You know your dog can learn tricks, but what about your fish? Koi are intelligent, have long-term memories, and have some reasoning abilities. Though limited by what they can do while restricted to a pond environment, koi are capable of learning a few tricks. These are the most common tricks pond owners can teach their koi to perform.
Swim to You
The easiest trick you can train koi to perform is to swim to you on sight. This is also a foundational skill that you will need to establish to teach other tricks. The good news is that koi are quick to catch on to the source of their meals–all it takes is for them to recognize you. You can accomplish this by feeding them at the exact times from the same spot each day.
Rather than tossing all the food at once, crouch or kneel by the pond and give koi a little at a time. Drop the food into the water gently to avoid scaring off the fish. The most extroverted and curious of the koi will probably approach first. If you find that some are too skittish to come to you after about 10 minutes, leave food in the pond for them and try again next time.
Eventually, your koi will recognize you and eagerly approach you for a meal or treat. How long this will take depends on the temperaments of the koi in your pond. Many hobbyists report spending weeks in a regular feeding routine before all the fish are comfortable swimming to them.
Once all your jewels are regularly approaching, you can begin to move to different spots around the pond. Expand your perimeter slowly, giving your koi time to adjust to looking for you in new locations. It should be possible to stand anywhere around the pond and attract your koi with consistent practice.
Respond to a Sound
Once your fish have identified you as a recognizable food source, you can begin teaching them more advanced tricks like responding to a signal. The first step is to have your fish understand that whatever signal you choose equals food. A bell or whistle is the most popular choice for this trick, though you can use any sound as long as it is consistent.
Instead of feeding your fish every time you approach, you will only feed them after ringing the bell or blowing the whistle. It’s tempting to feed them as you have been when they swim to you, but you’ll need to break out of that habit so that they dissociate your presence alone with food and reassociate your presence + signal with food.
Feed your fish a little bit within a few seconds after giving them the indicator. Then just hang out for a while, signal and feed again, and repeat this pattern multiple times each feeding session. After the habit is well-formed in one spot, try your signal in another area and see if your fish can figure out where to go.
Swim to a Target
Another advanced option is to teach your fish to touch a target. Most people choose a stick or a pole for this trick. Some owners just use an arm, but this can become complicated when one arm is a target, and the other is a feeder.
Start simply by placing the target underwater while you feed. It’s extremely helpful if it’s long enough to stick into the bottom of the pond. Remove it when feeding is over. On the first attempt, be prepared for the object to spook your fish. When the koi realize they have nothing to fear from the new object, they will start to investigate it. The key is to reward them as soon as they do this, which will require a keen eye and fast reflexes (making this trick difficult but all the more fun).
After the fish associate the object with food, stop rewarding them unless they touch their noses/mouths to it. Eventually, they will automatically tap the target when you place it in the water. This skill takes time, patience, and a lot of practice for koi to learn. You might not see results for several weeks–and that is with consistent training.
Eat from Your Hand
A more straightforward trick your koi can learn after they know to approach you is to eat directly from your hand. This trick is many hobbyists’ favorite because it creates a powerful bonding experience with the fish. Start by gently lowering your hand into the water, holding the food in your fist to initiate this. Move your hand very slowly while allowing a few pieces to escape. This will force the fish to swim close to your hand but not yet have to eat from it. Avoid rapid motions and do not push your hand toward the fish–allow them to approach you. Eventually, the koi will recognize your hand as a food source.
The next step is to get them comfortable touching you. Again, place your hand gently into the water with a fist full of food, but this time don’t immediately let any escape. The hope is that the fish will prod your hand for the food, at which point you should release some of it. At the end of the session, you can leave the remaining food for the fish that have been too shy to nudge you.
The last stage will involve simply cupping your hand with some food in it, placing it at the water’s surface, and enjoying the experience of your koi eating right out of it. You might have one or more greedy fish that want to hog the supply. In this case, submerge your hand as in the previous step to allow access to the more polite fish. Toss some additional food in afterward if you are not certain that each of your fish has eaten.
After your koi learn to hand feed, you can introduce the more advanced and impressive trick of getting them to jump for their food. Start by moving your hands just above the water’s surface. If you need to catch the koi’s attention, you can initially submerge your hands but not let any food go until they swim to the surface. Make sure to only reward fish which are at the surface.
After the fish are hand-feeding from above the water rather than below, you can begin to dangle their rewards slightly higher. This will motivate your koi to jump and get the food. The key is to progress through this trick gradually, starting at just about an inch above the waterline. Note that some koi can be timid and need additional prompting to jump. If they don’t do it after holding the food above the water, grasp the food between your fingers and submerge them briefly. When the koi approaches your hand, pull your fingers upward above the water.