Want something easy to train your bunny to do, that’s also useful? Try target training. That is, teaching your bun to touch his nose to a “target.”
Why Start With Target Training?
Target training is an excellent first exercise for both trainer and student. It’s a pretty simple thing for your rabbit to do, and the mechanics for you are not too complicated. The best part is, once you have trained this, you will have a way to tell your bun to move to a particular spot. That makes it a nice gateway to teaching other stuff — like, go to a mat, or get in a travel crate. Once your rabbit knows to touch the target, you can get him to go wherever you put it.
Make Yourself an Easy Target
The first thing you’ll need is a target for your trainee to touch. This is usually some clearly visible object at the end of a long stick.
Pet stores and web sites sell commercially made target sticks, usually thin, retractable metal rods with a brightly colored plastic ball on the end. For those old enough to remember, it’s similar to the gadgets lecturers used before they had laser pointers.
If you don’t want to buy a target, you can easily rig up your own. Just make sure it’s something lightweight and maneuverable enough so you won’t have any trouble controlling it as you move it around.
I made a very serviceable target out of an old mop handle and a tennis ball. In the process, I learned something I’ve always wondered about: How do tennis balls get on the legs of assistive walkers?
Now You Can Train!
As always, to set it up
- get some treats ready
- choose a time when your rabbit is alert and ready to play
- grab your target stick
Extend the target into the vicinity of your rabbit’s nose, but not touching it. If he turns or moves his nose closer to the target at all, click and treat. (See the previous post, Rabbit Training – Getting started for more details about treats, clicking, and beginning rabbit training.)
You should make the initial response such an easy thing for him to do that he might even do it accidentally — and that’s okay! Just try to time the click right when he moves towards the target. Be as precise as possible about your timing and consistent about catching the right behavior. If you can react very predictably, he’ll figure out in no time that getting closer to the target wins him a treat, and he’ll start wanting to do that.
A Quick Demonstration
I shot a video that shows how to start. Because both my bunnies already have been trained with a target stick, I couldn’t use use one to show you how to begin. Instead, I used a piece of bright pink duct tape stuck to my left hand as the target.
Duct tape (or sticky note) targeting is a similar concept to the target stick, but the duct tape version, at least initially, relies on your hand to be in the target location. That limits its usefulness for situations where you want your rabbit to move away from you. If you want the full benefit of this version, you’ll have to eventually “fade” your hand out of the picture so that bunny will target the tape no matter what it’s stuck to. That’s a little trickier than just using a target stick, and I’m not going to try to explain that in this post. Still, the beginning stages of both types of target training are very similar.
In this video, I’m giving Moraea her first lesson in touching her nose to the tape. She doesn’t ever come completely in contact with the tape during this first session. I’m just rewarding her for moving towards it.
Holding On to Everything
If you have the target stick in your hand instead of the tape, your technique will obviously differ. You’ll need to figure out how you want to arrange things so you can hold onto the target stick, the treats, and the clicker (if you’re using one).
There are lots of options.
- You can put the clicker in either the target stick hand, or the treat delivery hand.
- You can keep all the treats in your hand, or store the treats in an easily accessible location, like a treat pouch on your waist or a nearby bowl.
I find it more challenging to deliver treats when I have to reach somewhere to grab them. First of all, I’ve had a hard time finding a treat pouch that works well for delivering such tiny portions one at a time. They get lost in there, or stuck in crevices.
Also, in the heat of the moment, I occasionally go full-on slapstick and fumble the lot of them all over the floor. This presents my learner with a treat bonanza that not only derails the training session but might communicate more enthusiasm than his performance deserves! Therefore, I prefer to keep a manageable supply of treats in my hand.
Delivering On Time
You are likely to be some distance away when you put the target in front of your bunny’s nose, just due to the length of the stick. So when you click, you’ll have to move quickly to get that treat in front of his face.
It may take a few repetitions to get that rhythm down. You might even want to rehearse this a couple of times before you start. If your bunny is skittish and not used to this training stuff, you may want to shorten the target stick at first and stay close so you’re not swooping down like a hawk to deliver the treat.
Once you’ve got bunnykins moving his head towards the target reliably, it’s time to “increase your criteria.” That means, moving towards it is no longer enough. He’s got to actually touch the target.
You might now notice your student looking concerned that no click occurred when he expected it. With any luck, though, since moving towards the target worked so well for him before, he’ll keep trying to move towards it, until he comes into contact with it. When he does, click and treat! At first this will be a little confusing to your bunny, so make sure not to challenge him too much. Keep your target close so he doesn’t have to move far to touch it.
When he has touched the target a few times, your criteria is for him to keep touching it. You’ll no longer click and treat for just moving towards it. That is, unless you see your learner start to struggle. One failure, no big deal, but if you get a couple in a row that’s a warning signal. With too many failures, the rabbit may start to act frustrated or lose interest. This is not uncommon. Being a stickler for perfection will just leave you two in a standoff. Back up to the beginning and let him win for just a movement in the right direction for a while. Wait until that’s solid before you try increasing criteria again.
Remember that this is supposed to be fun for your rabbit. Just like playing Chutes and Ladders with a 3 year old — for goodness sake, let him win! You want him to succeed at least 3 times out of 5 so he thinks it’s the greatest game ever! If he’s getting less than that right, you’ve made it too hard. When he’s nailing 5 out of 5, you can give him a little more of a challenge.
Refining the Behavior
Once your student knows he needs to touch the target, then you can work on distance. Very gradually, start presenting the target a little further away. Always increase criteria just a little at a time and back up when you lose him. It’s best if you increase the distance by such a small amount that he almost can’t tell the difference. After using tiny increases for a while you will be able move by larger amounts and your bun will be able to figure out what to do.
When you have mastered distance, maybe work on height – so your trainee has to lift his head a little, then more, then actually get up on hind legs to touch the target. But best not to add both height and distance at the same time.
Sooner or later, the target will become your bunny’s obsession, and he will be willing to go wherever it goes. At that point, you’re done!
Here’s a video of Moraea demonstrating the finished behavior.
The Fluffy Tail of This Blog Post
You can pretty easily train a rabbit to touch his nose to an object by consistently marking (clicking) and rewarding movement towards it until he touches it. Then you can refine the behavior by adding tiny bits of distance and other variations a little at a time.