Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Thinking of Introducing a Dog to Your Rabbit?
To introduce a dog to your rabbit, caution is of the utmost importance. You certainly do not want to endanger your small furry friend nor scare him or her to the point of causing some emotional trauma (and potential stress-related ailments.)
Whether a dog will get along with a rabbit or not will vary on a variety of factors. Here's the thing: Not all dogs are created equally and so are rabbits.
Just like snowflakes have different shapes, pets have different personalities. Some pets may be compatible while others may not despite your effort. When it comes to introduction, there can be various dynamics going on and safety remains paramount. It is, therefore, best to err on the side of caution by taking some extra safety precautions.
It is also important recognizing that even when things seem to be going well, things may always regress. Most importantly, it's important to acknowledge and accept that not all relationships are meant to be.
Here are a few things to consider before Rover meets Roger Rabbit.
Consider the fact that certain dog breeds have been selectively bred throughout the years for rabbit hunting. These dog breeds will therefore instinctively want to chase rabbits rather than befriend them.
Things may therefore prove more difficult if you own a hunting-type breed such as some type of scent hound (like the beagle, basset hound, harrier, dachshund), sighthound (like the greyhound, pharaoh hound, whippet) or terrier (like Jack Russell terriers). Some types of retrievers, setters and pointers can also pose some challenges.
It is therefore much easier getting a border collie (bred to herd sheep) to get along with a rabbit (although predisposed to chase and harass any animal that runs), rather than a Jack Russell terrier which was primarily bred to kill small critters (finishers).
This, of course, doesn't mean that it's impossible to have such breeds cohabitate with a rabbit and there are some stories to prove it's possible, but some can be more of an exception to the rule or the puppy and bunny grew up together.
An older, calmer dog may be less likely to want to harass a rabbit compared to a young, excitable dog full of energy. Also, if he has a history of being trained, he'll have more impulse control than a puppy. However, it's also true that an older dog has more potential to harm a rabbit than a young puppy.
With puppies (preferably under the age of 6 months), you'll need to be persistent and remind them often that rabbits aren't there to be harassed. While it's true that puppies when young are pretty malleable and easier to train compared to a full-grown dog whose behavior tendencies have already established, the main problem is that puppies may want to persistently play with the rabbit.
You'll therefore need to set up a controlled and safe environment and spend time training puppies from an early age to not pester the rabbit. Through consistency and clear rules, your pup may grow up into a dog who will accept the rabbit as almost a conspecific or a family member, rather than prey.
Also, consider the rabbit's age: if your rabbit is young, he may have lowered fear responses compared to an adult and he may be more likely to investigate. However, young rabbits are smaller and more vulnerable if introduced to large, adult dogs. It goes without saying, the best introductions should involve young bunnies and young puppies.
3) The Dog's Personality
Variety is the spice of life when it comes to dogs and therefore you need to consider individual temperaments, On top of the breed and the age factor, it's therefore important considering several individual factors such as the dog's level of prey drive.
Even within a litter of puppies, there may be pups with a stronger prey drive compared to others. Is your dog a lap warmer, couch-potato type of dogs, or is he a dog who is very active and enjoys chasing birds and squirrels? Dogs prone to chasing furry critters won't make good candidates due to their high prey drive.
Prey drive though may not be the only problematic factor. Some dogs may simply dislike rabbits because they were never exposed to them before or they may feel jealous of the attention the rabbit gets from you.
Yes, according to a study, dogs are also susceptible to the green-eyed monster and may turn into the canine equivalent of Otello when an interloper threatens a relationship they feel is important.
According to the study, dogs are capable of feeling a primordial form of jealousy and therefore exhibit "jealous" behaviors (such as snapping, getting in between the owner and object of attention, pushing/touching the object/owner) when their owners displayed affectionate behaviors towards what appeared to be another dog.
4) The Rabbit's Personality
And then, you need to factor in the rabbit's personality. Is your rabbit more outgoing or is he rather timid? Depending on how your rabbit behaves, your dog may behave accordingly.
For instance, if your rabbit is prone to being shy and fearful, he'll likely run away and your dog will likely treat your rabbit as prey. If your rabbit is instead curious and outgoing, he may not back down and your dog may perceive him differently.
Be careful though, some rabbits can become aggressive, and dogs may react, so you'll need close monitoring at all times.
How to Introduce a Dog to Your Rabbit
As mentioned, extreme caution is needed when introducing a rabbit to a dog. You just can't open your rabbits' cage and just see how things go. That would be taking a big risk! Taking baby steps and carefully assessing how things are going is therefore paramount.
Particularly important would be making sure your dog is trained to be under voice control despite the distraction of the rabbit. The more you are able to keep your dog calm, the more he'll be able to attend to your requests and be able to refocus his attention on you. The more he's excited, the more he'll struggle in controlling his impulses. Following are several tips.
4 Behaviors to Train Your Dog
Before introducing your dog to your rabbit, having a dog under good voice control and responsive to you is paramount. Hence, it will take some time to train behaviors at a fluent level.
1) Train Your Dog to "Leave it"
In particular, you want a dog who responds to "leave it." Practice this a lot around small distractions, and the progress to more distracting stimuli. Remember to always use treats/foods that are higher in value than what the dog was asked to "leave."
On top of training a solid response to leave it, you may want to also train a strong response to drop it, in the unfortunate case your dog would grab your rabbit with his mouth. I know of a dog owner who saved her neighbors' rabbit thanks to this skill. Her dog had broken through the fence and grabbed one of the neighbor's rabbits. This cue saved the rabbit's life.
Here is a guide on how to train leave it and drop it: how to train your dog to leave it and drop it.
2) Train a Strong Recall
You want a strong response to a recall in case you ever need to call your dog away from your rabbit. Training a strong response to a recall takes time and a lot of proofing. Here are some tips for training a dog to come when called.
3) Train Other Basic Skills
You may also find it helpful to train your dog to sit, lie down, stay and come when called. These skills can come in handy at different times. Make sure to train a solid response to your verbal cues working around distractions.
4) Train Your Dog "Go to Your Mat"
Another handy trained behavior is teaching your dog to go to his mat. You can use this when you want your rabbit to romp around without your dog chasing him or bothering him in any way.
How to Train Your Dog to Lie on a Mat
6 Tips for Smoother Introductions
As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. The biggest mistake happening when dogs are introduced to small critters is rushing too fast through the process. Dogs do better through gradual introductions, taking baby steps in the process. Your rabbit will benefit from this too.
1) Drain Excess Energy
It may help to ensure your dog is somewhat tired before he's introduced to your bunny. So you may find it helpful to take him on a walk or play with him for a good half hour, having him run around, prior to the meeting. Also, don't forget about providing some mental stimulation which can be quite tiring as well. With a good amount of physical and brain energy drained, your dog may be less reactive to stimuli.
2) Start With Scent
A good place to start is to introduce your dog to your rabbit's scent. Actually, scent acquaintances should work both ways. Do this by placing a towel or blanket your rabbit sleeps on (and therefore has his scent) and placing it close to where your dog sleeps.
Do the same with your rabbit. Give your rabbit a mat or blanket that has your dog's scent. Blessed with 100 million scent cells, rabbits too have an excellent sense of smell!
3) Gradual Cage Introductions
Once your dog has shown to be under good voice control courtesy of training and his energy has been drained, you can put him on leash and allow him to visit the rabbits' cage. Ideally, keep it in a neutral area.
Work from a distance and do this only if your rabbit is more of the outgoing, inquisitive type. Shy, fearful rabbits can feel scared and trapped if we let a dog come too close to their cage and frighten them which can lead to stress- and even death if a rabbit is stressed enough! Yes, this can happen.
Watch your dog's body language carefully, if he shows worrisome signs such as staring or pointing, tell him to "leave it" and move away out of the room.
Then try again to approach, if he keeps on staring or pointing, remind him to "leave it" and move away. If he stays calm though, even for a split second, praise him and reward him with a high-value treat (kept in your treat bag or pocket).
Keep the sessions brief (no more than 5-7 minutes) and rewarding spread over the course of several days. If your dog stays calm, you can even ask him to sit at a distance from the cage and praise and reward him while there and then leave. Even if your rabbit isn't moving much in the cage, you're still creating positive associations with smelling the rabbit and staying calm nearby the cage.
4) Introducing Movement
Once your dog does well with your rabbit in the cage, it's then time to progress to having your rabbit behind a larger container such as a playpen or behind a baby gate so that your dog (always on leash) can watch him moving from a safe area.
Here is where things may get challenging, as movement is what stimulates a dog's prey drive. Keep your dog at a distance where he's under threshold and do the same exercise as with the cage.
As he gets calmer, start asking for sits and praise and reward them, then gradually progress closer to the enclosure, always paying attention to his body language. As you feed your dog treats, you can have a helper feed your rabbit goodies too so both animals get to reap the positive associations of seeing each other.
Here's the thing: The more your dog acts calm near your rabbit, the more your rabbit will calm down too and he may also be curious about meeting your dog. Gradual introductions help both rabbits and dogs.
A tip to increase criteria: If your rabbit isn't moving much, you can have a helper call/lure the rabbit with goodies from one end of the pen to another as you work on keeping your dog calm.
5) Keep That Leash On!
While you may feel a sense of victory when your dog can calmly approach the pen, don't lower your guard and assume all will go well if you let them meet face-to-face with your dog loose, off-leash.
Once your dog is loose, he may feel compelled to chase, and things can go disastrous within seconds. Sure, you can rely on your voice control, but trust is established over time, as your dog proves himself trustworthy in a variety of scenarios. Don't risk your rabbit's life.
On top of this, should your dog chase the rabbit, he'll likely feel compelled to chase more and more (chasing is deeply rewarding!) and the rabbit may feel compelled to run more and more (escaping is rewarding!) and you're stuck now in a pattern that may be difficult to overcome.
So if you want to progress to the next step, that is, removing the barrier, make sure your dog is on leash and at a safe distance, and ensure he doesn't startle your rabbit and remains under good voice control. As always praise and reward calm behaviors and say "leave it" and leave the room should he get excited.
As you progress, if a rabbit approaches your dog, make sure to praise and reward your dog for remaining calm and have a helper praise and reward your bunny for his investigative behavior. Avoid this with dogs who resource guard food.
6) Keep It Positive
It may be tempting to correct your dog for whining or trying to chase the rabbit. Doing so though may backfire. Telling your dog no repeatedly or giving a tug on the leash may create negative associations with the rabbit. With time, your dog may start to feel that the rabbit is nothing but a source of frustration and reprimands.
Instead, keep it positive, tell your dog to "leave it," praise and reward for refocusing on you and then leave the room and try again until he is calmer which you should also praise and reward.
And remember, if you have to tell your dog "leave it' constantly, you're going too fast through the process. Take a few steps back and lower your criteria.
Should You Progress Any Further?
A time may come where you may want to see how things go with your dog off-leash. This can be risky. Even if your dog is trained, consider that there is no such thing as a dog that will respond 100 percent of the time. Even the best-trained dogs have their oops moments and in this case, precious life is at risk. So evaluate things carefully.
Sure, there are dog owners who have successfully raised dogs with their rabbits, but there are also dog owners who have had their rabbits injured or even killed by their dogs, so you need to carefully evaluate things, but always put your rabbit's safety first.
Never Leave Them Unsupervised
Dogs may learn to leave your rabbit alone when you are around, but the moment you leave, they may revert to their prey drive and attempt to chase or even harm your rabbit. Don't let this happen.
Create a Safe Haven
Provide a safe place where your rabbit can retreat to should he feel the need to have his own space. Make sure he has access to small, tight spaces that your dog cannot access-in case of an emergency.
Keep Resources Out of the Way
Some dogs tend to be possessive over things such as food bowls, toys, bones and sleeping areas. If your rabbit approaches these, your dog may feel motivated to attack due to his tendency to resource guard. It's best to err on the side of safety and remove things that the bunny may approach and your dog may feel compelled to guard.
Use Safe Confinement Options
When you cannot actively supervise your rabbit and dog or when you want your rabbit to enjoy some playtime, it's important to rely on some type of sturdy and safe confinement. Your dog can be also crated or kept behind a sturdy baby gate he can't jump over or knock down as an extra precaution.
It goes without saying that it's ultimately your responsibility to ensure that such enclosures are sturdy and capable to withstand your dog's determination.
An Ounce of Prevention. . .
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Preventing your dog from harming your rabbit is important. You owe it to your rabbit keeping him safe and ensuring his emotional wellbeing.
As mentioned, there are never guarantees on the outcome of training and rabbits are animals and dogs are animals, and therefore we can't always control or predict their behaviors. If you are struggling, but you're not ready yet to throw the towel, you can enlist the help of a certified applied animal behaviorist for help. However, even then, you won't have any guarantees on the outcome.
Many dog owners who would have sworn that their dog had no mean bone in their body, were shocked when that day their dog came in through the door carrying a dead baby bunny or when their dogs kill the family cat after years of seemingly fine coexistence. Accidents happen, and even with the sweetest and best behaved dogs.
So if you own a dog and a bunny, it is your responsibility to ensure the safety of both animals, and oftentimes, the best thing to do is to just play it safe and keep them separated and out of harm's way.
- Behavioural Problems in Rabbits: A Clinical Approach by Guen Bradbury
Rabbits For Dummies by Connie Isbell, Audrey Pavia
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
FlourishAnyway from USA on February 02, 2021:
I feel so sad for the rabbits because they can't protect themselves.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on February 01, 2021:
This is really good advise. I think it's a process that an owner cannot rush when introducing both animals to each other. The list outlining the process that an owner should follow is really good too.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 30, 2021:
We never combined dogs with rabbits, but we had several dog and cat combinations that fared well. Your instructions sound like excellent ones.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 30, 2021:
This is an interesting article, Adrienne, but I have never owned a raabbit. I never thought about the personality of a rabbit either. I have had birds, cats, fish and dogs over a number of years, and I love any pet for sure. I think that is one reason I find your articles so good, but you are a very good writer as well. I hope you are having a nice wekend.