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How to Train Your Rabbit

By: Rebecca Jones

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Peter wasn't the only rabbit with a streak of mischief in him. Most bunnies get tempted, at times, beyond their powers to resist. Chewing, digging, these oft-forbidden activities, have much allure to a rabbit. So the wise bunny owner trains his or her bunny to channel these natural inclinations in acceptable outlets.

"You start by spending 20 minutes a day letting them out of their cages and then watching them like a hawk," says Nancy LaRoche, director of the Colorado House Rabbit Society, an organization that provides shelter to unwanted pet rabbits and teaches prospective rabbit owners about the ins and outs of their future pets.

Be Firm, Gentle And Consistent

When the bunny finds something tasty but forbidden on which to chew – don't worry, he will – discipline the animal by saying "No!" firmly, then substituting an appropriate object to be chewed, LaRoche says. "I use apple branches. Bunnies adore apple branches. They'll spend a lot of time chewing on them."

Chewing isn't just a pleasurable hobby for a rabbit. It's the way he explores his world – through taste and texture. It's also an absolute necessity, as chewing helps him wear down his teeth, which grow continuously, and helps him keep his jaw muscles strong.

"Perhaps older rabbits chew less because they know the taste and texture of the world and need only food to keep their teeth worn down and their jaws strong," LaRoche says. "In any case, time is on your side when it comes to a rabbit's inclination to chew your great-aunt's antique buffet. On the other hand, training does not happen by itself or simply with time."

The same is true for digging. If a rabbit is digging in the carpet, LaRoche suggests building a small "tunnel" for him with carpeting on the bottom. This will distract him from the priceless Oriental rug.

Rabbits are smart. And after two or three days of firm, consistent correction, they will clearly understand what may be chewed on or dug in and what may not be, LaRoche says.

Watch Their Winning Ways

LaRoche warns rabbit owners not to let themselves fall victim to a bunny's inherent cuteness, thereby only laughing at bunny misbehavior. Humans must make it clear to the bunny what is acceptable behavior and what will not be tolerated.

LaRoche tells the story of one family who adopted an adorable – if somewhat headstrong – bunny from the shelter. One evening soon after arriving at her new home, the bunny hopped up onto the sofa where four family members were sitting, watching television. She nipped the person closest to her, who promptly got up and moved. So she nipped the next person, who also moved. Eventually, the bunny had the couch all to herself.

"What they showed her was that she could control people by nipping," LaRoche says.

How To Correct Behavior

A better course of action: the first person nipped should have screeched a high, shrill scream, loud enough to startle the bunny. Shrill screeches are bunny-talk for "Hey! Knock it off!" Then the rabbit should have been put down on the floor. Should she repeat the nipping behavior, she should be put in her cage for a brief "time-out." Should she do it a third time, she should be sentenced to her cage for the rest of the evening. Eventually, she'll learn not to nip.

While verbal corrections and being placed in a "time-out" generally work well on rabbits, be careful about trying any sort of physical discipline, LaRoche warns. "People sometimes tap rabbits on their noses," she says. "But rabbits are so delicate, I'd never do that. Especially if you've just been bitten, you can hit a lot harder than you think you intend."

Don't forget to reward good behavior. When your rabbit is playing quietly and behaving exactly as a good rabbit should, give him a treat to encourage more of this behavior. Some rabbits respond well to small helpings of fruit or cereal, but some rabbits can develop severe digestive upsets from these kinds of treats. Another option is acidophilus tablets, which all rabbits seem to like. Talk to your veterinarian about what kinds of treats your rabbit can safely enjoy.

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