How to Train Your Fish To Do Tricks
Fish training is a fun, interesting activity to enrich the life of your pet fish. Many people assume that fish are difficult or time-consuming to train, but this could not be further from the truth! Most fish love to play “the training game” and will surprise you with how smart and playful they can be. While still unfamiliar to many people, fish training is a great way to spend time with your fish and provide a creative new source of enrichment for your pet in just five or ten minutes a day.
On this page, you’ll find answers to commonly asked fish training questions, training methods, video examples, and the first steps to take to start training your own fish.
Commonly Asked Questions
Can fish actually learn how to do tricks? Do they remember the tricks for very long?
Fish can learn and retain information just as well as any other animal. While some people may still believe fish only have a 3-second memory, this is simply a myth, as there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. (Below are a couple of unedited videos of trained fish) Even though fish training is still pretty uncommon, there are several fish that have proven to be so much more intelligent than fish are typically given credit for.
How long does it take to train a fish?
Fish training doesn’t have to be time intensive or difficult at all. While you can spend as much or as little time training as you would like, teaching your fish to do tricks isn’t generally time-consuming.
I personally only train my fish for about 5 minutes a day at one of their regular feeding times. You can also train for 5 minutes twice a day (morning and night feeding times) if you want them to learn tricks faster. Short sessions actually tend to be more effective than a long block of time when training any animal, and short sessions are usually easier to fit into your schedule.
Although it’s definitely not necessary to dedicate a ton of time to training every day, it is important to be as consistent as you can. Even though you only spend 5-10 minutes a day training your fish, plan to do it every day, ideally at the same time every day.
Of course, if you’re sick for a while or go on vacation for a week, your fish isn’t going to fall apart and forget everything they’ve learned. But for the rest of the time, if you want them to learn consistently and quickly, it is best to try to commit to training as consistently as you can.
Which types of fish are smartest or easiest to train?
Positive reinforcement training works well with any fish that likes food. 🙂 Cichlids, goldfish of all types, bettas, guppies, platies, mollies, and lots of other fish respond well to training. With that said, fish that are energetic and have a good appetite are the best candidates.
If you have a greedy fish that loves food and also likes to greet you at the side of the tank or nibble your fingers curiously when you put your hand in the tank, they will likely be very easy to train. Goldfish and Oscars fit the bill and are popular choices, but they also require a bigger tank and more maintenance than some other fish. Betta fish are very bold for their small size, and they are much more beginner-friendly than cichlids and goldies.
Why should I teach my fish to do tricks?
Training fish is an enriching activity for your fish, and it’s fun and rewarding for both the trainer and the fish. Not only does it provide the fish with an activity to take part in rather than just swimming in their tank, but it also is quite rewarding for the trainer to see the results of your training and be able to show others just how smart fish can be when they’re given the opportunity.
Fish Training Overview
Fish are trained exclusively with positive reinforcement, which means you reward every behavior you want them to do with food. When you’re first starting a new trick, you might reward for small actions leading up to the completed behavior, known as shaping.
For example, you may start teaching your fish to swim through a hoop by first rewarding when they swim near the hoop, then next time, wait until they go behind the hoop and stick their head through, before eventually rewarding for swimming all the way through the hoop.
If you are using a target stick or something similar to guide your fish through the hoop, a similar concept applies. You would likely start with a large hoop that the fish barely even notices swimming through, and gradually start using smaller hoops until the fish has to almost squeeze through a hoop that’s just a little bigger than they are. You always want to make sure you progress at the fish’s pace and start as simply as you can when introducing a new trick.
Fish Training Equipment & Obstacles
Training equipment required for many of the tricks can be handmade using an assortment of household items and craft supplies. I have a list of DIY tutorials below:
You can also use your creativity and find items in your house to turn into fish training supplies, provided they are safe for your fish and won’t impact the water quality in your tank.
How to Start Training Your Fish (The First Steps)
When you or your fish are new to training, you want to start with something as easy as possible to set yourself up for success. The two tricks I recommend starting with are finger feeding and following a target stick. Both are pretty easy to teach, and will make other tricks in the future much easier to teach as well.
Eating from your hand is one of the best ways to teach your fish to trust you and create positive associations with your hand and other unusual objects that might come into their tank. It also encourages your fish to start interacting with you and learn that new things in the tank aren’t anything to be afraid of. This will be useful anytime you introduce a new obstacle or training prop in the tank, as they will see something new and think that this new item might equal food (rather than being afraid of something different that suddenly appears in their aquarium.)
Touch or follow a target stick is another useful and easy trick to build confidence with new tricks and make future tricks much easier. A target stick can be very useful for almost every new trick, as you can use it to guide the fish through a new obstacle and reward them after they follow the target stick through the obstacle. Target sticks can help significantly to show your fish what to do when you’re in the early stages of a new trick.
Once you teach those two, you can step up the challenge by teaching hoops and tunnels, as well as training your fish to swim through a finger hoop.