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I know, I know, I’ve said it a million times, but here we go again: rabbits are prey animals.
They’re naturally weary, skittish, and scared of animals a good ten times their size.
But it can be a bit annoying when you’ve done nothing but love your bunny and they still act like you’re about to put them in a pot.
To them though, letting their guard down could mean a difference between life and death. If you have rescue rabbits (and I recommend rescuing wherever possible) they could have faced abuse or neglect in their previous home, which won’t exactly help their natural desire to run from us.
Getting your rabbit to trust you can take years. Some will be happy to flop down beside you from day one, others will still run away from you after 12 months.
Whilst you can’t necessarily speed up the process, there are things you can do that will ensure you don’t confirm your rabbit’s suspicions that you’re only after them for their body.
Don’t pick your rabbit up unless it’s necessary
Some rabbits like being picked up, but they are few and far between.
It’s also worth noting that those that do tend to be larger buns, so you won’t actually want (or be able) to pick them up anyway. Always the way! The chihuahua cowers in the corner whilst the greyhound tries to climb in your lap.
You don’t need to pick up your rabbit unless you need to clip their nails or something similar. I don’t even pick them up to take them to the vet – I just put their carry case in the their pen and herd them in.
Rabbits hate being picked up, because it doesn’t feel safe to them. They like to be on the ground. Why don’t you get on the ground with them, rather than insisting they come up to you?
Rabbits aren’t toys you can pick up and put down whenever you like. They’re animals that like to keep all four paws on the ground. I don’t see any reason why we can’t respect that and leave them down there.
Be very quiet and calm around your rabbit
Rabbits don’t like loud noises or a lot of moving around. They frighten easily, and like to know what’s going on.
As I’ve mentioned before, one odd caveat seems to be video games. I don’t know if it’s just the way we introduce them to them (start it very quiet and gradually increase the volume) or if I just have rabbits that aspire to be gamers, but they’re rare less bothered by gunshots on the TV than they are by fireworks.
Socialising with your rabbit doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to interact with them. In fact, when you first bring them home they’d probably prefer it if you didn’t.
Instead, just sit on the floor near them, and carry on with what you’re normally doing.
A risky strategy is doing a jigsaw. They’re incredibly nosy and jigsaws have this weird allure to rabbits and cats – I think it’s the combination of interesting but not scary noises and boxes that they like.
The strategy is risky because we all know that rabbits simply can’t resist cardboard.
You don’t need to talk to them, or even acknowledge them. You can teach them that your presence doesn’t mean that they’re going to be bothered – the two of you can just exist together, and maybe every now and again there’ll be a treat in it for them.
Provide your rabbit with somewhere to retreat to
You don’t need a fancy rabbit house or anything – just some place that your bunny can go to that’s out of bounds for you.
We just have a couple of cardboard boxes that sit in our TV cabinet that Holly can run to if she’s frightened. Since she’s pretty skittish, she spends a lot of time in there.
One thing you can do is is teach your rabbit a word like ‘home’ or ‘box’. We use ‘home’ for her pen and ‘box’ for her box.
When we point to her box and say ‘box’ it usually means we’re going to do something awful, like bring out the vacuum cleaner or clean out her litter tray.
It’s a way of giving her a bit of warning that she won’t like what’s going to happen, so it probs best if she retreats to her box.
We never grab her from in the box. Occasionally we’ll comfort her if something’s scared her, but if she hides away from us, we’ll stop.
It’s a case of learning to read body language and respecting her decision to want us to fuck off.
If we need to clean out the box, we wait until she’s hunkered down elsewhere. It still makes her mad, but she has this habit of chewing massive holes in the sides of the box and then leaping on top of it, so we had to replace it before she comes crashing the ground and risks hurting herself.
Associate your presence with good things
In the beginning, it can be tempting to only reward positive behaviour, such as following commands.
This can put too much pressure on both of you in the early days. Instead, ignore behaviour such as the rabbit running away from you, and reward simple behaviours you want to build on, such as staying still when you walk past, playing with toys, and letting you pet them.
If your rabbit learns that you don’t expect them to do anything other than live their life, they’ll trust you rather than fear you.
If you go straight in with trying to ‘handle’ your rabbit in exchange for treats, it’s more like your training them to tolerate being scared of you.
Remember that our pets don’t owe us anything. We shouldn’t expect them to behave in a specific way – they are who they are, and we shouldn’t try to change that.
It’s ultimately easier once you learn this. There’s a reason that certain breeds of dog are used for certain things – collies are great for learning tricks because they’re motivated by play, German Shepherds are used as police dogs because of the bond they form with their handler.
Rabbits are scared of us, and it’s all too easy to exploit that fear and call it training. Instead, we just need to teach them that we don’t expect anything of them other than to live their lives, and hopefully not pee on the floor.
Don’t rush your rabbit
They’re all wildly different when it comes to earning their trust.
We’ve rescued dumped rabbits that have been happy to climb on my knee within minutes. Daisy came over to be petted when I was sat in her pen at the rescue. Holly still won’t come over for pets, but she doesn’t run away when I sit by her now, and she actually enjoys being petted.
You have to accept that there will be a line that your rabbit may never want to cross. They may never lie down next to you, or climb on the sofa, or walk on a leash.
It doesn’t mean you’re a bad owner, or you got a dud rabbit – it just means that you respect your rabbit enough to leave them alone.
Your rabbit owes you nothing, and the only thing you need to provide for your rabbit is good care (comprising shelter, food, medical care, and love).
You don’t need to teach them to sit or beg or even come when you call them.*
If you lower your expectations, and make your end goal to make your rabbit trust you enough to demonstrate that they’re not scared (flops, binkies, generally being chill are all signs of this), you’ll find the whole ‘bonding with your rabbit’ thing a lot easier.
Obviously, the time it takes to do this depends on where you rabbit is when you get them. Aggressive rabbits may need more time and understanding to get to a place where they trust you, but that’s true of aggressive dogs and cats. Rabbits are just as complex behaviourally as other animals, they just have the ‘fluffy bunny’ stereotype working against them.
*Though you can fake this. Most rabbits learn quickly to come to the sound of rustling bag.
Encourage your rabbit’s natural inquisitiveness
Nosiness overides a rabbit’s natural fear quite a lot of the time.
You may notice that your rabbit is on super high alert when they’re exploring (ears are usually forward, and flick back at the slightest noise, and eyes are set to bulgy).
Make sure that you’re calm and relaxed, as most animals can pick up on tension. You can do this by making sure that what your rabbit is exploring is bunny proofed. If you shout “MY CHARGER! NOOOOO’ you can scare your rabbit (and lose your charger).
For those of you with super skittish rabbits, let your rabbit explore something new in their pen. It doesn’t take a lot to entertain a rabbit, so a box with something in it will do fine.
If your rabbit is well litter trained, a blanket or towel in a box is the perfect combo of interesting and fun. For those that are likely to pee on the blanket, used balled up paper. The packaging that comes in Amazon parcels is perfect.
Whilst your rabbit is exploring their new toy, throw treats at them, or give them a few lettuce leaves, so that they know that you’re happy for them to be a nosy rabbit and they’ll get a present for it. Getting a present for doing something you wanted to do anyway is always lovely.
Rabbits are naturally scared, and for good reason. It’s not up to them to learn not to be afraid of you – it’s up to you to prove to them that you’re not scary. Always be empathetic – try to imagine how your bunny feels when, for example, you pick them up, rather than telling yourself that you mean them no harm.
Since you can’t tell a rabbit not to be scared of you, you have to show them in a way that they understand. If that means that your only interactions are on their terms, so be it.