Making Friends With Your Rabbit

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2006 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

Some rabbits are happy to have you be their slave, and give nothing in return. This can be quite frustrating for care-takers, who expect and desire a mutual relationship. There are several things that you can do to encourage your rabbits’ friendliness with you.

Communication

It will help your rabbits if they know what your intentions are, so I suggest using three words, which have very different sounds, whenever you are interacting with them:

“Treat” means you have something especially yummy for them (a slice of fruit, or a papaya tablet, for example)
“Love” means you are going to pet them. Continue to repeat this word as you are stroking them
“Pickup” means you are going to pick them up. Once you say, “Pickup,” you must follow through, and pick them up no matter what.

Setting the Stage

The Way to a Bunny’s Heart – “Treat”
You can offer a treat any time, no matter whether the rabbits are in their crate or running around. Sometimes, it may be necessary to separate one rabbit from another, if one is very eager and the other very shy – otherwise, the eager rabbit may get all the treats and the shy one may never get up enough nerve to get any at all.

First, be sure the rabbits know what the treat is and be sure you’ve selected something they really like. Most rabbits are crazy about a slice of banana, but some rabbits don’t like them at all. It’s necessary they know what the treat is and like it before you can use it to bribe them. After the rabbit knows what he likes this treat, require him to take it from your hand.

In extreme cases, lie on the floor, extending your arm above your head and hold the treat so the rabbit doesn’t have to approach your body to get it. Lie very quietly. It may help to close your eyes. Great patience is required for especially shy rabbits. If the rabbit doesn’t eventually take the treat from your hand, don’t leave it for him. He needs to learn he must take it from your fingers to get the treat. He will simply learn to out-wait you if you leave the treat for him. As the rabbit takes the treat from your fingers, repeat the word, “Treat,” so he’ll learn to associate the word with the pleasure of tasting something yummy.

Petting Your Rabbit – “Love”
Some rabbits avoid contact by ducking away whenever you approach them. If your rabbit does this, you need to create a space, roughly 4′ x 8′. A bathroom may provide a good space if you block the space behind the toilet. But you can also create such a space using cardboard or fencing material.
At first, spend time sitting or lying on the floor, ignoring the rabbit. Reading a book or watching TV is a good way to do this. When the rabbits begin to relax with you being in the space with them, you’re ready for the next step which you will do on your feet.

Turn your hand completely over, using the back of your fingers to drop toward the rabbit, between the eyes. Come from above the rabbit, so he can’t successfully lunge at you. If he ducks away, follow him, repeating the word “Love,” until he finally crouches down and lets your hand come down between his eyes. Don’t move too slowly when doing this, as you will create tension by “creeping up on the rabbit.” Of course, don’t move very fast, either.

Repeat the word “Love,” as you stroke his face, still with the backs of your fingers. Then turn your fingers over and continue stroking and saying “Love.” If he allows you to move around the base of his ears, on his neck, or on his jaws, do so.
Ideally, you want to be the one to choose to stop, rather than having the rabbit make the decision about when you are done, so keep the first petting sessions short, but repeat them frequently throughout the day, gradually making them longer as the rabbit begins to tolerate them and even enjoy them.
If you like, you can also give a treat following a petting session (switching to “Treat!”), but be careful not to give too much fruit, or other treats which can cause gastric upset. Never try to pick up or otherwise restrain the rabbit if you say “Treat” or “Love.”

Picking Up Your Rabbit – “Pick Up”
Most rabbits don’t like the sensation of being lifted, nor do they like relinquishing control of their bodies. However, it is important to get them accustomed to being picked up. The day will come when they get sick and need to be taken to a veterinarian, requiring you to pick them up. If they aren’t accustomed to it, you will stress them badly at a time when they can least tolerate it.

When the rabbit learns what “Pick Up” means, she may immediately run away. You simply have to follow her in the same way you would if you were just going to pet her, only don’t use the word “Love.” Once she has allowed you to stroke her face, with her facing you, slip your right hand (if you’re right-handed) under her rib cage, coming from her left side. Put your left and on her rump, above her tail, with your left arm against her right side. Press her body against your left arm, and lift her quickly off her feet, bringing her into your body.
Once she is in your arms, rub around the base of the ears to make the session as pleasant as possible. After 10 to 15 seconds, set her in your lap. Continue to rub around the base of the ears, but let go of her, so she can leave if she wishes. At first, she will probably bolt off, but gradually she will realize she can leave any time she wants to, and will decide to stay for a few minutes of pleasure.

In general, you want to give treats and love frequently throughout the day and pick the rabbit up once or twice every day. The more contact you have, the quicker your rabbits will learn to trust you and enjoy your company.
Finally, a full-body, therapeutic massage and clicker-training are also methods to help shy rabbits begin to be comfortable with you. There are books available to help you with either method.