The Bubble Blog » Right On Target
Right On Target
Posted on December 20, 2010 by freshwater
Training fish is like home construction. (They both create bubbles which easily burst.)

I have noticed that fish, dogs, chickens, bluebirds, and possibly husbands tend to latch onto the very first skill that you teach them and then default to that behavior when they feel confused or uncertain during subsequent training. (This is why wives should train their husbands not to watch football, but to instead go shopping and buy an ipad for their beloved.) It is therefore important to choose wisely when installing your fish's first trained behavior.

In my experience, the very best default behavior one can train a fish is targeting. By this I do not mean teaching your fish to shop compulsively at a Minnesota mega-retailer. After all, your husband is already there buying you an ipad. What I mean is, simply, teaching your fish to orient toward, touch, and follow a target.

Why is targeting a superb behavioral foundation? Because it allows you to direct your fish's physical position in the aquarium. Because it grabs and holds your fish's attention. Because it can facilitate the transfer of behavior from one object to another. Because it makes training two fish easier. Because I said so.

So what makes a good target? A target is a stimulus — an environmental condition that prompts behavior. There are oodles of stimuli present in an aquarium all the time: tank backdrop, water currents, sounds from within and outside the tank, yummy algae-laden gravel, bubbles rising to the surface, and on and on. These stimuli constantly vie for your fish's attention, and you can't control all of them. But you can out-compete them.

You must make your target salient (noticeable; standing out conspicuously; prominent). Make your fish say "WOW! Would ya look at THAT?!!" (Well, you can say this for him.) Fish have excellent color vision, and a bright red or hot pink object is a very salient stimulus for a fish. The R2 Fish School feeding wand (also known pertinently as the Target Feeder) is a fabulously salient stimulus. Its neon pink, extendable food chamber very easily attracts a fish's attention. And once the fish discovers that food emanates from that fashionably pink chamber, she will fall in love and follow it anywhere! (Or in more scientific terms, she will become conditioned to associate pink with a pleasant outcome. But who needs scientific terms? Is the word "chocolate" a scientific term? I don't think so.)

Once the fish has learned to approach, eat from, and follow the target feeding wand, expand your fish's repertoire with other targets. My favorite fish target is simply a brightly colored piece of drinking straw stuck in an aquarium suction cup and adhered to the outside of the tank for convenience:

Straw Targets

Initial training with this incredibly high tech device is simple: 1) Fish approaches target. 2) Fish touches target with mouth. 3) Trainer "clicks" the instant the target is touched, in order to tell the fish exactly when he has performed the correct behavior. (The click can be a sound or a visual stimulus. My fish clicker of choice is a colored pen light; the click is thus a flash of light.) 4) After the click (as quickly as possible), the fish is given a food reward.

Some fish understand targeting from the very first session. Others take a little more practice. In general, it's wise do at least 10 sessions of simple target training (with several reps per session) before moving on. You want this foundation behavior to meld with the fish's brain like super glue.

So what else can targets allow you to teach a fish? Here are just a few examples:

1) Place: Teach a fish to go to his place (target) and thus stay out of the way of his tankmates. If you have two fish in a tank, make two targets, each a different color. Fish A (let's call him "Watson") for example, always works with the red target, and Fish B (let's call him "Holmes" works only with the blue target. Then you can teach Watson to stay near his red target on the left side of the tank while Holmes learns a more complex behavior near his blue target on the right. (Holmes always likes a challenge. Also deerstalker hats.)

2) Push/Pull: Attract a fish to a ball, string or other object by either placing a target on it or making the object the same color as the fish's target.

3) Manipulate: Complicated manipulation of objects begins with a simple touch of a target affixed to the object. This works with tank ornaments, food, windchimes, handbells, and baby grand pianos, to name just a few. I used strategically placed targets to teach my very first fish, Ricky, to "play" a toy piano. I first trained him to touch a red straw target as described above. Then I simply affixed pieces of red straw onto the piano keyboard. His urge to touch every target resulted in a beautiful glissando up and down the keyboard. Then I just faded the targets. That is, over several training sessions, I made the targets smaller and smaller, then finally removed them entirely. Here's the process and the result.

Your fish should practice basic targeting every week, even when she has progressed to more spectacular tricks. Repetition will help your fish will retain her understanding of and attraction to targets, as well as improve her (and your) timing. If your fish learns to target early, precisely, and with enthusiasm, a thousand training opportunities will follow.


NEXT TIME: Keys to the City


(This article can also be found on the R2 Fish School Blog.)