perjantai 30. tammikuuta 2015

Why Don’t I just get a dog?

Why Don’t I just get a dog?

This is a question that popped into my mind as I again started to train another bizarre animal species.
I’ve been now involved with animal care and training about thirty years. Never in my life have I owned a dog. This does not mean that I would not have been working with one but it seems that I’m bound to work with some more exotic animals.

Most of my experience is related to aquatic environment; like seals, dolphins etc. Lately I've been more involved with domestic animals; ponies, bunnies and also birds.
I do find it interesting to get involved with challenging tasks. Once you get to the goal it is so very rewarding. However sometimes I come to think that why on earth do I have to collect so challenging training tasks? Why not just work with a dog?
I’m sorry for the word “just” – it’s not to give any discredit to any dog trainer / -training. Sometimes it just feels that it would be so much easier.

Banded Archerfish
Anyhow, the latest training task is; Banded archerfish. On the other hand this is one of the very first animals I’ve trained in my early days as aquarist.
Banded archerfish is best known for its ability to spit a jet of water to "shoot down" prey, like small insects or flies. Banded archerfish have mouths adapted to spit jets of water over distance, usually to knock prey into the water. The banded archerfish shoots the jet of water by raising its tongue against the roof of its mouth, forming a tube. The opercula then close quickly, pressurizing water along the tube. 

The shooting ability is genetically imprinted in this fish species but the accuracy of a “shot” is a learned ability. It is even said that they can hit a moving target. Shooting distance can be up to appr. 150 cm.
This school of fishes I started to work with is situated on a public aquarium here in Finland (Särkänniemi Oy, Tampere). At the starting moment none of the fish school individuals were using their special ability to catch prey this way. Often times animals tend to behave on energy based principle. What this means is that they act on a way which is most energy effective way to satisfy their primary needs. Especially this applies for hunting behavior; if there is a way of getting food with less effort and smaller amount of energy loss, it is of course a better option for the animal in question for its survival.
In other words this school of banded archerfishes had been kind of “spoiled”. They have always been fed to the water. It’s been easy for them just be at spot where the food is been delivered. There is no need for using the shooting ability as food is available also without doing so.
The very first experience that I now have with them is reinforcing this theory. I did a feeding platform for getting them spit water to get the food. The platform is made of long ice-cream spoons. Nothing happened during the first trial.

Primary forces
Hunger is a very strong primary force. It even makes some of us humans steal, in order to get our needs to be satisfied. With this case I’ll be using it also on a controlled way. I will not leave those poor fish starving. I believe I can achieve the ultimate goal of “waking up” their unique ability, just by transforming the regular daily feeding schedule to later moment during the day. What the fishes will get is an instant reward of shooting the prey – the lure I've made them in the spoons. This food is available for them earlier during the day - they just need to make a small effort of getting it.
By doing this I’m actually trying to get them frustrated and seek for nourishment from the environment. This is very natural hunting phenomena and it is indeed enriching their environment. So by adding this type of behavioral need in their environment I am getting them mental exercise, especially as this school of fishes has not been using their shooting ability.
At the beginning I used a bit of luring by feeding these fishes underneath the spoons I made for the purpose. I’m also keeping the feeding spot at the beginning in the very same place so that they will understand the connection between food and spoons faster. I am also observing all activity of the fish school because I want to reinforce most of their effort of making the shot by tossing some food underneath the spoons every time any of the individuals is making an effort. At the very beginning the spoons are almost touching the water surface, later once the behavior of shooting the water has been established I will take the  spoons further away from the surface.

Frustration is a difficult matter to be handled once we are using it on animal training. You don’t want to get the animals too frustrated as it will most likely lead into some form of aggression. Even after three days of this exercise with banded archerfish I can already see some territorial or dominant behavior between the fishes in the school.  However if you are capable of using it a properly small amount of frustration your creating a phenomenon called extinction burst.  
Extinction burst is a short timeline in the animal’s behavior when it is trying a bit harder to accomplish the reinforcement it is used to get by performing a certain magnitude of behavior. This is something that is very much programmed into any of us, but it is also a great tool in animal behavior management. However one should be rather talented when we are using this kind of method in molding animal behavior.

By restraining a bit the food intake to these animals I’m convinced that they will be affected by the previously mentioned phenomenon. This will make them search for different ways of getting the reinforcement. Actually after three days of exercise this has been proven to be true – some, not all, individuals of the school of these fishes have started to spit on my lure (the spoon with food in it). And just by the day five I could already raise the spoon appr. 10 cm above the water surface.
I also got a very good experience on how powerful the spitting of water with these rather small fishes is; while I was putting some minced shrimp on the spoon I was shot by one of the fish right at my eye. It was striking how powerful the shot was! No wonder they can get i.e. flies dropped into water by this way.

The process of training this natural ability to this school of fishes is still, while I am writing this article, in the very beginning stage. However the progress after only a few days is extreme – not necessarily surprising but rather vast. The task is to get most of the fishes involved in using their ability to use this preying method. Also one of the clear target is to get the target further away from the fishes so that they have to make shot longer, as they do have according to the literature an ability to make the shot up to 1,5 meters.

This will be an interesting task and if you find it also interesting you can follow the progress on Meritime (my consulting company) Facebook profile at;


Kai Mattsson
animal behaviorist