8 a.m. Sunday morning: a rustling noise disrupts my blissful doziness. Within a split second, my eyes pop open and head shoots up from the pillow. No, it couldn’t be — it is! Two little long-eared faces look just as startled to see me as I am to discover them. “There’s rabbits in here!,” I bark, flinging my feet to the floor and crouching down to snatch up Moraea as my groggy husband murmurs in snoozy confusion.

My Bad.

After swiftly removing both miscreants from the forbidden sanctuary of our bedroom, I paused to figure out how this happened. Totally my fault:  I failed to pull the gate fully shut after a wee hours visit to the living room.

This Entrance to Otherland is not a realm our guys typically frequent, so we’ve gotten away with leaving it open for short periods before. But in this case the Magic Portal was navigable for hours. As the sun rose and the buns with it, the Great Gap was detected, and the predawn peacefulness of the unknown area beyond gave them the courage to venture in. 

Exploration is a pastime rabbits innately enjoy. In the wild, travel would yield exercise and potentially new sources of food. This gate breach could leave a big impression — and for Moraea, it did.

Her New Obsession

Yes, our girl had a terrific time playing Dora the Explorer, and wanted nothing more than to continue her adventurous pursuits. To that end, the previously ignored pet gate — or more specifically, the destruction thereof — became her new obsession. Morning and evening — any time she was awake — she would attack it with gusto. For days, I found myself having to push her aside in order to set my foot down when passing through it. See for yourself:

As a side note, Finnegan wasn’t so captivated. I did see him hop over to the offending fence on one occasion and give it a little yank. He turned with a confused expression, as if he couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about, and hopped away.

But Moraea’s as addicted as an adolescent with a video game. OK, maybe it’s nice for her to have a new hobby. Sure, she gets some exercise out of it. And fortunately, the gate’s pretty sturdy, she’s not going to break it. But what we really want is for this portal to stop being a focus of attention, in case we don’t close it immediately. Besides which, for the noise-sensitive folks in the household, the clatter of constant gate-yanking is a new kind of torture.

How can we fix this? 

Extinction: Friend and Foe

Let’s say you open up your closet door one day and a $20 bill falls out. Wow! Next time you open it, another $20 appears. You’re going to start opening that enchanted door a lot more, right?  If this continues, you might make a full-time occupation out of it.

But then let’s suppose that it stops. You might keep at it for a while, but eventually even the most devoted closet door checker would give up. Perhaps you’d try it occasionally just to see if the magic money reappears. But if, after some time, no more free currency appears, your closet-door-opening obsession will wane. That’s extinction.

Similarly, you might teach your bun a trick or behavior, such as crate training .  You work on this for weeks until, when you open up the crate door, your bun immediately runs over and happily hops right in. Then you don’t practice it for months. Now pull out the crate and open the door: she looks up but isn’t quite sure about the next step. Or maybe doesn’t react at all. That’s extinction, too.

Any action that isn’t getting positively reinforced regularly enough will fade. People often make the mistake of thinking once an animal has been trained in a behavior, it “knows” that. But creatures only take actions that they expect will have a benefit. Activities that haven’t yielded binky-worthy benefits lately will be replaced by others that have.

Happily, it should be easier to retrain crate loading — or any behavior that wanes from disuse — than it was starting from scratch. But you will have to backtrack and work on it a while to reestablish the level of fluency your fuzz-face had before. So it pays to keep key skills fresh for when you’ll need them.

A Fix, But Not a Fast One

So yes, extinction can bail you out if your ear-head becomes undesirably preoccupied. Eventually Moraea will abandon her quest to explore forbidden lands, but that process by itself is notoriously slow. And nobody wants to wait months for relief from a constant, thunderous gate-rattle! 

There are actions you can take to speed things along.

1. Ban the boons

You need to remove, as completely as possible, whatever the hopper found rewarding about the unwanted activity. In our case, we have to be extra super careful about closing that gate fully and immediately every time it’s opened. Breaching its confines again would strongly reinforce attacking it as a very rewarding exercise.

Moraea says, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

It’s possible that the sport of ripping into the cardboard on the gate might turn out to be a really fun hobby for Moraea just on its own. It’s been wrapped in cardboard since its installation because:

  1. I’ve read rabbits can wedge themselves through openings you would judge smaller than their skeletons. The gate’s bars are far enough apart that I’m not 100% convinced a small bunny couldn’t squeeze through. 
  2. Out of sight, out of mind: not seeing the space beyond the blockade makes it less alluring. A barrier doesn’t have to be as impenetrable if nobody’s that interested in getting through it.

If the cardboard-ripping becomes enjoyable enough that she starts doing it for its own sake, we’ll have to make it less satisfying. For example, we can try replacing the cardboard with other materials until we find something she doesn’t enjoy tearing apart so much.

2. Make something else more appealing.

If you don’t want to just wait around for your whiskerface to get bored of their unwelcome addiction, you can also try to provide something more attractive to do. Whenever she starts doing it, or even looks like she’s headed that way, step in with something even better.

In my case, when Moraea hops over to the gate to start giving it the heave-ho, I’ll grab a small stash of cereal pellets and lure her away from it. If she heads back that way, I’ll lure her away again, then put out a puzzle toy for her to work on a good distance away from the forbidden fence. Working on the gate is a clear indication she’s looking for something to do. Unless I give her something else, it’s my fault if she persists.

Here’s Moraea being lured away from her bad habit.

So Far, So Good

The first week and a half after the Sunday morning trespass were the worst. Every morning and evening during her active hours, Moraea would visit the gate repeatedly and mercilessly tear into its cardboard camouflage. Even now, three weeks later, she hasn’t completely given up. But the frequency and duration of her forays have diminished to once or twice a day, and sometimes she doesn’t even bother.

Given the passion with which she pursued this initially, it’ll be something we’ll have to be permanently watchful about. Back to the magical money-dispensing closet: imagine if, after months of being a normal clothes cabinet, it suddenly chucked out another $20? It would redouble your interest, wouldn’t it? If Moraea gets through the gate again, even if her compulsion has dwindled, it will reignite with even more vigor.

The Fluffy Tail of This Blog Post

Any time a bun is doing things you don’t like, remember these simple steps:

  • Figure out what they’re getting from it that makes them want to do it
  • Remove that payoff
  • Replace it with an alternative source of fun

We’ll continue to be vigilant to prevent any more bedroom incursions and provide better things for Moraea to do than keep attacking the hallway barrier. Extinction can ultimately bring an end to this gate-crashing racket and restore peace to our household.

4 thoughts on “The Case of the Compulsive Gate Crasher

    • That’s a good strategy. In the case where you’re separating two unbonded single buns you probably do want them to be able to see each other — It’s beneficial for them to be able to see other rabbits daily — but if they don’t get along the chicken wire will keep them from hurting each other.

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