About Training Fish

I was Interviewed by a writer doing an article for an Aquarium Fish Magazine. Here are my answers:


1. How did you first hear that it was possible to train fish and what inspired you to train fish of your own?

I have had animals/fish most of my life, I will be 55 this coming March. As a kid I was always training one animal or another to do tricks. Fish learn very quickly that when you walk up, pick up the food container that sits right next to the tank, open the lid, food comes in. So the fish come to the top of the tank to anticipate their meal. I also noticed, years ago when I had a 55 long tank that housed Goldfish, my fish would follow me as I walked by. So training fish just made sense to me. To back that up, many years ago my brother had Oscars he had taught to play with a ping pong ball with him. The Oscars too followed my brother as he walked by the tank. Not everyone, just him. Yes. I was sure fish had a brain for training.

I have taught agility to all sorts of animals including and probably not limited to dogs, goats, guinea pigs, mice, pet rats, hamsters, gerbils a few fowl....... so when I started training my Betta Fish to go through a little tunnel, no one that knew me was surprised. However! As I was, they were surprised how quickly the fish caught on to what I wanted it to do.

2. How is it possible to train a goldfish when supposedly only have a thirty-second memory? ( this is basically a questions set up so that you can debunk the myth)

My question is; WHO DECIDED THAT GOLDFISH ONLY HAVE A 30 SECOND MEMORY!? Certainly this person did not actually try to teach the fish in a humane way using food as a positive reinforcement. And really, if that were true would not a goldfish forget how to swim? I promise you, that if a person takes the time it takes to patiently work with a fish, if they work with it just a few minutes each day, if that person shows up at feeding time with the correct equipment and a good attitude, an attitude of patience, they can teach a Goldfish and will be quite pleased how much the Goldfish will retain the following day when that same person shows up the next day. I know for a fact, I know first hand, that Goldfish and other breeds of fish can and do remember how to preform tricks and tasks just as any other animal can, will and does.

Years ago after I had finished a little dog trick show at a Pet Store, a lady came up, one that knew me, and said "You are so lucky, you always get smart dogs. I always get dumb dogs." I looked at her, and sometimes the truth hurts, I said to her, "Maybe it is not the dogs, but the way you train." The same is true of a lot of people. If they can not do something, it must not be something anyone can do. Or they blame the animal's intelligence. That is where I believe the "Goldfish have a 30 second memory" misconception came from. Every animal is trained a bit different, but the basics are true for all animals, and that includes human children, husbands and wives. If you treat another living being with respect, and also expect them to respect you. If you reward good behavior and don't allow bad behavior, you are training. Let me take this thought a step further for the non animal trainers. If your husband or wife does something that annoys you and you never speak up and tell them this, they will never know and continue the behavior. If you let your husband or wife or child disrespect you, it becomes a habit, one they will push to the degree of hurt. Ever hear of pecking order? The term describes chickens, but is true for all living beings, and yes, even people. Pecking order is how chickens find out who is the top leader in the group. They actually peck one another. The one that keeps pecking and does not surrender, is at the top of the pecking order. For people, it is usually voice and attitude. Children often, through disrespect take over the top of the pecking order, even over it's own parents and often at a young age. House dogs will do this also. It is the old "Who is in charge here?". As trainers it is that we hold the food, we have the thumbs. We can let our pets decide when we feed them, or we can decide when we feed them. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS AND MISTREAT OR TEASE THEM. Again, respect.

The person holding the animals food with the thumbs has many advantages. This is where the "rubber meets the road" in training. This is where you work with your fish and train it to swim through a (at the beginning wide) hoop or tunnel before it receives the food. Is this mistreatment? No. It is shaping. Think of it like this... A person has to drive to the fast food store, go into the parking lot, get out of their vehicle, walk to the counter, ask for the food, reach into their pocket for their money, then they receive their reward. Think of it as if the fish is learning how to get to the counter.

How do you teach that? Use a tube, I use an empty ink pen shaft, set a flake of food on the water surface (floating food is best for beginning training) and set the tip of the pen shaft just above the food. I lightly tap the side of the tank with the pen shaft as I set the food in and hold the shaft over the food. Do this for a couple of days in the same spot. One the third or fourth day, hold the pen shaft over the water, the fish will come up to it, now slowly, slowly, move the pen shaft to another spot, then drop the food. The fish will follow the pen shaft. After a couple of days of this, you can place a Hoop in the water and have the fish come through it to meet the pen shaft.......I bet you did not think fish training would be that simple, but it really is.

3. How popular is fish agility?

Not popular enough. It is catching on. Now with video sites and the general public seeing and not just hearing about fish learning agility and tricks it encourages them to "try this at home". Most pet people now have heard about fish agility and fish training in general. Many are interested in learning to teach their fish. Some might only want to teach their fish to do a little trick while others would love to teach agility and other tricks and tasks. Like people with dogs, some put training time in, others do not.

4. What are the easiest breeds of fish to train?

I don't know. I have not worked with enough fish or enough fish breeds to correctly answer this question. I have however trained Guppies, Goldfish and Male Bettas and I can tell you that all three breeds caught on faster then anyone thought a fish could learn. I think the main thing is that the trainer needs to enjoy that breed that they are going to train and be set up for that type of fish. An Oscar, as exciting as they are, get very large and do have more of an odor then other smaller aquarium fish. Betta Fish do not need a full blown tank to be healthy and happy.

5. What advise would you give to people who are considering training a fish?

If you already have the fish, watch it. Know it's habits. The truth about any trick or task, such as agility, the person is building on what the animal already enjoys doing. If you have a certain fish that picks things up off the bottom of the tank, teach that fish tricks that are about moving items, such as balls around. If you have a fish that loves to swim through a ring or tunnel shaped aquarium ornament, you have a fish that will enjoy and quickly catch onto Fish Agility. The other thing is the person/trainer needs to have that moment or a few minutes alone per day, every day, with their fish. Fish do not receive the credit they deserve for being aware of what it going on in the room around them, that is the room where their tank sits. If you have kids running around, a cat on a shelf above the tank, the TV blaring, you are not going to have the fish's full attention so that it can learn. Some fish will learn as life goes on, ie someone out there will say they trained while the kids played and the TV was on. My thought on that is: What could that fish (or any animal) have learned if they had that one on one time with nothing else distracting them?

When you train a fish you, the trainer, need to have a goal. You don't just wait for the fish to stumble unto something on their own then treat them. You show up with the proper equipment, the proper feeding devices, the time and the attitude of patients and you take the time it takes to train that particular fish. Start with two items as simple as an empty in pen shaft and a Hoop with a handle on it made from a Pipe Cleaner. Teach your fish to swim through the Hoop before feeding it. After the fish learns to come through the hoop, move the Hoop to other areas of the tank and ask the fish to come through it there. Take the Hoop lower and higher. Now you can move on to a little tunnel made out of Plastic Canvas. Fish learn the same as a dog or even a person. Step by step. Little by little. Work with your fish everyday, do the same thing everyday. Set the Hoop in the same spot everyday until the fish comes, and you know it knows, to swim through it. After a few days of the same thing, you are ready to teach the next step.

In other words... don't run out and buy a bunch of Fish sized Agility Equipment and set it all up and think the fish is going to go through each piece. You start training with something small and easy. You teach the fish to learn. Once it learns one task well, you can add another item to the set. Let's say the trainers fish is now going through a Hoop and doing it well. This trainer could then add a Tunnel in front of the Hoop for two items for the fish to maneuver before it receives it's reward. Always put the new item you are teaching in front of the one the (any animal) fish already knows. This way it will see the familiar from the new, once it has completed the new, it will go right on and maneuver the familiar.

Never leave any training equipment in your fishes environment. Training equipment is meant for one on one interaction time. Special, I am going to feed you for good behavior time.

If your fish does not come through the Hoop when you go to train. Pull the Hoop out. Walk away and come back later, a few minutes later, and just feed with the pen shaft above the food again. In other words. Don't feed it the training secion does not go well, but back up the training after walking away for a minute or so. NEVER NOT FEED YOUR ANIMALS! NEVER!

6. What skills is a fish capable of learning?

That is still to be answered, I don't think anyone has taken aquarium fish to the end of their training abilities. Of course a fish is never going to be a See and Eye animal or go and fetch your newspaper, but there is much they can and will learn to do inside their tanks. A fish can learn to swim through items if the items are large/wide enough for the fish to get it's swimming body safely through it. They can learn to go under and or over items, swimming of course. A fish can learn to push a light weight item either on the bottom of or at the surface of their tank. A fish can learn, and this is a very advanced trick, to carry in their mouths, items that have a sort of handle and are light enough for the fish that is learning the task. Fish can learn to ring bells. I don't recommend have a fish jump up for their food as dolphins do. I think this is one of those things that certainly could be taught but the fish could also become hurt or even dead preforming when you are not around. And yes. Animals do perform the things we teach them all by themselves from time to time.

Tricks become tricks when the trainer uses behaviors to look like the animals are doing something human. Take Soccer for example. All the fish knows is that it is pushing something it has been taught to push from "here to there". What the trainer does is design a little Soccer Field and make the round item the fish is pushing look like a Soccer Ball. So when the general public see the fish pushing this Fish sized Soccer Ball across the Soccer Field, they think "HE HAS A FISH THAT PLAYS SOCCER!". So, the question "What can a fish learn?" is really only stopped by the fish trainers imagination.

7. Are there any ethical matters to take into consideration when training a fish?

Shame you have to mention this. It seems some folks don't want to take the time it takes to work or train animals. They want to hurry things, or perhaps they just don't understand that punishment does not often work with most animals and certainly not a fish. You can not teach a fish with force or punishment. You might scare it through a tunnel, or you might push under an arch, but that is not training. Your fish will not only not learn, it will have a terrible life in fear of the very people who keep it, feed it and care for it's tank. What a shame.

When animals are taught correctly those animals look forward to training time. They like the attention, the rewards, your approval. When they are taught with fear, they not only do not look forward to the time with the trainer, they will learn to fear and hide and hate. I am sure that the same is true of a fish. The really do have a brain. Think of how you can startle a fish in their tanks. Some people who themselves were not trained properly think this is fun and funny. But to the fish, not funny or fun at all. So let's not sell fish short when it comes to cruel training either. Treat them with respect.

8. Where can a fish owner find the equipment required to create a fish agility course?

There are so many items a person can make that will work well and are safe for both the fish and the fish's tank. Pipe cleaners, plastic canvas and ink pen shafts can become many different items for training a fish. Hoops, Double Hoops, Hoop connected together to become "Weave Hoops" are just a few ideas. Making your own items is fun and kids can even help. There is a pride involved when your fish uses the items you make yourself for the purpose the fish has learned. There are also items available on line if a person wanted to purchase already to go fish training equipment. I would highly recommend that you make your own first few items before you purchase anything. See what kind of a fish trainer you are. See what items your own imagination can come up with. This way you also have unique items.

9. Are there any competitions that fish can compete in?

Not to my knowledge. But you might be surprised to know that Rabbits and Pet Rats now compete at Agility and or Show Jumping at Shows, Pet Stores now have Hamster Ball Races, Pet Tricks and or Pet Costume Competitions are no longer just for dogs. So it probably will not be long before someone somewhere takes on the task to coordinate Fish Agility at Fish Shows.

10. Finally is there anything else that you would like to add?

I would like to add that it is a shame that many/more people do not understand that fish are living beings and they do have a brain and feelings and can certainly be taught to become enjoyable INTERACTIVE pets. I am hoping that with Fish Agility and the general public seeing fish doing tricks and tasks fish can then live a bit better life. Maybe kids can learn more about caring for animals again and enjoy that fish that is the only type of animal they can own. Fish need to become more then the "go to" pet for parents that don't want their children to own pets. I am hoping that even the parents will have more respect for the fish ion their homes.

And how fun for a Fish Enthusiast to have a fish that does tricks and or agility. Some how family members will certainly quit asking "Really? Fish?" "Fish again?" "Why do you spend so much on your stupid fish?"

-- The Fish Agility Team
Fri, 27 Jan 2012 19:28:16 -0500

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