Reading Time: 6 minutesBecome friends with koi.

written by Hugo J. Smal

How do you become best friends with your koi? That is the ideal of every koi hobbyist: to build a close relationship with your ornamental carp, a relationship that provides mutual pleasure. Many koi keepers are happy and proud to say that their fish are ‘tame’. Tam? Are they tamed, like a tiger or other circus beast with reward and punishment? No! Become friends with koi by teaching them reflexes.
Ivan Pavlov

Reward and punishment do not fit in a relationship based on respect and love. Instead of the words ‘taming’, the process that leads to a bond between humans and fish, we can also use the term ‘conditioning’. And that brings me to the reflex theory of the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.
He was professor and director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg and renowned for his research into the reflexes that lead to changes in the secretion of the salivary glands, stomach and pancreas. He showed that in addition to innate reflexes (such as responding to a smile) we have also taught reflexes, which are first associated with natural stimuli and which can later independently influence organ activity.

I was very interested in that in the 1960s. I thought it would be a good idea to apply those conditioned reflexes in my own life. After all, Pavlov (1849 – 1936) received the Nobel Prize in 1904. He had never heard of koi carp, of course, and neither did I during those turbulent hippie days. Nobody, anyway, with some people in Japan excepted. Nevertheless, I will let the Russian show up here because we can learn from him how to build a good relationship with our fish.

For whom the bell rings

The fishes on this page are the Koi of Hugo J. Smal

When you ring a bell while feeding your fish, they learn to come to you even if you don’t feed them. If that bell sounds very loud, it will also condition your neighbours, so you better choose a different sound. As long as it is always the same. This is about the principle of recognisability. The fish will ad the ringing of the bell or any other sound to the pleasant feeling the fish get when it eats.

Wilfried van der Elst once told me, ‘I went into his garden with a proud koi hobbyist. He asked me to stop against the wall, clapped his hands and threw food on the water and shouted: “Look, they are all tame already.” Wilfried stepped forward. The young carp dove into the depths and stopped eating. The man didn’t know what “to be tamely” meant. ‘

A modern definition.

I will try to give a modern definition of the word ‘tame’. ‘Modern’, because I think that tame in the sense of ‘dependent on people’ is too blunt. I put it this way: an animal is domesticated when there is a mutual relationship between humans and animals, which makes each other’s lives more pleasant and from which they both reap the benefits. Koi make our lives enjoyable because of their beauty and their cuddliness. The koi hobbyist, in turn, provides the animal with food and a good pond.

Avoid stress!

Koi lose their beauty when they swim around in ugly surroundings. That can create a barrier between your fish and yourself. Bad water conditions mean that the fish are not having a good time. They do not get tame. If the garden looks neglected, you will not feel at home in it and that is another blockage.
To achieve a good relationship with the animals, you have to create a garden in which you feel comfortable and a pond in which the fish are having a good time. They must be in optimal condition if you want to achieve results.

Keep predators away.

Factors that cause stress should also be eliminated as much as possible. After a visit from a heron, you usually lose a fish for good and a number for a few weeks. Because they hide between the plants or in the seams of the foil. White spot disease can soon break out. To protect the pond well against predators, which unfortunately also includes a part of humanity nowadays.
Because I had ‘a little’ too much koi, I gave some of my fish to my back neighbour. A few weeks later some misfit had been fishing in neighbour’s pond and had run off with a Kohaku of about two feet. But worse, Bear, my first koi (Israeli Ogon of questionable quality), had also been caught. It probably fell, because it was open on both sides. We couldn’t save him. Moreover, the other fish in that pond will have lost their tameness.


Hugo J. Smal does not have a Koi pond in the Netherlands anymore. This because he now works at the Goyang Koifarm in South Korea. Hence, Carps enough.

It is not very difficult to teach koi to come to you on a special signal. Do it according to Pavlov’s teaching. Sprinkle some food on the water and at the same time give a signal. I snap my fingers underwater.

My wrist is between the food balls. The advantage of this is that the carp are immediately confronted with a human body part.

They have to get close to that to get some in. Do not make any busy movements or try to touch the fish. That will take some more time.
Snapping with the fingers quickly triggers a conditioned reflex. Immediately after the signal, the fish will rush towards you. The food is no longer necessary. After a while, even the finger clipping is unnecessary. They come when you appear at the edge of the pond. They even swim along when you walk around the water feature.
The curious thing is that they don’t do that to everyone who walks by the pond. Somehow they know who to fear and who not. I am convinced they recognize your body odour. They don’t see well.

Playing starts.

Once you’ve tamed them for a few months, you can start playing with them. Just lift the little ones out of the water carefully by hand and let them jump off. In my pond, they even come back to do the same trick again. Stroke the bigger ones over their heads, push them back a bit and see how they react. They love it.
Everything will be easier from now on. Catching doesn’t have to be a hunt anymore if you let them get used to the landing net. So replace the clipping of the fingers by carefully moving the landing net back and forth. Once you have done this, they will swim towards the net if necessary, for example for a check. This way you can teach your koi all kinds of things.

A different way of dealing.

Hugo J. Smal did not have Carps to show at Koi shows. He did like to enjoy them in his own garden. Feeding is like meditation.

Is a way to teach koi things (the ‘building in’ of some conditioned reflexes) the same as tame? No, of course not. But it is fish keeping different style. It takes time to Learn your Koi reflexes: quality time for the carp and the caretaker.
The learned reflexes make it easier to keep the fish in optimal condition. Stress factors are much less impressive than before.
On a good day, you suddenly notice that you deal with koi differently. It seems as if they are opening up as if they are going to see you as one of them. They suddenly surprise you with their games. They show better and better what they like. They are affectionate and somehow show that they enjoy when you pet your Nishikigoi gently on their heads.

I have managed to get the older animals to respond when I call them by name. Perhaps many a reader is now shaking their head in disbelief. I can’t prove it unfortunately because they did not do it when there are others in the yard.

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