The UK's first Rabbit Grand National was held at the Burgess Premier Small Animal Show 2011 and we were delighted to invite some of Sweden's top rabbit agility professionals to take part in the event.
Rabbits are extremely intelligent creatures, that need LOTS of exercise and who love to run and jump!
So rabbit agility is a great way for these natural hoppers to have fun and keep fit and stimulated. Moreover, it builds a great deal of trust and a strong bond between pet and owner.
Quite simply, the more you put into your pet - the more you get out, and rabbit agility can be a very rewarding way to spend quality time with your pet while bringing out their confidence and personality. It has been a popular sport in Scandanavia since the 1970's and is starting to gain popularity in the UK.
First things first.... It is important to remember that the rabbits taking part in the video above have been trained over a long period of time by professionals. This is because:
- Rabbits must be very well socialisedand confident withtheir ownerand their surroundings to respond well to any kind of training
- Like any athlete it takes a lot oftime anddevelopment for their bones and muscles to become accustomed toand strong enough to cope with the rigours of jumping.
Rabbit agility training requires lots of time, patience and a positive reward based approach - such as clicker training. You must also bear in mind that not every rabbit will take to it, and under no circumstances should a rabbit ever be forced into agility against their will. Doing so can result in torn muscles or even broken bones and backs, and a bad experience can be mentally damaging.
If you think your rabbit might have the aptitude for agility, and are considering giving it a go, why not check out our 'top tips to getting started' from Swedish Rabbit Agility Expert Tina Larsson.
Top Tips to Getting Started
- Bond with your Bunny
Before taking your rabbit within a whiskers distance of a jump you must establish a strong bond of trust! Spend time with your pet, in their territory (hutch and run) and in yours, making sure they are comfortable to have you around them in both circumstances. Make sure they are happy to come to you voluntarily for cuddles and attention.
At first it will take a while to achieve all this. Rabbits are prey animals and naturally nervous of everything including loud noises, fast movement, strange smells, being approached from above and of course being chased. However, they are also very inquisitive creatures. So, if you always calm and quiet around them, let them come to you, and reward them when they do with a tasty morsel such as an Excel Nature Snack, they will soon come to associate you with safety and be reassured that when in your presence nothing bad will happen. Above all your rabbit should find spending time with you fun, and something to look forward to.
- Small Steps
You can create obstacles to jump over very easily, using everyday garden items such as logs, or even bits of garden cane balanced on top of flower pots. However, if you do this you must ensure that the obstacle will easily give way should the rabbit knock it; to prevent them hurting themselves. You should also only start with very small, low level jumps (at minimum a couple of centimeters off the floor) to get your pet used to the concept of jumping over them on command. Make sure you are jumping on a soft surface with purchase - such as grass or carpet. Never jump your rabbit on concrete or wooden floors as they can break their legs this way.
You also need to take it easy. Remember your rabbit needs to associate jumping with fun, so you don't want to be overdoing it and training all the time. Tina recommends that you should only train 2 - 3 times a week, doing no more than 30 jumps during each session. As your rabbit becomes more confident you can start to increase the height of the jumps, but only by a centimeter at a time.
- Jump for Joy
Healthy treats and snacks are a great way to initially bond with your rabbit, but Tina doesn't recommend being over-reliant on food as a reward for jumping. The rabbit should associate jumping with fun and affection rather than food, so whenever a rabbit completes a jump successfully, reward them with praise and cuddles. Rabbits will respond to this very positively and be keen to repeat the process.
If your rabbit refuses to jump, or knocks a jump down, never shout or get angry with your rabbit. Just quietly and calmly pick your rabbit up and re-position them in front of the jump with enough room for a run up, and encourage them to have another go. If they complete the jump the next time make an even bigger fuss of them to show that this was the required outcome.
- Moving On
Once you have established the principle of getting over one jump successfully, you might want to introduce a few more to get your rabbit used to jumping a ‘course'. Don't start with more than three jumps in one go, and set them up in a clear, straight line, allowing plenty of space between each one for the rabbit to get a good ‘run up'.
Most importantly always go forward around your course of jumps, never backwards. If a rabbit misses a jump either reposition them to have another go, or move on to the next jump. Don't allow your rabbit to keep running backwards and forwards randomly over the jumps, otherwise they won't learn to jump consecutive jumps one after the other in one direction.
- High Hops!
It is essential not to try and make your rabbit jump any higher than they are comfortably able. Build up the height of the jumps over time, but if a rabbit can not make a jump, you must always lower it and give them the chance to jump it at a height they can achieve. Otherwise they will simply lose confidence and no longer enjoy taking part in the activity. Tina has been training rabbits to jump for over 20 years, and uses rabbits specifically bred to enjoy jumping. These rabbits tend to be of an optimum size and weight, with very powerful legs and strong bones. So while your own pet rabbit will be able to jump to a certain level, you should not expect them to be jumping the kind of heights and widths that these rabbits do. Either way, it is still a rewarding way for you and your bunny to have a fantastically fun time together!
NB - some professional rabbit jumpers use a harness around the rabbit's body, attached to a long lead for rabbit agility. These are purely to keep a safe hold on the rabbit in public places and are not used to pull rabbits over the jumps. Therefore, if you train your rabbit in a safe environment such as in your garden, you should not need a harness or lead if you follow the advice above. Your rabbit should be happy to jump by themselves. Under NO circumstances should a rabbit ever have a lead attached to their neck!