AN EXPERIMENT TO TRAIN A BETTA TO DO A TRICK: How two people taught their bettas to do simple tricks.

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On 8 May, 2003, I received an email from Brittany Stoker who explained how she taught her betta to do a trick. With her permission I've posted an edited version of it below.

My name is Brittany Stoker and I'm a betta breeder. I read about teaching bettas tricks. I had often wondered about it and decided to try it. I succeded! The trick was for the betta to go to the side of the tank and pull a string attached to a bell being held up on the wall of the tank by a hook-like structure. To start, I picked my brightest fish, Red (cambodian double tail.) I tied a small blue ball to the end of the string. I dipped it in, get this&ldots; chcken broth! it's his favorite. I didn't put too much because it dirties the tank and too much of anything is not good for you. I the lowered the string into the water and lured him to it. When he bit it and pulled the bell rang. I rewarded him with a few blood worms. I tried twice a week for half a month. I then omitted the chicken broth. Around feeding time I put the string in. Impulsively, he pulled it so I fed him. Soon enough I could just leave the string in and at feeding time he would ring the bell.


Robin Anderson's betta training experience!

One of the great pleasures in having a website is receiving email from people who've visited it and have something surprising to contribute. A case in point are the following letters I received from Robin Anderson about her efforts to train her betta, Banner, to swim through a plastic hoop on commend. Robin is an animal trainer so she's well qualified to attempt this. With her permission, I've copied and pasted excerpts from her letters about her progress onto this page. I'm sure you'll find them interesting. There are pictures of Banner doing his trick at the bottom of this page.


From the first letter:

Here are some of the endeavors of teaching my Betta to swim through a hoop. (I think we are getting close but not just yet.)

The idea first came to me many years ago with a Betta who passed on before I was able to put my idea to the test. This second Betta was purchased with the intention of teaching him to swim through a hoop. The following are some of our successes and failures.

The goal: Teach a Betta to swim through a hoop on command.

Equipment: Other than normal Betta things, a pen light, a pencil; unsharpened, Betta bites, hoop, and plant weights.

Procedure: using operant conditioning to shape the behavior of swimming through a hoop. Then attach a command to the behavior.

Training Session: 2 to 4 Betta Bites per session and three sessions a day. Not totaling more than 9 Betta Bites in one day.

First I purchased a Betta from my local pet shop. I set him up in a 2 1/2 gal tank including light hood and rocks on the bottom. With 2 live plants in the corner of the right hand side in the back.

The first day I did not feed him, letting him get acclimated to his tank.

The next evening I placed a few Betta Bites at the top and went away so he could eat in peace.

The next morning, started feeding early morning and then again in the evening. No training started. I was waiting for the initial response from the Betta, Banner, that he associated my approaching his tank with feeding time. This took 2 weeks I nearly gave up hope. In retrospect, I am not sure this time period was necessary and that I could have skipped this step and simply started with the next procedure.

Once Banner showed the response that I was looking for, training began. Again I postponed feeding to ensure he would be hungry. The next feeding I flashed the pen light just prior to Banner taking a bite of the food as it floated on top of the water. Only one Betta Bite at a time. We did this for a week. Flashing the light just prior to his taking of each bite. Banner has come to learn that he only gets fed in the front left hand corner of his tank if he leaves this area feeding/training is over.

On the second week of training we change the order. Banner swims to the feeding corner, I flash the light and quickly drop in one Betta Bite, he eats. Again we continue this for a week, one bite at a time.

Third week. Now comes the fun part, the real training. As before Banner swims to the Training Corner. This time, however, I flash the light, but I do not drop the Betta Bite in immediately. Holding onto it I hesitate to see if he searches for it at the top of the water. When he does I quickly drop it in and he eats. We continued this flash and treat for 3 days.

Then the 4th day of the 3rd. week I introduce the Target stick, the erasure end of a shiny red pencil. Now for Banner to earn his treat he would have to learn to follow the stick when it is placed against the outside glass. At first I flashed/treated any time Banner looked at the stick and slowly required him to move toward the stick. The goal is for Banner to follow the stick across the tank in any direction, up or down.

Now I will tell you some of our failures or "Happy Accidents"

Once, in the course of teaching Banner the target stick and out of frustration I guess, he flew in and flared. Understanding this as his form of intimidation I pulled the stick back Flashed and treated him. From then on any time he flared I Flash/treat, along with pulling the target stick back. Now pulling the stick back has become the signal for Banner to flare. The Failure... somehow with out my notice Banner picked up an undesired behavior chain. Before he flares he will swim to the water top, take a breath and then come flare. While this behavior still achieves the flare I would rather he flared without first swimming to the top. Next Failure.... In the course of teaching the flare we had stopped working on following the target stick. When we began again Banner no longer followed the stick he would swim up to the glass and stop. Solution... we stopped training any behaviors and went back to the flash/treat method of week three for a two weeks period.

After these two weeks we went back to training. Using the same method as before, this time however, I only flash/treated Banner if he was performing forward movement toward the stick. Because of the prior training Banner responded very quickly learning to follow the stick across the tank.

A note, Banner will still perform the flare when I pull the stick back, but he has lost the intensity he had before but he longer swims to the top before flaring. I am not sure why he has lost his intensity but I hope to learn more as we continue working together.

Another note: Banner displays a trait that I have seen in the dogs I have trained and in some people too. This trait is known as a Plateau. Simply put training, is going along fine then all of a sudden the trainee forgets everything the two of you have been working on. When this happens continue training as best you can, reverting back to prior steps as needed. It will go away and the trainee will recover.

Now you are brought up to where Banner and I are in our hoop training process.

A hoop was weighted and placed into the rocks of Banner's tank. It took him 3 days before he was comfortable with this hoop. The hoop should be placed next to the aquarium glass close to the training corner but with enough room for Banner to move freely and not feel trapped. The idea is to have Banner follow the target stick through the hoop flash/treat. When he will do this without hesitation I hope to place a command signal, yet to be determined, to this behavior. After the command is established I will slowly attempt to move the hoop toward the center of the tank in small increments.


From the second letter:

Bettas are a lot smarter than I would have ever given them credit. At first Banner refused to swim through the hoop. I think it was more to the fact that he lost track of the target stick as it passed the hoop. However, first thing this morning I caught Banner sitting in the middle of the hoop. I debated for a short time if I should flash/treat since he was sitting there not really doing anything. I decided in favor and if a fish can look surprised he did. He wouldn't make any effort to follow the stick after that and I figured I just messed up some training. A few hours latter I noticed him doing loop-t-loops and he was promptly flash/treated. He has followed the stick through since then. (This poor little guy, I am going to have to give him a way to initiate training it would only be fair.) I really didn't think a Betta could be so smart as to put two and two together as fast as he did.

He did it!!! Congratulations, Robin... your hard work paid off.

I would like to publically thank Robin for provided one of the most interesting additions to my site. I wish her the best of luck with her experiment and look forward to future updates. (Anyone with questions can email Sue at


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