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I have an article about punishing rabbits, during which I discuss how hard it is to punish a rabbit.
If you yell at them they just get scared, rather than being like ‘ah yeah, I get why you’re mad’.
Dogs have learned how to look guilty (spoilers: they don’t actually care) but rabbits and cats aren’t that fussed about appeasing humans.
So what do you do? How can you let a rabbit know that you’re the dominant boss around here?
Some rabbits don’t care about being dominant, especially if you have a pair (which is usually recommended).
But there’s always the odd one that’s decided it wants to care out a little space for itself in the world and is going to take control of this house by, er, peeing on your stuff and biting you.
There are things you can do, but as I explain as we go along, what deters some rabbits will spur others on.
You may have to try a few different things before you find something that works.
Make a sound when your rabbit bites you
This is the same trick that’s often recommended to mouthy puppies – you squeal when they bite you so that they understand that they hurt you.
And sometimes it works. In which case, great.
But it doesn’t always, for a fairly obvious reason.
Puppies often mouth when they’re teething, and are looking for new and exciting things to try their teeth out on.
A rabbit that’s looking to bite you WANTS to hurt you. Maybe to prove their dominance or maybe because they feel threatened.
If you squeal, you might make them jump, which in turn may deter them from biting in the past.
But it may also reinforce that they’ve hurt you, and maybe if they do it enough they can be in charge.
So I prefer a sharp ‘ah ‘ah’ and then follow up with a punishment.
Put them back in their pen if they show undesirable behaviour
Restricting a rabbit’s freedom is one of the best (and, tbh, only) ways to punish them that isn’t cruel and that they understand.
Holly has a big pen (about a third of our living room) and there isn’t much more space outside of her pen than there is in it. So she doesn’t want to be out because she wants the space – she wants to be out because she doesn’t like being restricted.
Interestingly, she doesn’t care unless we’re in the room. She rattles the bars of the pen to be let out, but if I go and make my coffee in the morning before I let her out, she won’t start making a fuss until I’m sat on the sofa. The dirty look I get if I sit down before letting her out is hilarious.
It didn’t take Holly long to learn that if she chewed things she wasn’t allowed to or started digging in the carpet, she would be shepherded back into her pen.
Because rabbits are quite quick to learn the difference between being in their pen and out of their pen, it’s a good idea to keep all of their toys inside their pen, so that they can quickly learn that if they want to dig and scrabble, it has to be done in their pen.
After a few weeks, I keep a few toys (sticks and stuff) outside of the pen, and if they scrabble or dig, they have to go back in.
I don’t tell them off doing it, I just make it so that it’s a bad idea for them to do it because they get sent back to their pen.
I tend to make Holly stay in the pen for about five minutes, but to be honest, even a few seconds is usually enough to get the message across.
If you find that your rabbit goes back to destroying whatever it was that got them the time out, you may need to consider a longer sentence.
Gently push their head down
This is another one of those punishments that either work or doesn’t.
Some rabbits 100% get that if you push their head down, you’re in charge.
And other rabbits (usually naughty ones, because that’s the way the world works) are like ‘so? You pushed my head down and now you think you’re the boss?? I genuinely dgaf and will continue digging this hole in the carpet.’
I think the action of pushing down the head is supposed to mimic another rabbit chinning the submissive one, but the chinning thing is a scent marker which (I’m assuming) we don’t have.
Also, some dominant rabbits force their heads under the submissive rabbit’s chin because they’re demanding to be groomed.
So in conclusion, I’m suggesting you shove your head under your bunny’s so you can prove you’re the dominant one.
I’m kidding. That’s a great way to get a well-deserved bite to the face.
Ignore bad behaviour/reward good behaviour
By ignore, I don’t mean FULLY ignore. Bad behaviour should result to a trip to the pen.
This is worth trying for dissuading dominant behaviour.
If your rabbit bites you, get up and walk away. If you’re on the sofa, make your rabbit get down (if you get up, they’ve won the sofa).
It can be difficult, especially if your rabbit is big and vicious, so come prepared with thick clothes. Say ‘get down’ firmly (but don’t shout) and push their butt off the sofa.
If they don’t jump off by themselves, pick them up and put them down yourself (99% of the time a push to butt will get them down).
Ignoring bad behaviour is more for training, and working on bonding with your rabbit. Don’t punish them or shout at them if they hop away.
It’ll just reinforce that you’re a Bad Human that needs to have all the corners of their carpets chewed a wee bit.
It certainly won’t foster a positive relationship between the two of you.
I personally haven’t found that rewarding with treats works for things like training rabbits to be a little less destructive, but it CAN work with teacing your rabbit that you’re not going to kill and eat them.
Rabbits TEND to be less treat-oriented than, say, dogs, but that is a HUGE generalisation.
The issue here is that rabbits have very delicate digestive systems, so we can’t give them to many treats, which makes training a slow process.
You definitely could use their regular pellets as treats (though be sure to adjust the amount they get so they don’t overeat), but not all rabbits are that bothered about pellets. A lot are only comfortable eating away from humans, so you may need a higher value treat to get started.
I don’t recommend buying store-bought rabbit treats, simply because there’s so much crap out there. They often have a lot of added sugar, or ingredients that rabbits shouldn’t have, such as seeds.
Like dogs, not all rabbits are able to be trained past basic commands.
The benefit of using dogs though (and some breeds in particular), is that you can give them rewards that aren’t food-based.
My brother’s border collie has walked past six off-leash dogs and a herd of sheep without taking her eyes off the ball in my brother’s hand (she was on leash, because it ain’t worth the risk around sheep, but she didn’t so much as look at them).
I’m not claiming there isn’t a rabbit out there that’ll do tricks in exchange for the opportunity to chase after a ball. In fact, I’d love to see it.
But it’s unlikely. If you want your bunny to be tamer, you’re probably gonna need a trail of pellets from the bunny to you, and a whole lot of patience.
Spay/neuter your rabbit
Whilst spaying and neutering doesn’t always have the instant effect of turning your rabbit into a fluffy little angel (I wish), NOT spaying/neutering them makes it a thousand times more difficult to get the dominating behaviour to improve.
Because the rabbit has a vested interest in being dominant.
Rabbits are hardly the most rational animals at the best of times (‘thanks for the lovely comfy bed, human, I shall pee on it and lie on the scratchy carpet’) but it’s so much worse when they’re not fixed.
They’re generally a lot angrier and moodier, and are just…way less likely to give a crap about what you have to say.