by Cheryl Lock
Rabbits make great pets for a number of reasons. They have adorable and distinct personalities, they’re playful, energetic, quirky, and loving — the perfect family companion for some.
While it’s true that owners have been known to teach their pet rabbits many tricks — from “fetch” and jumping to litter box training and coming when they’re called— whether or not a rabbit can be properly leash trained is one question bunny owners seem to have over and over again. We consulted some experts to get the definitive answer.
Can rabbits be leash trained?
The easy answer is yes; with a little patience, a rabbit can be leash trained. The real answer, however, requires a couple of caveats.
“First, I want to clarify what ‘leash training’ a rabbit means,” says Nancy LaRoche, chapter manager with the Colorado House Rabbit Society. “It does not mean that the rabbit will hop along beside the human. It means that the human will mostly follow the rabbit, so the rabbit can explore larger areas or run through obstacle courses and remain safe.”
How difficult is it to leash train a rabbit?
Similar to training for any type of animal, rabbits with a calm demeanor who are willing to try new things will take to training more easily than those who are more stubborn or fearful, says LaRoche. “As with most things having to do with rabbits, leash training requires time, patience, and above all, careful evaluation of what the rabbit is experiencing at each step of the process,” she added. “After all, these are prey animals whose instinct, for the preservation of life, is to be highly cautious of all new experiences.”
Training for this behavior requires positive reinforcement, says Barbara Heidenreich, an animal training and behavior consultant with Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training. “That means providing a desired consequence [from the bunny’s point of view!] for each step of the process,” she explained.
Are some rabbit breeds better suited for leash training?
While it’s not necessarily true that one breed of rabbit is more suited to leash training than another, LaRoche does caution that leash training should not be done with all rabbits, only with those who are calm and enjoy new experiences.
“If a rabbit is stressed by relatively minor new experiences, leash training should not be attempted,” she said. “For some rabbits, wearing a harness is equivalent to having been caught by something they can’t get away from, resulting in severe stress. But I’ve seen rabbits from just about every breed who are relaxed and willing to try new things, and those who are badly stressed from such things.”
What type of leash is best for rabbits?
If you’re interested in leash training your own rabbit, you’ll need a harness that fits the rabbit closely but that is still comfortable for him to wear.
“I prefer the type of leash connected to the back of a ‘harness’ that wraps around the rabbit’s body, held snug by both Velcro and buckles,” says LaRoche. “That way, if the rabbit is startled and suddenly dashes away, there is no danger of the rabbit’s neck being jerked and possibly broken. The pressure is against a large portion of the body, which makes stopping the rabbit safe.” Rabbit harness and leashes like these (some look more like “jackets” than harnesses) are available from many pet retailers.
What are the steps for leash training a rabbit?
LaRoche emphasizes that there is no set time frame in terms of how long this process can take — some rabbits will accept it quickly, while others may never accept it.
With that note of caution, using safe treats like tiny pieces of romaine lettuce or parsley as a reward for each step your rabbit accomplishes correctly, try the following to start leash training your pet:
- Begin by earning trust. Work with your rabbit over a period of several months playing simple games — like peek-a-boo with a small towel, or hiding bits of food in toys for them to find — so that the rabbit has learned to trust you and look to you for safety. “It’s important that a close relationship has been established between the person and the rabbit, so that the rabbit feels that the human has his or her safety and enjoyment as a top priority,” says LaRoche.
- Introduce your rabbit to her leash and harness by letting her sniff at it and play with it. “Give the rabbit a safe treat when he or she pushes the leash around a little,” suggests LaRoche.
- Lay the harness portion of the leash on your rabbit and allow her to either let it remain there or shake it off.
- When your rabbit seems comfortable with the harness and leash, slip the harness on and leave it unbuckled. “If the rabbit struts around like she’s enjoying the harness, continue putting it on and taking it off several times a day without engaging the buckles,” says LaRoche. “If he or she struggles against it, either back up to Step 3 (if you think you’ve moved forward too quickly), or accept that this rabbit may not be a good candidate for leash training.”
- If your rabbit hasn’t minded the harness being on several times a day for a few minutes at a time, put it on her and buckle it up. Observe your rabbit’s reaction. If she indicates distress, remove the harness quickly. If not, let her wear it for roughly three to five minutes before removing. Repeat this step several times a day. Continue doing this until the rabbit ignores the harness and runs around with it on.
- When you feel ready, attach the leash to your pet’s harness and let your rabbit feel gentle tugs that redirect her from time to time. Once you’re both comfortable with the leash indoors you can head outdoors, but keep your rabbit’s safety in mind always. “It’s important to stop your rabbit from going around bushes and trees or anyplace where the leash can get wrapped up and the rabbit can feel trapped,” says LaRoche.
Remember that hard pulls on the leash or harness will likely lead your rabbit to dislike the experience and ultimately avoid it altogether, says Heidenreich. “When used appropriately, a rabbit should barely notice the harness and leash are on at all.”
When is it best to start leash training?
While age doesn’t necessarily play a factor in how easily your rabbit takes to his leash, keep in mind that older rabbits may have pain from arthritis or other maladies, so that could inhibit his ability to be leash trained. “Starting with very young rabbits will require changing the size of the harness as the rabbit grows,” says LaRoche. “But an adult rabbit with the right attitude can be trained just as easily as a youngster — sometimes even more easily since the adults have a longer attention span.”
Additionally, rabbits tend to be more receptive to food reinforcers in the morning and evening due to their crepuscular nature (active during twilight hours), says Heidenreich. “If you intend to use food to train the behavior, those are good times to have a training session,” she said. “If your rabbit is receptive to touch as a reinforcer — many rabbits like their head and ears stroked —late afternoon is usually a nice time for such interactions.”
What are the benefits to leash training a rabbit?
When your rabbit is leash trained, the world is her oyster. “A pet rabbit who is leash trained can be taken to exciting new places, provided the human is certain the area is safe from poisons, predators, etc.,” says LaRoche. “She can explore safely, too, since the human always has control and can redirect the rabbit when needed.”
Teaching your rabbit to behave while leashed will certainly open up a wide array of new activities for the two of you to enjoy together. However, if you find in the end that your bunny just isn’t comfortable with a harness and leash, fear not — rabbits who prefer the safety of home can develop bonds with their owners that are just as strong as do leash-trained rabbits.
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