Leaps & Bounds
A new trend in teaching tricks, agility and competitive jumping to rabbits and guinea pigs opens a whole new market to pet retailers.
I recently became aware that both rabbits and guinea pigs can not only learn to do tricks, they can learn to participate in agility sports. Although both of these animals have a reputation for being stupid, a quick Google search of online videos can dispel that idea. Rabbits and guinea pigs can learn tricks quickly, and it is also evident in these videos that these animals can thoroughly enjoy these activities. Tricks and agility can be a great way for rabbit and guinea pig owners to interact with their pets, while giving them needed exercise and mental stimulation.
Rabbit sports started in the 1970s when Swedish rabbit owners started holding rabbit jumping competitions—much like horse jumping—an activity that is also called rabbit hopping. The sport spread to Denmark in 1993, and then to other countries. Rabbit clubs in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Great Britain currently hold local and nationally sanctioned events. It can now also be found in the United States.
Rabbit jumping is different from agility competitions because jumps are the only obstacles. Rabbit agility is based on dog agility and features most of the same obstacles. Although guinea pigs are not athletic jumpers like rabbits, they can also enjoy learning to negotiate agility obstacles. I found several videos online of guinea pigs showing off their ability to climb over jumps, work a teeter-totter and expertly perform the weave poles. There are also numerous videos on the Internet of rabbits competing in jumping competitions and performing agility courses. The athletic ability of some of these rabbits is a wonder to behold, and it’s obvious they love the activity.
For retailers who would like to explore this new market, the website guineapigagility.com sells agility equipment for small rabbits and guinea pigs, as well as smaller animals. There are also several other products that retailers can offer their customers who might be interested in tricks or agility for their rabbits and guinea pigs.
The Stick and the Carrot
Training a small animal to do tricks or agility requires, first of all, a tasty treat to reward them for compliance. The best treats for training are pieces small enough to be eaten quickly so the pet doesn’t spend too much time chewing. It also needs to be yummy enough to provide a strong motivation for the pet to pay attention.
One trick that seems especially easy to teach to both rabbits and guinea pigs is having them pick up a toy in their mouth and set it down someplace else or place it inside a container. For instance, they can learn to pick up a basketball and place it inside a hoop. There are numerous small toys and balls that can be used to teach this trick to rabbits and guinea pigs. Officeplayground.com sells a miniature tabletop basketball hoop and ball that would work well for rabbits and guinea pigs. The hoop is approximately 7.5 inches tall with a hoop three inches across, and a two-inch soft, rubbery plastic basketball.
There are a number of clever tricks that can be based on this one behavior. A video on guineapigagility.com shows a guinea pig playing tic-tac-toe by picking up a ball and placing it into an empty square on the game board. Another showed guinea pigs playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey by taking the tail from the owner and putting it against a drawing of a donkey on a vertical board—there must be magnets involved because the tail “snaps” onto the board.
Books available on teaching tricks include Getting Started: Clicking with Your Rabbit by Joan Orr from Sunshine Books, Inc., and Training Your Guinea Pig by Gerry Bucsis and Barbara Somerville from Barron’s Educational Series. Even my book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training from TFH Publications, can be a good reference, since the process of training is the same for all animals.
On the Move
Rabbits that compete in agility or jumping competitions usually wear a harness with a light, long leash attached. Therefore, the first step in teaching a rabbit to jump or do agility is to get them used to wearing a harness and leash. There are a number of harness and leash products available for rabbits and guinea pigs, although usually the leash is fairly short. While a short leash is adequate for training, a rabbit owner interested in competition will eventually need to get a longer leash.
Anyone traveling with a small pet to a show or competition will need a sturdy carrier to house them in. The current trend in carriers is toward soft-sided carriers and those that look like purses, instead of the more traditional plastic and metal carriers. An important concern, especially for rabbits, is temperature regulation. Rabbits are especially vulnerable to heat stroke in high temperatures, so a carrier must be carefully selected with this in mind. A rabbit carrier should have plenty of ventilation and airflow, something that a soft-sided carrier might lack.
Consider setting up a special display featuring the products mentioned, as well as photos of guinea pigs and rabbits doing tricks and engaging in agility and jumping. A computer set up to run videos of these activities would do even more to introduce customers to the fun they can have with their pets by teaching them agility or tricks. PB
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.