How to Train Your Goldfish

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Col. Konrad Most, one of the pioneers of modern animal training, began training service dogs while serving in the Royal Prussian Police in 1906. His book on the subject, Training Dogs, described many of the basic elements of operant conditioning—including reinforcement, extinction, and shaping—that American behaviorist B.F. Skinner would later popularize. If Most were alive today, he’d probably get a kick out of the Canis Film Festival, which features videos of owners using operant conditioning to train their pups, and appreciate that the same principles he used to train his dogs are now applied to many other species, including chickens, llamas, and even fish.

The Commercialization of Animal Training

In 1943, Marian and Keller Breland, who had worked under Skinner, founded Animal Behavior Enterprises in Minnesota.

(As one of the commenters on Matt Soniak’s recent article about the CIA’s plan to use cats as spies said, an entire article could be devoted to Marian Breland’s life.)

At ABE, the Brelands trained all sorts of species for television and movie roles, circuses, theme parks, and zoos. The couple helped establish positive reinforcement, rather than punishment, as the preferred technique to train animals. ABE-trained chickens were advertising farm feeds by 1947, and the Brelands authored an instruction manual about behavioral analysis for other trainers. Keller Breland died in 1965, the same year that Bob Bailey, who was the first Director of Training in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, joined ABE. Marian married Bob and became Marian Breland Bailey in 1976. Twenty years later, the couple founded Bailey & Bailey Operant Conditioning Workshops.

Here are a few examples of animals that are trained using operant conditioning today.

Chickens

In 1975, Terry and Bill Ryan founded Legacy Canine Behavior & Training. During the 1980s, the couple began hosting canine training camps in their home state of Washington. Turnout was strong from the start, but the Ryans wanted to broaden the reach of their training. In an effort to make the camps more accessible to owners who were unable to travel with their dogs, they started teaching the basics of operant conditioning, including the importance of rewarding a behavior at the correct time, by using rats in Skinner boxes.

In the early 1990s, Terry Ryan teamed with Kang Shallenberger, a retired dolphin trainer of 25 years at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park, and began using chickens as training models. “With a dog, you want to take short cuts and skip steps,” Shallenberger told the Lewiston Morning Tribune in 1993. “But as soon as you skip a step with a chicken, you’re lost.” Chicken training, which the Brelands had demonstrated nearly 50 years earlier, became an increasingly popular way for dog owners to hone their training technique.

Today, chicken training camps and workshops are held throughout the world. The aforementioned Bob Bailey, who has appeared as a guest at Legacy camps in the past, hosted chicken training seminars until his retirement in 2008. Using simple clicker training, chickens can be taught to play Tic-Tac-Toe and navigate obstacle courses.

Fish
For $29.99, the R2 Fish School will give you the tools to teach your fish to “shoot hoops, limbo dance, play fetch, kick a goal, and much more.” The training kit uses positive reinforcement to combat the notion that fish only have 3-second memories. According to the site, “fish have shown the ability to swim through mazes, identify different colors, recognize types of music and even tell time.” The most famous graduate of the R2 Fish School is Albert Einstein, a goldfish, who currently holds the Guinness World Record for the fish with the most tricks. Fish that successfully complete the training course receive a diploma.

Cats
Among the many training-related products sold on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website is a cat training kit that will help you teach your cat to come when called, play without scratching, and perform cute tricks. Are you sold? Clicker training, which Pryor popularized during her many years as a dolphin trainer, can also be used to toilet train your cat. Pryor launched the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior in 2007.

Alpacas and Llamas
According to her website, Cathy Spalding has been “actively involved with llamas and alpacas” since 1985. During that time, she has organized a Llama and Alpaca Symposium in Kansas City and authored a behavioral textbook, Llama Talk, which details llama behavioral cues. The resource is used by a number of schools, including the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell. Spalding teaches behavior and training clinics and offers private sessions. If you’ve ever wanted to train your pet llama to jump through a hoop or ring a bell, this is the blog for you.

Pigs

Priscilla Valentine claims her Potbellied Pig Behavior and Training Manual is the first and only book completely devoted to the behavior and training of pigs, and we’re inclined to believe her. Valentine’s pigs have performed at state fairs and other events throughout the country, and garnered numerous awards, including the Potbellied Pig Trick Champion title. Priscilla, who trains her pigs with her husband Steve, says she became fascinated with the animals after she was given a rubber pig as a toy when she was 3.

The Valentines’ most famous pig, Nellie, became a national sensation in 1991 after starring in “Jurassic Pork,” which won the couple $10,000 on America’s Funniest Home Videos. The Valentines’ training manual features tips for addressing problematic behaviors such as rooting and nipping, and includes a 10-step program for reducing aggressiveness in house pigs.

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June 6, 2011 - 7:17am
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