Did you know that people have been hunting small game with dogs for thousands of years? This is not a new partnership, but one that may be at the very heart of how and why dogs became domesticated in the first place. Ancient art depicts the dog-human hunting relationship, and small game like rabbits were among the first and most common quarry that developed this partnership. Over the generations, dogs have been specifically bred to hunt game like rabbits.
Retrievers and hounds that have highly developed scenting and hunting instincts are commonly used. For rabbit hunting, beagles are generally recognized as the all-stars of the sport. Their agility, speed, focus, teamwork, and scenting ability serve them well while hunting these extremely fast and agile animals, however, many hunting breeds are motivated and adept at hunting rabbits. If you teach your dog to hunt rabbits this will provide great exercise for your dog, and providing your dog a job that he has been developed for is good for your dog's emotional and mental development.
Rabbits are extremely challenging game, as they are small, fast, and able to escape through small openings and hide in dense foliage, all factors that make them extremely difficult to hunt for your dog. Most dogs, especially hunting breeds, are extremely motivated to chase rabbits. Focusing this natural inclination and teaching your dog to chase rabbits and return quarry to you after they have been shot, hopefully unmangled, can be the challenging part for handlers and hunters.
You will need your dog to be not only focused on the hunt, but responsive to off-leash commands, even while focused on quarry. A dog that does not respond to commands may get in the way of a shot, or, put himself in a dangerous situation, such as when other wildlife, a roadway, or a hazardous obstacle are present. Dogs can be injured from the stress of the speed and fast turns involved in chasing a rabbit, and you will need to supervise your dog closely to ensure that he does not sustain injury, and address muscle and joint injuries if they occur. Young dogs are often introduced to rabbit hunting, however, due to the continuing development of joints in young dogs, extra care should be taken to ensure that injuries are prevented and addressed.
When hunting rabbits with your dog and using a shotgun, there is a risk to the dog from the shotgun. Special care is critical to ensure your dog is not in the line of fire, that you have the correct type of gun, and knowledge of its use for the job at hand. You should get your dog used to the sights and sounds of the gun prior to hunting rabbits so he is not frightened or startled. You can use rabbit skins to motivate and teach your dog to scent and chase rabbits. Some hunters use live rabbits in an enclosed pen to introduce young dogs to chasing rabbits. In these cases, care is taken to protect the rabbit by supervising and taking other precautions. Having a dog that has a strong grasp of obedience and off-leash commands, especially off-leash recall, is important to prevent accidents or losing your dog on the hunt.