Can I Train My Fish?

Many fish keepers do not give their fish enough credit for being smart. Most pet fish are above average intelligence and can be easily trained given their food-motivated behavior.

Many aquariums use training behaviors to make everyday care and medical procedures easier and less stressful. By offering a fish a treat for a job well done, they are more likely to comply with a quick medication injection or diagnostic procedure. Many of these behaviors are accomplished using a signal and target, as seen in the videos below. This is the first step in getting fish used to training.

Here is a zebra bullhead shark at the New England Aquarium learning to target.
This Mola mola a the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a specific target to hit during feeding time. Since they are slower than their other tankmates, this way the Mola gets enough to eat!

Signals to Incorporate

Fish best respond to training when there is a clear signal, like a target. But they may need help knowing when it’s time to look for the target.

Sounds/Vibrations

Fish, with their specialized lateral line organ, are very attune to sounds and vibrations. At major aquariums, fish can hear their trainers walking out on platforms and catwalks, indicating that food is imminent. You can do the same for your fish using a clap, bell, call or footsteps. The biggest component of training is consistency and patience. Make sure you do the same thing every time to get the fish used to the signal.

Light/Shapes

A simple signal for most indoor tanks can be the switch of a light. Using target shapes as in the videos will take some additional training. Fish can see color, but varying color and shape will be easier for them to recognize. Many owners will use their hands as targets. It’s cheap, easy and holds food!

Basics to Start Training

Association with Signal

The first step is to have your fish understand that whatever signal you choose equals food. In your tank or pond, make your signal (bell, clap, stomp, call, etc) and feed your fish a little bit within a few seconds. Repeat multiple times per feeding. In a large pond, after a few weeks in one spot, try your signal in another area and see if your fish can figure out the difference.

Introduce Target

Once your fish get the ‘signal = food’ concept, it’s time to start introducing a target. When first introducing your chosen target, if not your hand, usually on a stick or pole, it is common for fish to fear it and swim away. Start simply by adding the target to their tank or pond and then start your signal/feeding regimen. Remove it when feeding is over.When they realize they have nothing to fear from the new object, they will start to investigate. Once they are used to having the target in their environment, you can start moving it closer.

Using the Target

Associating the target with food can be a little tricky in fish. Simply put, a fish should learn to touch their nose/mouth to the target to receive their food reward. If you are using your hand as a target, holding food in your hand is a simple and easy reward system. Other fish training kits come with target poles that hold a piece of food.

Getting More Creative

Once your fish has associated the target with the initial signal and expected reward, you can start to expand their training. Remember, consistency and patience are the keys to training your fish. Here are some examples of what your fish can do with one of the main training sets on the market:

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