"Come on!" Guinevere Keith implored as her pet, Russell, reclined against a 4-inch-high hurdle and groomed herself. Finally, the thoroughly exasperated 9-year-old grabbed Russell and proclaimed, "Since you're not going to cooperate, it's the dreaded box with holes in it for you." So ended the lesson, at least on this Sunday for this recalcitrant rabbit.
Nearby, Jeff Ganser of Inver Grove Heights was putting Cookie through its paces -- although Cookie actually seemed to be in charge, especially while balancing on the teeter-totter. From that perch Cookie could observe peers jumping through tires and over hurdles that might be more than a foot long and high; climbing wooden "bridges" and sliding down the far side and scampering through tunnels that forced their "masters" to let go of their leashes.
It was just another manic Sunday at "rabbit agility" classes held by the Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society (MCRS), designed to let these docile pets do what comes naturally: hop, skip and jump.
Training pet rabbits to jump originated in the late 1970s in Sweden, where it is called "kaninhoppning." It subsequently become popular in the United Kingdom, where rabbits are the third most-popular pet, behind dogs and cats. Soon there were rabbit-training courses laid out like equine Steeplechases.
Pet rabbits have jumped as high as 39 inches and as far as 9 feet, 10 inches in Denmark, where the competition is particularly fierce and was on display in a popular episode of this fall's "The Amazing Race." "In Denmark and Sweden, they're like Olympic athletes, like greyhounds," MCRS educator Shelley Chirhart said. "This is casual fun."
The practice is just starting to spread on these shores. The local sessions are much more about socializing, across and among the two species, which suits our hare-raisers just fine. "I like that it's not real pressure-y, that they're not competing," Ganser said. "There's a lot of camaraderie here."
America's 6 million-plus pet rabbits come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and they are imminently trainable, sharing traits with other favorite pets including dogs and horses. And they have attitude.
"If you have five rabbits in a house, none of them will have similar personalities," Chirhart said. "Rabbits are very opinionated."
The 20 or so bunnies in the MCRS classes, and the 50-plus participating in the ensuing recreational confab called Hoppy Hour, certainly seem to have minds of their own, as Alli Thorstad of Brooklyn Center can attest.
"My Cooper completed his [beginner's] band under severe duress," she said. "He took five classes, hated it the entire time, and I said 'Cooper, if you just take the test, I will never make you do this again.' And he just nailed everything, got a 98. He hasn't done any of these jumps since. He just sits and never moves at Hoppy Hour, but at home he's hyperactive."
That social time is just one of the programs that the 125-member MCRS sponsors, along with the classes, public performances and perhaps its primary goal: connecting rabbits with potential owners. A rescue unit supported solely by donations, MCRS started with a few volunteers in 1999 and now has more than 1,500 members, adding about 200 a year in the past three years.
Of course, of course
The MCRS rabbits can earn any of six colored band levels (à la karate) and Delta certification that enables them to perform at nursing homes, kindergartens and other outings. The teaching techniques are markedly different from those for other animals -- with one exception.
"This course," Chirhart said, "was set up by a horse trainer."
As strange as it might sound, there are striking similarities between the two species, beyond a penchant for hay and carrots.
"They can see backward easily and have a blind spot right in front of their noses," Barb Kelley said. "Their mouths are recessed under their nose, their ears point up, they sleep the same way. Rabbits are basically little horses."
One major difference: Rabbits, even the 6 million raised as pets in the United States, instinctively sense that they are at the bottom of the food chain. "They are prey animals, and a prey animal must trust you beyond anything else in the world. They must believe implicitly that you will never let any harm come to them."
That makes trust the foremost goal in rabbit class for Kelley, whose early-Beatles haircut frames empathetic eyes. She instructs the two-legged trainees to wedge their feet astride their rabbits' haunches and nudge them with the right foot while saying "left," or both feet when going for "jump." Meanwhile, the leash should be tightened when asking for a movement and released when that request is granted.
"It's a dance routine," Kelley said, "done with hands and feet and lots of complicated body work. Often it's the humans who are not adjusting as fast because there's a lot of finesse, body language and verbal language with the handler."
Even in the best of circumstances, Kelley said, "getting them to listen to directions takes a long time. Some want to, and some say, 'I don't want to, thank you.' It's like a 2-year-old child. 'I know exactly what you're telling me, but I'm not necessarily going to do it.'"
Indeed, many of the rabbits walked up to the shorter hurdles and nudged them aside to get the leap length to their suiting.
But there's good news for novice handlers like Keith, beyond the fact that her Russell "follows the sit command pretty well."
• Rabbits have laser-like focus. "If you walk into a room full of dogs and say something, all the dogs will turn their heads," Chirhart said. "But rabbits stay on task, even with a lot of chaos and interruptions in their room."
• The training has rabbits mostly doing what comes naturally. "These are obstacles they face in the wild," Kelley said.
Doing their thing
Certainly many of the bunnies, particularly during Hoppy Hour, perform acts that are not part of their training: the "binky" (a straight up and down jump, which is a sign of joy); "periscoping" (standing on back paws to get a better view); "chinning" objects (marking them with the glands under their mouths); "purring" by chattering their teeth, and "thumping" (a sign they are frightened or unhappy, perhaps from an MCRS nail trim).
But what about, uh, that thing that rabbits are perhaps most renowned for doing?
"We have had people try to sneak in animals that haven't been spayed or neutered," Kelley said. "We can pick out the males almost immediately, but not the girls."
There appeared to be no such scofflaws at the recent Hoppy Hour, although there was no shortage of butt-sniffing. Several volunteers wearing "Bouncer" T-shirts monitored the proceedings, which found a few cliques gathered on the mat but perhaps more socializing among the observers. "We have a lot of camaraderie here," Ganser said.
Their bigger bond is with the bunnies, which as pets draw more analogies to canine rather than equine sorts. Ganser calls his rabbits (Cookie, Belle, Cream and Greycee) "my four-legged kids."
"They're kind of like dogs in a cat-sized body;" said Thorstad, who has three rabbits. "It's like having dog companionship but not having to get up to walk them at 5 in the morning."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643