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Westmoreland County Rabbit Club's annual event includes new exhibit

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Sarah Ivory, 13, of Acme works with her rabbit, 'Stash,' as they move through the jump course during the Westmoreland County Rabbit Club’s 11th Annual Rabbit School held at Greensburg Central Catholic High School on Saturday, March 22, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Sarah Ivory,13, of Acme works with her rabbit, 'Stash,' as they move through the jump course during the Westmoreland County Rabbit Club’s 11th Annual Rabbit School on Saturday, March 22, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Sarah Ivory,13, of Acme, works with her rabbit, 'Stash', as they move through the jump course during the Westmoreland County Rabbit Club’s 11th Annual Rabbit School on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

If cuteness and “awww” factors were all that counted, the students at the Westmoreland County Rabbit Club of Pennsylvania rabbit school would have earned A's — and a carrot.

Wearing harnesses and guided by leashes, the rabbits — most of the time — hopped over the low hurdles of an agility course set up in a Greensburg Central Catholic High School classroom.

Want to make a rabbit star in agility training? Try a little encouragement and occasionally tickle its hindquarters.

The Rabbit Club, in conjunction with the Penn State Cooperative 4-H Youth Program, recently sponsored the 11th annual rabbit school, which drew about 150 students from four states.

The Rabbit Club holds the school in the spring, with courses in judging, first aid, competition, showmanship, record-keeping, animal laws and nutrition. The club holds a show each fall.

This year, the Westmoreland Fair will include a rabbit hopping exhibit for the first time, said Michelle Forry, a fair superintendent and chairwoman of rabbit school.

“It's sort of the new, cool thing in the world of rabbit clubs now,” Forry said.

“It's something you can really work toward. It would be great if other people saw rabbits as something other than just in a cage to be judged,” she said.

Several dozen children brought their bunnies to introductory and intermediate hopping classes, instructed by Francesca Reilly, starter of the Loudoun County 4-H Rabbit Hopping Club near Leesburg, Va.

Rabbit hopping originated in the late 1970s in Sweden, grew popular in the United Kingdom and is gaining ground in the United States, Reilly said.

Sarah Ivory, 13, of Acme, retrieved Stash, a Polish breed, from its hot pink cage.

A member of the Salem Saddle 4-H Club, she coaxed the 7-month-old, black-and-white rabbit to do what comes naturally — though in a more structured order.

Taylor Rubino, 15, of Greensburg, belongs to the Sunshine 4-H Club and the American Rabbit Breeders Association.

“He's my hopper,” she said of John Luke, a 9-month-old Holland lop.

“That breed is pretty good at jumping. We will find out how well he performs,” she said.

A rabbit's instinct is to “zig” and “zag” to avoid predators, Reilly said. They must be trained to move in a straight line.

She showed the handlers how to make a “clicking” sound to move the rabbits along and redirect them if they start to turn around.

Rabbits in training for agility events must be at least 4 months old, properly socialized and able to move freely.

Burly bunnies, pregnant ones and giant breeds need not apply, as hopping could injure them.

Rabbits can be “faulted” in a competition for displacing a rail, omitting a jump or running out of a course and not re-entering within 20 seconds.

They may run straight or crooked courses, or compete in the long jump (world record — 9 feet, 10 inches) or high jump (world record — 3 feet, 3 inches).

Johanna Sheppard, 4-H extension educator, said the rabbit project is one of the most popular programs in Westmoreland County.

“Over 50 youths participated in the project last year. And it grows with each year (due) in large part to the rabbit school. Through the many classes the school offers, people can obtain the knowledge necessary to properly care for their rabbit,” Sheppard said.

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