Cornerstone Reflections | Fish Training

April 19, 2019 - Craig Patterson

Cornerstone Reflections | Fish Training

By Craig Patterson, RBT

Flipper, Shammoo, Nemo; these are just a few famous names in the world of fish. But I’d like to add a couple more…Roger and Rodrigo.

When Chief Clinical Officer Ken Weadick first mentioned the idea of training a fish, I laughed. “You can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish,” as the old saying goes. Given the proximity to April that the training dates were, I assumed this was an April Fools Day ruse. Especially since he specifically said, “This isn’t an April Fools Day joke,” I knew it must have been. Naturally, I signed up and requested a shark.  I knew the center couldn’t afford an entire sharknado, so I simplified it down a bit.

Much to my surprise, the next day, there were fish. As everyone rushed to claim “the good ones,” I looked around and decided to just claim the one at the very end that no one had claimed yet. A simple little goldfish. It’s name was Roger. I like to think that you don’t name the fish, the fish names you. So Roger named me Craig, which was conveniently already my name. I loved Roger like the brother I never had, which hurt my real brother’s feelings, but whatever. I fed him, and I watched him swim around, because that’s about all you can do with fish. Except he rarely swam. He mostly just sat there, looking at the walls of his…what are they called again? “Fish cave” is what keeps coming to mind, but I know that’s not it. Yes, he sat there staring at the walls of his fish tank. Everyone kept telling me, “I think your fish is dying,” but I promised them and myself, “No no no, Roger is a survivor. He’s a champion.”

Turns out, he was not, and he died. The end.

The end for Roger that is. I came back to work after a sick day to find in Roger’s place, a new beta fish.

“What happened to Roger?” I questioned.

“Oh, yeah your fish died, dude,” said someone.


Sure, I had never worked to train Roger, and sure all I had really done is talk to him and consult him on the type of wood I should use to build a canoe (cedar, for the record), but I was overcome with grief.

For weeks on end, I cried myself to sleep at night. The only song I would listen to was Michael Bolton’s 1989 smash hit, “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?” The only show I would watch was Fixer Upper because I find it very depressing. But then I realized I had a responsibility to this new fish, Rodrigo.

I sat and talked to him for a while, looked deeply into his big eyes. He simply wasn’t my Roger, but who ever could be? It didn’t matter, he was my responsibility now. With great fish comes great responsibility…

After some time, Rodrigo and I developed a friendship. He was patient and kind, never pushing me too hard to get over Roger. One day in particular, I sat in the empty training room with Rodrigo as he did his morning laps. He did this little shimmy to swim up the corner of his fish cave…er, sorry, fish thank. It was silly. For the first time in, I don’t know, months, I smiled. Then I laughed. Then I laughed so hard I cried. Then I cried so hard I laughed myself into crying again. Then I cried so hard I developed a herniated disc in my back. Then I laughed again because I remembered Rodrigo’s little shimmy. As I sat, laughing with him, I realized I had never trained him on anything; I never taught him a single thing he knew. I didn’t teach him to swim or eat or shimmy. But he had taught me plenty. He taught me I was stronger than I ever thought I could be. After such a tragic loss, he taught me it was possible to love myself and another again.

It was at that point when I heard about another fish, named Sharkbait, who has been showing off some tricks. He can play soccer and even do the limbo! When I saw the videos, I was amazed. One day in the future, I hope to teach Rodrigo some of these tricks based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis.

To watch this video, in tribute to Roger and another fish we lost named Bones, visit this link.

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April 19, 2019, Craig Patterson

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