Many people are familiar with the concept of clicker training for our canine friends but not many people are aware that rabbits and other small animals can beneﬁt as well.
Clicker training was developed in the early 1970’s as a training method for marine mammals. The trainers realised that they would not be able to train whales and dolphins through force as they would simply swim away. They soon realised that if they ignored the wrong behaviours and gave appropriate praise and reward for the behaviours they wanted, the animals would quickly learn to do exactly what they wanted. The most exciting discovery was the fact that the whales and dolphins enjoyed the training sessions immensely and developed a love of learning.
Clicker training is a simple concept for both you and your pet to learn and is one that is sure to have many rewards in the future. Even if your pet has no behavioural issues and lives a fulﬁ lled and stimulated life, clicker training is a useful concept to teach your pet as you never know when it may be needed in the future. As an example, a good friend of mine owned an older rabbit that needed regular urine tests due to medical problems. Fortunately she had spent lots of time using clicker training with him and he was very familiar with the concept. Within a week she had taught her pet to urinate on command, making things so much easier for them both. It also prevented the extra stress that can be caused by the vet having to express his bladder instead.
Clicker training rabbits
As rabbits increase in popularity, so does the understanding of their behavioural needs. It has come to light that rabbits are intelligent animals and as such need lots of stimulation. For those who keep their rabbits indoors, boredom can present itself in the form of destructive and antisocial behaviour.
Although teaching your rabbit to urinate on command would make an amusing party trick, there are many more savoury behaviours you can teach your pet to perform. As long as it is physically possible for your pet and does not risk injury then you can try pretty much anything. The most common behaviours to teach are, sitting, standing, running into an enclosure or carrier, jumping over a pole or through a hoop and nudging a ball.
Where do I start?
To start clicker training, you need some tasty treats, in small enough pieces to be just one mouthful,
and a clicker (you can even use the clicker part of a pen!) The clicking noise made by the clicker or pen is a method of marking the behaviour that you want. In your pet’s mind, the click grows to mean “Yes! That’s exactly what I want you to do! Well done!”
Your pet does not instinctively know what the clicker means, and therefore before anything else, you must teach it what it represents. This is known by some as ‘charging the clicker’.
To begin with, prepare twenty bite sized treats. Click the clicker and feed your pet a treat. Once your pet has ﬁnished the treat, give another click and feed it another. Repeat this exercise until all the treats are gone. Whilst teaching your rabbit the meaning of the clicker, it’s important to watch out for signs of recognition that they understand that a click means food. This can be as simple as looking at you expectantly, a change in the ear set or with some greedy rabbits, jumping at you like a wild beast in order to get the treat as quickly as they can. If you feel your pet has not learned the meaning of the clicker during the ﬁrst session then continue with this training until you are sure your pet has got the idea.
At your next session, start as you did previously by giving a treat and a click at the same time. After a few treats, give a click and pause for two seconds and give the treat. Hopefully, your pet will by now associate the click with the treat and upon hearing the click, will look at you expectantly. Don’t be tempted to wait too long before giving the treat. Rabbits are not dogs and can become incredibly offended if they feel they are being teased. An offended rabbit will stamp its feet at you or worst still, hop away whilst kicking out its hind feet as if kicking dust in your face.
Once your rabbit has reached this stage and you are conﬁdent it knows what the clicker means, you can then move on to putting this into practice.
The next step I call ‘teaching your rabbit to love to learn’. Up to now, your rabbit has learned that a click means a tasty treat is on the way, but he simply sees you as a treat dispenser. We now need to teach your rabbit that he needs to do something to get a treat and to persuade him this can be just as fun as eating!
We can all remember how stressful hard exams were and equally how much fun pre school was! Rabbits are just the same. If they are to develop a love of learning, clicker training must be kept fun, and to start with, the behaviours must be very easily achievable.
The ﬁrst behaviour to teach is known as target training. Take a piece of dowel, some tissue, a square of brightly coloured cloth and an elastic band. Wrap the tissue around the end of the dowel so it forms a small round ball, cover with the brightly coloured cloth and secure with the elastic band. , cover with the brightly coloured cloth and secure with the elastic band. You now have a target stick.
Your aim is to teach your rabbit to touch the cloth end of the target stick with his nose. Start by holding the target stick just in front and slightly to the side of your rabbit’s face. The reason you should start to the side is that rabbits have very poor eyesight to the front and behind them. When your rabbit looks at the stick, click and then treat. Repeat this twenty times, moving the target stick to the other side and to the front of your rabbit’s face. Every time your pet looks at the clicker, click and treat. In no time at all, your rabbit is likely to touch the stick with its nose. At this point, give your rabbit a treat and from that moment, begin to reward your rabbit only for touching the target stick.
When your rabbit is making an effort to touch the target stick at least 85% of the time, start to move the target stick a little further away. Continue to click and treat until you can move the target stick even further away. If your rabbit starts to appear to forget the behaviour then you have moved too far too quickly. Take a step back and start again. In no time at all, your rabbit will learn to follow the target stick. This is great for moving your pet from one place to another!
Once your rabbit has learned to follow and touch the target stick at least 90% of the time, you can begin to use it to teach other behaviours.
Teaching your rabbit to sit is a fun and rewarding behaviour that can give you both a sense of achievement. Start by raising the target stick upwards, click and treat your rabbit for stretching up to follow the stick. Due to their physical build your rabbit will naturally fall into a sitting position once the target is lifted high enough. Ensure each step is given a click and treat.
Repeat this exercise with the stick until your rabbit is moving into a sitting position with no hesitation on almost every occasion. Then, start to introduce the clue word ‘sit’. Each time your rabbit follows the stick into the sitting position, say the word sit in a clear and calm voice as he moves into position.
Ensure you still click and treat. In no time at all your rabbit will learn what ‘sit’ means so you will no longer need to use the target stick.
Many people, especially those that have clicker trained dogs, will ﬁ nd it awful that a treat is used throughout the process and that the treat has not been phased out and replaced with a stroke or affection. Rabbits are not dogs and as such, most have very different motivational factors than our canine friends. As much as they love to learn, they need a reason to. How many people choose to go to work for free? Rabbits are more like people that dogs. They love a challenge but most will not work hard if the reward at the end is not worth their while.
The principles of clicker training can be used for any situation your rabbit is physically capable of. These can be both practical and just for fun but all help to develop a deep bond and rapport between you and your pet. I encourage all rabbit owners to teach their pet to run to its hutch on command as a safety measure and to be rewarded for eating from hand also. Rabbits are prone to digestive problems and can stop eating. A well trained rabbit will often be tempted to eat even when not hungry. This can be a lifesaver! Clicker training can prove an invaluable way of teaching your rabbit to accept medical examinations and routine nail trimming and grooming.
There are also lots of fun uses for clicker training, from teaching your rabbit to play fetch, to jumping an obstacle in a rabbit agility course. The possibilities are endless, just remember to make sure you both stay safe and that everything is kept as much fun as possible.