Rabbit/dog friendship is a great idea, but hard to achieve
Pokey the rabbit is four years old: his former hutch mate passed away recently, so he lives alone now. He's allowed to run around the garden for most of the day, returning to the security of his hutch every evening. His owner, Cameron, knows that rabbits are social animals, preferring to live in pairs or small groups, but Cameron is nearing the end of the 'rabbit keeping phase' of his family. His children are now older, and have reached the 'dog keeping phase'.
A few weeks ago, Cameron's family adopted a rescue dog, Willow, and they'd been hoping that the dog and rabbit might become friends. They have seen videos on Youtube of dogs and rabbits getting on well together, and that's how they'd like it to be between Willow and Pokey. Unfortunately, so far, it hasn't worked out that way.
Willow is a Labrador: he's a lively, energetic two year old. Cameron doesn't know anything about his background - as with many rescue dogs, it's a bit of a mystery. So when Cameron decided to introduce the dog to the rabbit, he had no idea how they'd interact. He was disappointed: when he went out to the rabbit hutch with Willow on a leash, the dog barked furiously, straining to get off the leash.
Cameron then approached me for help: how can he encourage Willow and Pokey to become friends?
The ideal situation when creating dog-rabbit friendships is to start off when the dog is just a puppy and the rabbit is a mature adult. From six weeks to twelve weeks of age, a pup is learning about his physical and social environment: the attitude is "play" more than anything else. An adult rabbit, on the other hand, is often a strong, assertive animal, well able to lay down a few boundaries for the puppy.
In most cases, the pup and rabbit will soon learn to respect each other, and friendship often follows. It's more difficult, but not impossible, when dealing with an adult dog that may already have preconceptions about small furry animals.
My first advice to Cameron is not to rush things. With some mature, gentle, low energy dogs, a rapid introduction to a rabbit might work. But Willow has demonstrated that he's an excitable, high energy dog. A different approach is needed.
Willow needs to undergo a lengthy course of general obedience training before any further interaction with Pokey. Regular dog training classes are the easiest way of doing this: typically, once a week for ten weeks. These need to be supplemented by practising obedience skills at home, for perhaps half an hour a day (repeated short bursts of training rather than a single half hour session). Willow needs to learn all the basic skills: sitting and staying, coming when called, walking on a leash, and lying down are the most obvious ones.
Cameron needs to learn what motivates Willow: does he prefer a tasty treat or a game with a tennis ball? The key to success is repetition of the task: speaking the command, followed by the correct behaviour, followed by a much-wanted reward. The process of dog training is time consuming, and demands serious commitment and consistency from an owner.
If Cameron can find a good local dog trainer, and if he (and his family) are able to follow a strict schedule of practice at home, within a couple of months Willow will become a different animal. He'll respond consistently to commands, and he'll be much easier to control.
As well as learning the basic commands, Willow will now understand the principles of learning ("If I do the right behaviour, I get rewarded. If I do the wrong behaviour, there's no reward"). Only at this stage can the introduction to Pokey the rabbit start again.
This time, Willow needs to be kept under strict control at all times. He should be led out to the hutch on the leash, but he should maintain continual eye contact with Cameron. Cameron should repeat simple exercises, such as "Sit" and "Stay", so that Willow is focussed on Cameron, rather than getting excited about goings-on around him. As he gets closer to the hutch, Willow should remain focussed on Cameron, and for the first visit, he should just sit and stay, doing nothing else at all. This task should be repeated several times a day, for at least a week.
As time goes on, Cameron should be able to lessen the intensity of dog-human focus, allowing Willow to look around him a bit more. He should then be rewarded for gentle behaviour, saying calming words like "good", "gentle". If he starts to get excited, or to bark, Cameron should go back to basics, with a "sit" and "stay" command. With a bit of luck, Willow will gradually learn that calm, quiet interactions around Pokey bring him benefits, and he'll learn that this is the best way to behave.
It'll be a long, slow process over many months, guided by Willow's response. It's unpredictable: Willow may never be able to be off the leash in the area of the rabbit hutch, or on the other hand, he may one day be allowed off the leash, nose to nose with Pokey. It's better to be slow, cautious and safe, rather than risking disaster.
Dogs are natural predators of rabbits, and above all else, Pokey has to be kept safe. Friendship between a rabbit and a dog is a lovely idea, but it can be a tough task to achieve.