How to Train Your Goldfish

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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Fascinating Facts About Elephants

Photo by David Heiling on Unsplash

Known for their strong family bonds and intelligence, elephants have fascinated humans across time and cultures. As the largest living land mammal, a male African bush elephant typically stands more than 10 feet tall and weighs an incredible 6.6 tons. Although poachers still kill approximately 100 African elephants every day, conservation groups are working to save elephant populations from extinction. Read on for a dozen things you might not know about elephants, from their long history as a political symbol to their legit firefighting skills.

1. Contrary to popular belief, elephants are not exactly scared of mice.

Baby elephant looks startled.
iStock.com/szaphotography

Cartoonists have long depicted the funny juxtaposition of a giant elephant terrified of a tiny mouse. Zoologists and elephant trainers have conducted experiments to test whether elephants are truly afraid of rodents, and it seems to be a myth. Mice themselves don't frighten elephants, but the pachyderms have poor vision and can get extremely startled when anything suddenly scurries by. Elephants are probably more afraid of a mouse's sudden movement than the mouse itself.

2. Wild elephants could have populated the U.S., but abraham Lincoln nixed the idea.

A mother and baby elephant taking a walk.
iStock.com/saha_avijan

In 1861, President Lincoln received gifts, including elephant tusks and a handmade sword, from Siam's King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut. The king of present-day Thailand also made an interesting offer: Mongkut proposed that Siam would send pairs of male and female elephants to the U.S. to breed in the forests. Americans could then tame the wild elephants and put them to work for the economic benefit of the country. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, replied to Mongkut in 1862, graciously declining his offer. He told the king that since the U.S. already used steam power to efficiently transport goods within the country, elephants simply wouldn't be practical.

3. Trunk-sucking is the elephant equivalent of thumb-sucking.

Baby elephant sucking its trunk.
iStock.com/bucky_za

When baby elephants want to comfort themselves, they instinctively start sucking their trunks. Trunk-sucking is also a way that a baby elephant can learn how to use her trunk (which contains between 40,000 and 50,000 muscles). Although most elephants, like human babies, grow out of sucking behavior, some adult elephants also suck their trunks when they feel anxious.

4. Elephants have been the symbol of the Republican Party since 1874.

Elephant symbol for the Republican party.
iStock.com/Niyazz

Although elephants had been occasionally used as a symbol for Republicans during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew an elephant in an 1874 issue of Harper's Weekly, gets the credit for linking the animal with the political party. In later cartoons, Nast continued to draw an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and other cartoonists adopted it, establishing the animal as the GOP symbol.

5. Barnum & Bailey once trained elephants to play baseball.

U.S. stamp with a circus elephant on it.
iStock.com/Valerie Loiseleux

Baseball is America's pastime, so why not teach elephants how to play the game? In 1912, thanks to the work of Barnum & Bailey's elephant trainer, Harry L. Mooney, the intelligent animals played their first ballgame. Although playing baseball was just one of many tricks that circus elephants learned, Barnum & Bailey capitalized on the concept of elephant baseball by using the image on posters to sell tickets for shows.

6. Some elephants have been convicted of murder.

Elephant foot in chains.
iStock.com/Pentium2

Although elephants are typically viewed as gentle giants, they are capable of attacking and killing humans. Male elephants undergo musth, a hormonal change that makes them temporarily produce tons of testosterone, resulting in aggression. But even female elephants can kill. In 1916, a town in Tennessee charged an elephant named Big Mary with first-degree murder for killing her handler. Big Mary, who worked for the Sparks Circus, attacked her handler, possibly after he struck her with a bullhook as she was trying to eat a watermelon rind. Big Mary was convicted and sentenced to execution. Some 2500 residents of the town gathered to watch Big Mary's dramatic hanging, which featured a 100-ton crane and a chain that broke under her weight.

7. Elephants grieve death.

Elephants mourning the death of a baby elephant.
iStock.com/brittak

Although we can't know exactly what elephants feel and how they process death, they seem to show signs that they experience grief when a member of their family (or another elephant) dies. When they see a dead elephant, they may vocalize, use their trunks to "hug" the dead animal, or stay with the carcass for hours. Some elephants have also tried to bury the dead body by covering it in leaves and soil.

8. Trained elephants fight fires in Indonesia.

Elephant with water spewing out of its trunk.
Ishara S.KODIKARA, AFP/GettyImages

You probably won't see an elephant riding on a fire truck anytime soon, but elephants in Indonesia are a vital part of fighting fires. In 2015, East Sumatra was plagued with multiple fires over a period of several months, so 23 trained elephants from a conservation center went to work. Carrying water pumps and hoses, the elephants helped patrol the land and made sure that new fires weren't ignited.

9. If you're in Zambia, you might see some elephants strolling through your hotel lobby.

An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
Lars Plougmann, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Some guests at Mfuwe Lodge in the African country of Zambia get an unusual animal sighting before they even leave the lobby. Each year between October and December, families of elephants walk through the lodge's reception area to eat wild mango from a tree in the courtyard. The elephants' giant size and seeming indifference to their hotel lobby surroundings make for quite a striking sight.

10. In 2015, scientists recorded elephants yawning for the first time.

An elephant's open mouth.
iStock.com/filrom

Although scientists speculated that elephants probably yawn, scientists from the University of California, Davis captured the first video of an elephant yawning. If you enjoy watching sleepy animals stretching and yawning, this is for you. Warning: extreme cuteness ahead.

11. Elephants starred in YouTube's first-ever video.

Man taking a photo of an elephant on his phone.
iStock.com/iudmylaSupynska

On April 23, 2005, Jawed Karim made internet history when he uploaded the first video to a certain nascent video-sharing website. Karim, one of YouTube's founders, posted an 18-second scene of himself standing in front of elephants at a zoo. In the video, he speaks about how cool the elephants' long trunks are. As of August 2019, the video has more than 74 million views.

12. Elephants love to snack on old Christmas trees.

Two elephants snacking on pine trees.
VADIM KRAMER, AFP/Getty Images

Zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin, a zoo in Germany, feed unsold Christmas trees to their elephants in early January. The trees are certified pesticide-free, and the elephants seem to enjoy their special snack. Berlin isn't the only place where elephants eat Christmas trees, though. Zoos in Prague also treat their elephants to the tasty conifers.