Recently I have seen several websites that offer “fish training kits” for sale. The websites feature pictures of fish doing amazing stunts like playing soccer, and claim that for X amount of dollars, you too can have an athletic fish! All you need is the specialized training program which reveals their secret of how to train a fish to play sports right in its own tank!
The skeptic in me wanted to look critically at the program, but the psychology geek in me protested that this was indeed possible. How? Do you really need their “secret program,” complete with training facility and soccer goal? As a matter of fact, you don’t. The “secret” lies in a technique that has been well-known in the field of psychology for years: it’s called Operant Conditioning.
Most people are familiar with the famous experiment performed by Pavlov in which he trained dogs to salivate when he rang a bell by presenting food along with the bell ringing until the dogs had associated the bell with food. Then, when he rang the bell, the dogs automatically salivated whether the food was present or not. This is called Classical Conditioning, and works with a subject’s involuntary reflexes to a direct stimulus. Operant conditioning goes one step further by using a punishment/reward model to elicit a desired behavior. In other words, the subject will do something that is not a natural part of his/her behavior pattern in order to earn the reward or avoid the punishment. Often, operant conditioning will use a tool known as a “marker.” This may be a sound, a flashing light, or some other immediate response to the behavior that “marks” the behavior, so that the subject knows exactly what behavior elicited the reward or punishment.
So how does this all relate to training a fish? Several fish (including bettas, goldfish, and some cichlids) have been demonstrated to respond to training in operant conditioning. Others, most notably those with schooling instincts, do not respond as well, although this is not to say they would be impossible to train. Presumably, fish that do not respond as well receive higher motivation from their other instincts (schooling, scavenging, etc.) than they do from food or other stimuli.
Below, I have laid out a step by step procedure for training a betta to swim through a hoop. This procedure can also be applied to other desired actions. Always make sure the fish has mastered the current step (will give the desired response 8 out of 10 times) before moving on to the next step.
–Hoop: a plastic ring several times larger than the betta itself
–Marker: a penlight or small flashlight
–Reward: food that your betta is crazy about (bloodworms are great)
During the training period, you will only feed your betta during training sessions, and he will only receive food as a reward for exhibiting the desired behavior.
Step One: AssociationFirst, you want to teach the betta to associate the marker with the reward. You will be using the penlight to mark the behavior: in other words, every time the betta produces the desired response, you will flash the light and follow immediately with food.
In order for operant conditioning to work, the betta must associate the marker with the food; otherwise he will not make the connection between the action and the food entering the tank. In order to accomplish this, you start by flashing the light and immediately dropping the food in the tank. It helps if your betta already swims to the front of the tank at feeding time, but in any case, he will get the idea eventually. You want to get to the point where, no matter what the betta is doing, when you flash the light he immediately looks for food. This may take one feeding or ten, but once you see that this has clicked you are ready to proceed to the next step.
Step Two: Capturing
Since you cannot explain to your betta the behavior you are looking for, you must begin by capturing a behavior that can be shaped to lead you to the desired result. “Capturing” means that when the fish offers a natural behavior that can be shaped, you immediately mark and reward that behavior.
Since we will be using a hoop for the final desired response, we will begin by placing the hoop in the tank. When the betta goes over to investigate, flash the light and drop in a piece of food. Leave the hoop in the water for 10 minutes, and every time the betta swims toward it, mark and reward. When the training session is over, pull the hoop out of the water. You want him to associate the hoop with a reward.
Eventually, the fish will make the connection, and as soon as you place the hoop in the water, he will swim toward it in anticipation of food. When this happens, you are ready to proceed.
Step Three: Shaping
This is the most lengthy part of the process. “Shaping” means that you are gradually changing the requirements so that the fish has to more closely approximate your desired result in order to earn his reward.
Once your fish is consistently (8 out of 10 times) approaching the hoop when you place it in the water, you can choose your next criterion. Say you want the fish to be within one inch of the hoop. When your fish approaches, don’t immediately mark and feed. He will look at you as if to say “What’s up Joe? Where’s my food?” Then the wheels in his little fishy brain will start to turn, and he will try to figure out what he needs to do to get the food. He might swim over to you. He might wiggle under the water surface. He might swim closer to the hoop. THAT is what you’re looking for. As soon as he is within an inch, mark and feed. Again, repeat this until you consistently get the desired behavior 8 out of 10 times. Then you will up the criteria.
Incremental steps could be as follows:
- Fish swims to within one inch of the hoop.
- Fish swims to within one-half inch of the hoop.
- Fish must touch the hoop.
- Fish must put his head through the hoop.
- Fish must swim all the way through the hoop.
If at any point the fish doesn’t seem to be able to figure out what you want him to do, go back to the previous step and repeat, repeat, repeat!
Step Four: Final Behavior
The final behavior is the goal you were initially aiming for-in this case, swimming through a hoop. When the fish does this for the first time, give him a jackpot reward. In other words, give him something particularly yummy-a live bloodworm instead of a pellet, for instance. Then end the session for that day.
At the next session, the fish may or may not remember the final behavior. If you put the hoop in the water and he does not swim through it, that’s okay. Go back to the last behavior he was doing consistently, and work toward the final behavior again. Eventually, with patience on your part, he will make the connection and will begin offering the desired behavior consistently.
1. Be very careful not to overfeed your fish during training, especially if you are working with a betta. Training sessions may need to be very short-two or three minutes twice a day-so that the fish does not get too much food. If it is taking longer for the fish to produce the desired behavior, you can increase the length of training sessions.
2. Extinction: This is the process whereby if the subject stops receiving a reward for the behavior, eventually he will cease to offer the behavior. This is why it is so important to only put the hoop in the tank when you are training the fish. If you are training a behavior that does not require equipment (for example, you want him to jump up and touch your finger), then make sure you require the behavior at each feeding. Animals are not dumb. If they figure out they can be fed without having to work, then they will cease working.
Good luck, and I hope to hear about all your fish prodigies on the forum!
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