How to Praise a Fish

Many animal trainers that use positive reinforcement and operant conditioning rely on a clicker or a certain word (such as “Good!”) to mark correct behavior. The marker sound or word functions as a secondary reinforcer. It’s paired with food over and over again until the animal associates it with good behavior. Then, when you give the signal, the animal knows it’s performed a good behavior and will get a reward (such as food). Keep reinforcing the behavior, and it should increase.

A signal, such as the clicker often used with dogs or the whistles often used with dolphins, is actually much more effective than using just praise and food. This is because the click/whistle is very easy for the animal to hear and understand, it’s exactly the same signal every time and, perhaps most importantly, the timing is much more precise in terms of being able to mark exactly what behavior you want. The animal then knows exactly what behavior earns the reward.

I’ve been training Blaze (my goldfish) for close to 2 weeks now. He’s made fast progress so far, although I’ve been teaching him using targeting with a training wand and luring. He’s learned how to follow the training wand through a hoop, but I’m not sure he actually understands that “go through hoop” earns the reward, as oppose to “follow the wand even when the wand goes through the hoop.” Which are nearly the same behaviors, but not quite. He might understand that the hoop is some how connected to the reward, as he has offered the behavior several times without me asking for it. However, I’ve been teaching him to swim through it in one direction, and almost every time he’s offered the behavior it’s been in the other direction, which makes me think that he’s just gotten comfortable with swimming through the hoop.

So, I want to add some sort of marker signal so that I can precisely mark the behavior I want and begin to shape more complicated behaviors. However, being a fish, he doesn’t respond very well to verbal or auditory signals, such as a clicker or praise. As many times as I say “Good Fish! Good Fish! Great job fishy!,” he’s probably not going to equate my praise with his food. Instead, I’ve started using a penlight. It’s easy to click the penlight and flash a bit of light at the fish tank. Then, I give him a bite of food. Click and a flash of light, then food follows. Click and a flash of light, then food follows. We’ll repeat this for several sessions, until, hopefully, he figures out that the flash of light means “Good fishy, here comes a bit of food!”

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