Borys the Service Rabbit

My name is Raisa Stone. This page is an overview of how I trained what I believe is Canada's first service rabbit. I have spinal injuries that require medication reminders for chronic pain. I also need anxiety calming, so I taught Borys related tasks. As I trained him for my personal needs, he does not do wheelchair pushing. In any case, you would not ask an animal this size to move heavy objects. What I'll demonstrate below would absolutely be suitable if you do use an assistive device. Lesson #1 is to choose and assess an animal for its capability to be your service animal.

There are many different species, performing a diversity of tasks. Service animals can assist with visual, hearing and sensory impairment, PTSD triggers and boundaries, epilepsy and diabetes alerts, object retrieval, light switches, door/drawer opening and closing, limb weakness, neurological issues, and more. In all cases, I strongly recommend seeking assistance from experienced trainers and organizations. I'll demonstrate standard animal training exercises as applied to disability service tasks, but it's especially important to get assistance if you require life-sustaining services. Training a dog or mini horse to lead you safely and reliably across streets, as just one example, requires the in-person help of a professional. This page is only intended to be a demonstration of what I've managed to do with my rabbit, with many years as an animal trainer under my belt.

Video #1
Boryslav Buryak ("Short, godlike wolf. With a beet.") is a Lionhead bunny I found on the street in 2014. As is common in North America, he had been purchased for Easter amusement, then illegally discarded. Borys was emaciated and wounded. Naturally, he was very timid.

As I rehabbed him with great patience, he became increasingly playful and extroverted. As a former professional horse and dog trainer and veterinary assistant, I wondered about the possibility of training him as a service animal. I now have spinal injuries that require medication reminders and anxiety calming. I'd trained dogs by focusing on their desired reward style; each one is primarily focused on food, toys or on pleasing you. I discovered Borys would do almost anything for his favorite snack: kale. This is true for most bunnies. I used operant conditioning.

It didn't take him long to train me. I started with getting him to run through a tunnel on command by holding a treat at one end. He went on strike within a few minutes, until I gave him a treat both before and after a run. So he taught me to reward him twice for each trick. It was confirmed. I'm not as smart as a rabbit. I pressed on.

In Video #1, Med Reminder in Bed, you'll see Borys remind me that I neglected to take my meds. I'd gone out during my regular med time. I was astonished by his actions, as he demonstrated he understands the importance of his work. He is not just performing tasks by rote. The field of psychology opines that animals perform a certain task at a certain time of day habitually, and only in expectation of reward. This video confronts that idea. I want to show you that animals are aware of meaning and responsibility. Service animals in particular. I've witnessed this many times working with therapeutic riding horses.

The video: Borys stared at me, so excited he was quaking. He became restless while I was petting him, so I asked him what he was trying to tell me. He jumped up and scratched the duvet as an alternative to noisily tossing a toy, his usual method of getting my attention. You'll see this in the videos below. There was no toy within reach. He then used his face to point at his "target", the big blue cap of the Tylenol bottle. When I acknowledged his effort, he licked the duvet to show affection. This is a grooming behaviour rabbits use to show they care. Despite Borys usually displaying dominance behaviours, in this instance he showed submission to me.

Once I thanked him, he relaxed. Usually, he gets a treat after performing a task. In this instance, he settled for a grooming. While it was heart opening to see he understands and cares, I don't want him to routinely do reminders outside his scheduled task times. It wouldn't be long before Borys was giving me reminders all day and night in order to get extra snacks.

Again, this was two hours past my regular medication time. He was aware that I was not home and to his knowledge, I therefore did not take my meds. It was not simply a rote task at a certain time of day. He felt responsible for my actually taking the meds, and rewarded me with affection for understanding his intent. It was mind blowing.

In videos #2 and #3, I'll demonstrate how I trained him to do med reminders, and what that usually looks like.

Video #2
Video #2, Take it, Toss it, demonstrates teaching Borys to take a plastic baby key ring on command. Rabbits and other animals largely explore the world through their mouths. Rabbits pick up objects, carry and throw them. The challenge is to harness this propensity. I started by very lightly bumping his mouth with snacks and saying, "Take it." This conditioned him to open his mouth and allow entry, anticipating reward. Some trainers use a clicker at this point, and this can be very effective. I happen to be annoyed by clicking. It's a personal choice. When Borys began opening his mouth as the treat came toward him, I substituted the key ring. He received his reward immediately after.

I then rewarded him when he tossed the key ring, until he responded to both elements of the task: Take It, Toss It. Tossing is a natural rabbit behavior. I shaped and combined it with "Take it," it for my purposes. I began asking for this combination at my medication times, twice daily. If you have a pet, I'm sure you've been amazed at their ability to tell you exactly when it's time for food. Actually, I again let Borys train me. I adjusted my med times to his snack times. It seemed easier and more reliable, as he already had years of conditioning to anticipate those times.

I'd like you to notice a crucial element of training. When I asked him to Take It, I was rude to not wait for him to finish his mouthful of food first. An issue with training rabbits, is that they need to eat 16-18 hours daily. You have to interrupt them sometime, if you want to get any training done. However, I did wait till he finished chewing, and did not ask twice. I waited. I trusted that he would comply once he finished chewing.

Respecting an animal's good intentions and needs is important in building trust and having a reliable partner. This is vital in task training a service animal. Leave those spaces between command and compliance. Breathe. Stay calm. If a task requires rapid compliance, don't worry. Speed will come with time.

It's not in the video, but I began introducing the blue-capped Tylenol bottle so he understood what I was meant to do in response to his signals. This is both out of respect for his intelligence, and because if I'm exhausted (a factor of my disability), sometimes it's easier to shake the bottle to get him to stop, before I say anything. If you're disabled, you know what it means to have every little thing count in terms of how you use your energy. Since I had COVID-19, I've occasionally had trouble articulating in the morning.

I then washed my hands and gave him a treat.

Video #3
Video #3, Borys Does Three Med Reminders, demonstrates the sequence of this task. He is now conditioned to take and toss the baby key ring at my twice daily medication times. Banging it against the box to make an even louder racket was his innovation. It tells me he really enjoys the task. Here's something else to know: rabbits can be jerks. If you like an uninterrupted sleep, they are not the animal for you. I trained him to keep up the racket until I say, "Thank you." He will also temporarily stop if I just shake the blue-capped Tylenol bottle.

Sometimes he gets so enthusiastic, he jumps up and hits me with the toy. That's fine with me, in this circumstance. If it was an object that could hurt me or he were a large animal, I would interrupt him. I confirm that I've understood his message by showing him the Tylenol bottle. Animals require a "target" in learning tasks. Medications may change in the size, shape and colour of their packaging. The target remains consistent for training and comprehension. If I ever stop needing Tylenol, I'll still keep the bottle with my other meds. As you saw in Video #1, Borys pointed at this bottle. He scratched at the duvet to make noise, as he did not have his key ring on the bed.

Caution: keep medications out of animals' reach. They should not touch or fetch your meds, as they can easily become poisoned. I wash my hands right after taking my meds, and any time I touch the bottles. It only takes a miniscule amount of drug to harm your animal, especially when they're small.

"You're released," means his task is over for that time frame. I am not interrupting him. He will not be expected to perform until either my next scheduled med time, or unless I ask for anxiety calming. This command should become synonymous with, "Relax."

He turns away from the keys to show he understands. He taught himself this. It's a natural rabbit behaviour to turn away from something they're done with. It shows me he's finished, and will not start up again till my next med time. A point of interest: when a rabbit is truly disgusted or angry, he will, "give it da Butt", i.e., turn his bum towards the person or object in question. If he is scared, he will run away and hide. Here, he is none of those. Just done with the task.

Borys then gets his kale.

So, these are the steps for task-training med reminders:

-Introduce the task in small increments
-To more rapidly reinforce the task, coordinate it with an established treat time
-Practice each increment repeatedly until it's consistent
-Start combining increments
-Remember to always reward! With other species, reward may be words of praise, extra time with a favorite toy, or petting. Every animal is different. Generally, rabbits go for food.

Perhaps most important of all, never show anger towards your animal. Never yell, hit, withhold food or water, isolate, spray or otherwise punish. If you're frustrated, take a break for a few hours, or for that day. Walk away. The animal is not trying to displease you, they're only acting instinctually according to their species. Please remember that service animals are extremely special. Only about 1 in 10 pets are suitable for this life changing work. They have a rare intuitive and healing quality well beyond anything we can teach them, and are even more sensitive than the average animal.

I started out as a dog and horse trainer, and spent many years volunteering with therapeutic horseback riding, and trained these ponies to assist disabled children. I was a veterinary assistant and wildlife rehabber, as well. I was fortunate to grow up in a house full of animals, with parents who took me to CKC obedience classes from the time I was seven. An RCMP K9 officer friend helped me with ideas to train Borys.

I learned the skills to assess Borys' suitability for his tasks. Force and anger drive an animal away from you. In training service animals, fear and force training can jeopardize someone's life, as the animal may at some point become triggered by something that reminds them of your punishment. For example, a loud conversation or raised hand can trigger them, and prevent them from completing a task. There have been instances of dogs who have been physically punished, attacking a person simply brushing their hair.
Photo #1
Photo description: a medium sized, ginger coloured rabbit sits on a person's midsection, facing towards their knees. The person is lying down on a red duvet. The rabbit's back end is on the person's chest. The person's one hand is draped gently over the rabbit's back. The person's face is not visible. They are wearing a royal blue top and black pants. In the background are a cardboard bunny house and a bench.
Photo: Anxiety Calming Compression. You'll notice this looks very different from the way you usually see people holding rabbits. They're ground animals. Picking them up and hugging them creates terror, as they believe they're being eaten by a predator. They're hardwired through millions of years of evolution. About 55 million, for bunnies. For the first year, Borys passed out cold every time I picked him up. He wasn't "faking"; it was a genuine vaso-vagal reaction (fainting). This behaviour evolved so rabbits have a chance to escape when a startled predator drops them. I only pick him up when it's absolutely necessary, e.g., nail trims, vet visits and his own medications.

I trained Borys to recall---come when I call---using treats and by grooming his head. Stroking the head is how rabbits show affection and care to each other. I coupled Borys' natural propensity to lower his head with offering a treat, until he'd completely flatten his head on a surface. I used the word "Calm" to let him know to stay in this position for as long as I needed him to calm my anxiety in this way. I trained him to lay his head in a particular spot by pointing and saying, "Here." This allows me to position him so it is comfortable for me. Originally, I taught him to do this on the bed.

"Here" was of course taught with a treat. I'd put a treat a distance away from Borys when he wasn't looking, then point and say, "Here." We still do this as a game. Playing with your animal is important to enrich their lives and stengthen your bond. He has some cool treat puzzles you I found at pet stores and online.

When I was recovering from surgery last year, Borys stayed in this calming position for up to 20 minutes as the nurse dressed my wound. As with med reminders, "Thank you," and, "You're released," informed him his task was done. He'd immediately hop over to the nurse to check her out. This also let me know he wasn't performing his task just to comfort himself while she completed this scary procedure. He stayed in the calming position through strange medication smells, instruments and my crying from pain, then cheerfully bounced right up upon my command. It felt like the little sweetheart was absorbing part of my discomfort. Teaching, "Here," became especially important, as he had to remember to not immediately jump on the bed and interfere with the nurse. Borys is, like all rabbits, extremely curious and helpful. He had to wait until I pointed to a spot on the floor.

Upon command, he'll also jump on my tummy and chest, as in this photo. The warmth and weight of his bunny body are highly effective in calming my anxiety. I use the same commands, but pat my chest instead of the floor. It remains important to his feeling of safety, that I don't give in to my strong feelings of wanting to hug him. He does snuggle beside me of his own initiative, and I'm careful to let that be his choice, so he doesn't feel he's working all the time. Animals need our affection, too. It's a partnership. Your service animal will burn out, become anxious and less reliable if you treat them only as "employees."

Photo #2
A Word About Rabbit Care

Most people are surprised that a rabbit can be trained at all, let alone as a service animal. Borys is not that unusual. I can say that after decades of owning and working with bunnies. But how can any animal express their full range of talents when kept isolated and fearful in a cage? It's like living in your bathroom. Domestic rabbits need to be safe indoors, with sufficient room to hop and play and explore. The minimum size of enclosure is a large dog X pen, with preferably lots of free time with you or a companion, outside the pen. You'll need to rabbit proof your home so they can't chew on wires or get stuck behind furniture. Bunnies kept outdoors suffer from parasites, predator attacks, depression, heat stroke and frostbite. They can easily have a heart attack from birds flying by or a cat crossing the yard. They're extremely sensitive, social creatures who need to be close to you and protected. Puppy mills are modeled after rabbit hutches.

Bunnies are easily litter trained. Healthy litters are aspen, paper fluff and pine pellets that have been sprayed with water to break down into shavings. Never cedar or pine shavings, as they carry toxic oils. They need unlimited timothy or grass hay to wear down their constantly growing teeth. That's why you can't train a bunny not to chew. They don't need pellets, which were developed to quickly fatten rabbits. Fresh water, about two cups of fresh greens daily, and less than a tablespoon of fresh fruit as a treat. Please, none of those yogurt, muesli or seed treats from the pet store. Borys gets pure timothy horse hay cubes/pellets from the feed store or (sorry) Walmart, which significantly satisfy his chewing urges. He loves his toys, too. Pellets can be useful used very sparingly as training treats.

Rabbits need to see a specialized Exotics vet at least once a year. They need to be vaccinated against the lethal RHD virus which is sweeping North America, largely due to bunny dumping. Wild rabbit populations are also getting sick. Bunny teeth need to be checked with a scope annually, to make sure they aren't overgrowing. Neutering of both does and bucks is essential. Rabbits are sexually mature at just 4 months, and will become aggressive. They'll spray and bite you. As well, unneutered rabbits are at high risk for reproductive organ cancers.

Rabbits are rewarding pets and service animals, but require a lot of work. As much as a dog, but more expensive. I hope that if you get a rabbit, you will adopt one from your local rescue or shelter. There are many beautiful bunnies languishing in cages due to people not doing their research before acquiring them. To learn more, visit the House Rabbit Society at

How to find a service animal trainer: if you want your animal trained privately, or learn how to train your own, I recommend contacting the Humane Society, Animal Control or SPCA in your area. They hear the most feedback about effective trainers. Please note that airlines and other entities may only accept animals that have been trained by a person organization dedicated to service animals.