabbit can feel secure. Bring its litterbox and carrier or a small cardboard box so that your rabbit has a safe place to hide.
Training sessions should be fun and low-stress. If your rabbit rushes out of its cage and the cat chases it behind the couch, this is not fun for anyone – except maybe the cat. Therefore be sure to exclude incompatible pets from the training area.
Rabbits are prey animals and they must feel comfortable in their surroundings before they will be able to learn. The bathroom is a good place to train – just check that there is no water in the bathtub and that the toilet lid is closed. Here they are unable to chew wires and the need to explore is limited. If the room is completely safe, leave the rabbit in there for 20 minutes with a litter box, some hay and some toys. Soon the rabbit will get used to being out of its cage, be willing to take food from you, and each session will go more quickly.
Make your sessions portable by training on a surface that you can take from place to place – a rubber doormat, bath mat or other non-slip surface, for example. Once the rabbit gets used to the training surface you can take this anywhere and it will feel at home.
As your rabbit starts to explore, click and give it a treat, then click when it moves towards or near you. You can refine this later by teaching your rabbit to come to you when you call. Say your rabbit’s name each time it approaches you and give it a treat immediately after every click. Soon the click will become a positive reinforcer for the rabbit and it will begin to try to elicit a click and treat from you.
If your rabbit is too shy to take food from your hand, place the food on the floor and click when the rabbit takes it. Move your hand closer and closer each time until the rabbit will take the food from near your hand, and eventually, directly from it. Click and treat as the rabbit approaches your hand. If you are trying to train your rabbit to come out of the cage, click and treat first as it looks in the direction of the door, again if it turns its head toward the door, and then if it makes any movement toward the door. Click and treat for any improvement in coming toward the door of the cage. Shy rabbits may take several sessions; while bold rabbits may rush right out.
Do not scold, correct or punish when clicker training. Just ignore behaviour you don’t like and click/treat for behaviour that you do – it’s that simple!
The best game to train first is to touch and follow a target, such as a ping-pong ball on the end of a chopstick. Hold the target in the vicinity of your rabbit and click/treat when it looks at the target, then for any movement in the direction of the target, then for actually touching the target with its nose. This incremental building of a behaviour, one small step at a time, is called shaping. Soon the rabbit will follow the target for one step, then two, then more and you can use this to lead it and to teach other things such as to come when called, to go into or come out of its cage and to get into a basket. It may take several sessions before the rabbit touches the target with intention. But be patient and keep the sessions under five minutes.
Adding a cue
A cue tells a rabbit which behaviours will win a click and treat. This can be a word or a hand signal, or even an object. Once a rabbit is reliably offering a behaviour, add a cue at the same time as the behaviour is happening. For example, say ‘touch’ when the rabbit touches the target with its nose. Click and treat every time the rabbit touches the target after you have given the cue ‘touch’. Try giving the cue when the rabbit is a few feet away to see if it has learned that ‘touch’ means come to you, touch the target and win a click/treat. As you teach more behaviours and add more cues, your rabbit will begin grasp the concept and subsequent training will be faster.
Beyond the basic tricks
You can teach your rabbit anything that is part of its natural behaviour such as spinning in a circle, standing up on its hind legs, going in and out of holes, tossing things and jumping. Use the target to lead the rabbit around, over or through obstacles. Click and treat each little bit of progress towards your final goal. When you click, the rabbit will come right away to get the treat rather than completing the behaviour. That’s okay, just hold off on the click a little longer each time until the rabbit goes all the way through the tunnel, or all the way around an obstacle until you are clicking and treating for the completed behaviour.
Perhaps you want to teach your rabbit to jump over objects. Start with a very low jump. Place the jump right in front of the litterbox and use the target to lead the rabbit into the box. Click and treat just as your rabbit crosses the jump. Add the cue ‘jump’ when you are sure that your rabbit is going to jump. Click and treat each success. Soon you will be able to make the jump higher and add more jumps to the sequence. To avoid injury, be sure to use your non-slip mat and ensure the jump bars will fall off easily if the rabbit bumps them.
You can teach your rabbit to stand on its hind legs by holding the target over its head and clicking/treating when it stands to reach for it. Add the cue ‘stand’ and then stop using the target once the rabbit learns the verbal cue. Teach it to spin by having it follow the target in a circle. See if you can teach your rabbit different cues for left spin and right spin. Rabbits are intelligent enough to learn to discern between left and right, over and under and also to learn the names of various objects. With a little imagination you can teach your rabbit to play with a soccer or basket ball or anything else you can think up. The key to success is to break the goal behaviour into tiny steps and click/treat for each bit of progress.
Work as a team with your rabbit
Training is fun for you and your rabbit and helps to develop a strong bond. Finding food, creating homes and staying safe all require various activities and problem solving, most of which are not required of a pet living in a hutch or your house. By providing training sessions for your bunny you are allowing it to use its natural abilities, as well as providing mental and physical stimulation. So get clicking and you will be amazed at how smart you and your bunny are!
Tips for successful clicker training:
- Be sure your rabbit is healthy, receiving adequate nutrition and has free access to hay and water at all times.
- Use good-quality treats – the reward must be more interesting to the rabbit than distractions in the environment.
- Be patient – allow your rabbit ample time and opportunity to explore the training area. This may take more than one session.
- Provide the rabbit with a comfort zone – a non-slip mat and litterbox, and perhaps a covered box where it can hide if necessary.
- Click and treat in the cage at first if your rabbit is nervous outside of it.
- Work in a low-distraction environment at first – use barriers and remove anything that you do not want the rabbit to investigate.
- Keep sessions short – five minutes is plenty at first.
- Rabbits are easily bored – repeat one thing only a few times per session.
- Use several different types of treats in each session, and only give treats during training.
- Use jackpots – larger or special treats – to acknowledge especially good performance.
Click and treat
The best treats to use for clicker training are small and healthy. Give only a tiny amount of sweet or new foods at one time. Give your rabbit a choice of two or three different foods to see which it prefers. Test potential treats in groups of three to find out which are top favourites. Use the favourites to get started with training and to reinforce exceptional performance.
- Raisins – a maximum of three per day
- Banana – a maximum of 2.5cm per day
- Apple – a maximum of 10 bites per day
- Carrots – a maximum of 7.5cm per day
- Romaine lettuce
- Dandelion leaves
- Timothy hay pellets.