How to Train Your Small Dog to Like a Rabbit

How to Train Your Small Dog to Like a Rabbit
Hard difficulty iconHard
Time icon4-6 Weeks
Behavior training category iconBehavior

Introduction

Traditionally dogs are predators, rabbits are prey, and specifically, rabbits are prey for dogs. They are a natural food source for canines and their wild cousins. What if you have a pet rabbit and a pet dog?  Is there any hope of your dog becoming “friends” with your rabbit? Will you be able to socialize them and let them loose together? 

Many dogs and rabbits share homes together quite amicably. But whether your dog and rabbit will be able to be loose together and enjoy companionship depends on your dog and, to some degree, your rabbit. Dogs that are extremely prey motivated, or from breeds recently crossed with wild canine cousins, such as coyotes or wolves, are not good candidates as bunny buddies! 

However, most dogs can be taught to respect their rabbit housemates. Even a Labrador cross farm dog, Bella, who would happily chase and kill a jackrabbit in her field, has been trained so that she carefully steps over her mistress’s pet bunny, sitting on the living room floor, and quietly goes to her bed in the corner, leaving the family bunny unmolested. Bella may be an exceptional case, as she will chase wild rabbits, but not her family's tame one. Most dogs cohabitating with rabbits are trained not to chase rabbits at all, and this is usually how best success occurs in establishing rabbit and dog roommates!

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Defining Tasks

Before training your pet dog to get along with your pet rabbit, who is naturally a prey animal to your dog, it is important that your dog is obedient, that he listens well to your commands and responds to you, and that your dog recognizes you as the pack leader. Dogs perceive the world through their rigid social structure, which is hierarchical and includes a pack leader and pack members of varying ranks. You will want to establish that you're the pack leader and that your rabbit is a member of the pack, along with your dog, in order to be able to let your dog and rabbit safely in contact with each other.  

You can start training your young dog to get along with your rabbit, but a puppy may have limited self-control. Although he may not be intentionally aggressive towards your rabbit, roughhousing and chewing can be difficult to control for a puppy and can injure your rabbit, so use caution with young dogs. An older dog may have more control over behavior. Also, using a confident bunny helps; a rabbit that always shows fear or runs away will not be useful at teaching your dog not to chase or view the rabbit as a prey object.

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Getting Started

Be sure to supervise closely at all times when introducing a rabbit and dog together, to protect the rabbit's safety. Using a leash and a cage or barrier is usually necessary to control the situation until success socializing your two pets occurs.  Treats can be used to reward calm non-aggressive behavior in your dog around the bunny. Be sure you have a strong relationship with your dog, that he sees you as his leader, and responds to your commands and direction before attempting to teach your dog to socialize with an animal that he would otherwise see as prey. This strong relationship is necessary to help him establish an alternate way of relating to the rabbit and turn your bunny into a buddy, not an appetizer!

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The Introduce Slowly Method

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1

Introduce in cage

Put your rabbit in his cage in the middle of the floor and keep your dog on a leash so you have control of your dog. Slowly approach the cage and allow your dog to investigate. A bunny will usually feel safer in his cage, and if the rabbit is well socialized will probably not show fear of your dog. If he does, finding a bunny to borrow that is less fearful may be useful for training.

2

Reward calm

If your dog stays calm while investigating, talk calmly and praise him, give him treats.

3

Correct aggression

If your dog barks, paws at the cage or reacts aggressively, correct him by tapping him on the side and distracting him. Move your dog further away until he is calm and then approach the cage again. Say “gentle” when your dog is quiet and calm with the rabbit.

4

Hold rabbit

When your dog is quiet around the rabbit in the cage, take the rabbit out of the cage and hold him while your dog investigates. Have an assistant hold the rabbit so you can control your dog on-leash. Reward gentle behavior, correct aggressive behavior. Create space when needed.

5

Let loose supervised

Gradually move to playing with the bunny on the ground, and if your dog reacts calmly, remove leash and allow the rabbit and dog to move around together, supervise closely.

The Make a Pack Method

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Put rabbit in rolling cage

Dogs like to travel in packs. Your dog forms a pack with you, other people, and other animals that walk alongside him. Put your rabbit in a small rolling cage, available at pet stores, or put a small cage with your rabbit in it on an open wagon, so your dog can see the rabbit.

2

Walk with dog

Go out on a walk in a safe location. Be sure other large, aggressive dogs will not be present, that may get out of control and attack your rabbit in the cage. Control the situation. Walk your dog alongside your rabbit in the cage frequently.

3

Carry rabbit

If possible, have a reliable child ride in the wagon holding the rabbit on a leash to increase exposure during walks or carry your rabbit while on a harness and leash. This will help your dog see your rabbit as a pack member part of his traveling group.

4

Introduce after walk

Start introducing your dog to your rabbit after walks in a quiet location with your dog on leash and the rabbit held on a leash. Supervise closely. Tell your dog to lie down at first, until the rabbit becomes accustomed to your dog.

5

Allow to socialize

Eventually let your dog and rabbit move around together, if they are comfortable together you can let them off leash, in an enclosed safe area while supervised, to socialize together.

The Create Submission Method

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Tire and expose

Exercise your dog so that he is tired and ready for quiet time. Expose your dog to your rabbit while your rabbit is in the cage on the floor. Praise calm behavior, correct aggressive or excited behavior.

2

Have dog lie down

Once your dog is calm around your rabbit in the cage, have your dog lie down next to the cage door on his side. This is a submissive position. You are teaching your dog that he is not dominant over the rabbit.

3

Allow rabbit access

Open the cage door and allow the rabbit to come out and investigate your dog at his own pace. Do not force the bunny out.

4

Allow investigation

If your dog is remaining calm, allow your dog to lift his head and sniff or investigate the bunny, but insist he remains lying down, and allow the bunny to move around freely. Give your dog lots of praise and attention for being still and calm. Repeat frequently for several days. This stage will take significant time for your rabbit to become comfortable approaching the dog, and your dog to learn not to react to the rabbit.

5

Increase exposure

Eventually allow your rabbit and dog to move around together. Always supervise and insist your dog lie down if he shows signs of wanting to play aggressively. Reward your dog when lying down in the presence of the rabbit, so your dog recognizes this as a pleasant experience and does not feel frustrated and reprimanded constantly.

By Laurie Haggart

Published: 01/11/2018, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Lychee

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West Highland White Terrier

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1 Year

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I'm thinking about getting a Netherland dwarf rabbit, but am worried since I already have a dog, she's a terrier so she's generally more energetic. She's a very sweet lil girl, and is particularly calm for her breed, but sometimes her terrier side shows and she acts aggressive to wild rabbits. She will bark at them, chase them, and so on. The fact that Netherland dwarf rabbits are more likely to run from her if she displays this behavior around them makes it worse. My mother has told me stories of her rabbit, which died on the second day she got it. The only trace left of it was a small puddle of blood, her dog had eaten it. I am worried the same will happen to my future rabbit, and even though I will be keeping it in my room, I am still worried for the rabbits danger. I don't know if there is some way to teach her to not be aggressive towards rabbits, since I desperately want a rabbit. She is easy to train, but sometimes she can't control herself. Is there any way I could train her to not act this way?

June 26, 2022

Lychee's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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Hello Mila, Is pup is prey driven toward rabbits, prey drive is instinctual and not something you can change, so you will never completely remove the risk, and the amount of freedom the rabbit can have will be effected with this - it's not likely you will have a free roaming rabbit that can move about without direct supervision around the dog in your home. With that said, you can teach pup to avoid the rabbit, and specifically the rabbit's cage and address any fixating pup does with the rabbit - like crying outside your door to get in to see the rabbit. To teach pup to avoid the rabbit and their cage, you would need to spend some time learning about avoidance training and the use of a high quality remote training collar, the type used for duck hunting, like e-collar technologies, garmin, dogtra, or sportdog. A dog who is chasing a bunny for fun but not viewing that rabbit as prey can be taught to co-exist peacefully in most cases, but if there is strong prey drive toward the rabbit that's instinctual, your best bet is managing that instinct that can't be eradicated, and taking enough safety measures to ensure the animals are safe. It's not guaranteed, but you may do better with a really large breed of rabbit that's more docile, something as big as pup or bigger. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

June 27, 2022

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Henry

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Spoodle

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9 Weeks

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Hello- I've got a puppy who's 9 weeks old and a rabbit about 2 and a half years old. The puppy is calm at times when we hold him next to the rabbit but on occasions he does tend to try and nip at her and chase her when he can. As we are in an apartment what can we do to try and speed up the process into them getting used to each other so we don't have to cage off half of the apartment to protect the rabbit.

Oct. 6, 2021

Henry's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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Hello Amanda, Check out the videos linked below for teaching calmness around cats. You would teach calmness around the bunny in the same way. Mild issue - teaching impulse control: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWF2Ohik8iM Moderate issue - teaching impulse control using corrections and rewards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dPIC3Jtn0E Work on impulse control in general with pup, by teaching things that increase impulse control and calmness - such as a long Place command around lots of distractions. Practicing the command until you get to the point where pup will stay on Place while you are working with the bunny in the same room. I recommend also back tying pup while they are on place - safely connecting a long leash attached to pup to something near the Place just in case pup were to try to get off Place before you could intervene. Make sure what the leash is secured to, the leash itself, and pup's collar or harness are secure and not likely to break or slip off. This keeps kitty safe while practicing and reinforces to pup that they can't get off the Place. The leash should be long enough that pup doesn't feel the leash while they are obediently staying on the Place because it has some slack in the leash. You want pup to learn to stay due to obedience and self-control, and the leash just be back up for safety. Place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omg5DVPWIWo Below are some other commands in general you can practice to help pup develop better impulse skill/self-control - impulse control takes practice for a dog to gain the ability to control herself. Down-Stay: https://www.thelabradorsite.com/train-your-labrador-to-lie-down-and-stay/ Leave It: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-shih-tzu-puppy-to-not-bite Out - which means leave the room: https://www.petful.com/behaviors/how-to-teach-a-dog-the-out-command/ Know that unfortunately, this type of training does take time though. Even with an older dog pup is mouthing, it takes a puppy a lot of practice, but the above training should get you headed in the right direction so pup learns how to be gentle as soon as possible, just remember to also be patient with your expectations of pup. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

Oct. 6, 2021


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