Napoleon Bonaparte provides a tale of canned hunts as well as the power of operant conditioning.
It seems than in 1807, after signing the Treaty of Tilsit, Napoleon's trusted chief-of-staff, Alexandre Berthier, decided to organize a rabbit hunt for his Corsican boss. To ensure that there were plenty of rabbits to shoot, he bought thousands of rabbits from a local vendor. Unfortunately, they were not wild rabbits, but pen-raised rabbits.
As the Archie Archive web site notes:
Rather than fleeing for their life, the rabbits spotted a tiny little man in a big hat and mistook him for their keeper bringing them food. e hungry rabbits stormed towards Napoleon at their top speed of 35 mph (56 kph).
The shooting party – now in shambolic disarray – could do nothing to stop them. Napoleon was left with no other option but to run, beating the starving animals off with his bare hands. But the rabbits did not relent and drove the Emperor back to his carriage while his underlings thrashed vainly at them with horsewhips.
According to contemporary accounts of the fiasco, the Emperor of France sped off in his coach, comprehensively beaten and covered in shame.
So why do wild rabbits run when they see a man or a dog?
Because they know that it is "maladaptive" to hang around when something new, that they have never seen before, shows up on their little patch.
For wild rabbits, fear and caution are essential elements of survival, same as they are for a fox, a wolf, a bear, or a lowly rat or mouse.
If you watch a rabbit in the field through binoculars, however, you will see it ignores robins, cows, and swaying grass.
It has seen these things its whole life, and there has never been a chase or some other negative consequence associated with them.
But if you put a dog, a cat, a hawk, or a person in that same picture, things may change quickly depending on the animals experience, at a very early age, with that particular stimulus.
In the case of Napoleon's rabbits, which had been farmer-raised and fed from a bucket their whole lives, the presence of man was not only not a new and cautionary stimulus, it was a well-known and extremely positive one - food.
But what was "old" for the rabbits was terrifyingly new for Napoleon! What was he to do with a 1,000 rabbits storming at him? He had no idea, and so he fled.
When faced with the entirely new experience of a 1,000 bizarre animals chasing him, an ancient and deep code for self-preservation kicked in.
Were these animals rabid? Were these even rabbits?? It was best to run like hell and figure it all out later.
And what was true for Napoleon is normally true for wild rabbits and every other creature large and small.
Fear and caution in the presence of the new and strange is fundamental to self-preservation; it's one reason a very small terrier can bolt a pair of fox, or a den full of raccoons that significantly outweigh it. It's almost always that fox's first terrier; it's almost never that terrier's first fox!