Fish need friends too (and why dog punishment does more harm than good)

Please indulge me in telling you a story about a goldfish called Wiggle and why this made me think about our lack of knowledge in understanding what animals, including our dogs, think and feel.

I never picked that Wiggle would out-survive his / her, let’s go with her, three finned siblings. A few days after I got them, our cheap water pump had sucked in two fish, killing one and maiming the other. Its entire tail had become shredded and all that was left was a little stump. I quickly realised that apart from being a beautiful fan, the tail helps the fish swim and, importantly, balance when reaching for and sucking in food floating on top of the water.

With no rudder, this little fish moved her whole abdomen from side to side to move through the water, the movement earning her the name of “Wiggle”. To help her eat, I’d crush the granules else she’d end up chasing a piece of food, too big to get in her mouth, around the pond.

Wiggle’s tail has now grown back but sadly in the last few weeks, one of her other siblings was found dead and a wily Grey Heron or Kookaburra had eaten the other right through the bird mesh on top of the pond.

My little fighter was alone and clearly scared after the bird experience, just hanging out under the rock and refusing to come out, not even bothering with the food I put out. When I went to the aquarium to purchase a few more friends, they only had one left in their tank with no new stock due for a while. I decided to bring the last fish home as it was alone and Wiggle was alone, so I would be solving two problems at once.

This is where my story gets interesting in terms of observing animal behaviour. I put the new fish in its bag of aquarium water to float in the pond so the temperature would assimilate, then started slowly letting pond water into the bag so the new fish wouldn’t go into shock from a rapid change.

Well if that wasn’t the darndest cutest thing I ever saw. Wiggle spotted the new fish in the see-through plastic bag and started hovering around, tapping her nose against the bag. The new fish (now called “Dregs” by my husband as it was the last picking from the shop) faced Wiggle, slowly finning in the bag of water.

There they swam for the around half hour it took for the temperature and chemical assimilation to complete. Nose to nose and Wiggle never swam away. When I finally let Dregs out the bag into the pond, she went off to explore her new home, Wiggle swimming right alongside, fins touching. They have not been physically apart since or very far away from each other.

Look, I know I can’t put human emotions onto fish but there was something there that wasn’t just about survival instincts of eating or taking shelter. You could say that there is strength in numbers as schools of fish avoiding a predator clearly show. But from what I saw, Wiggle wanted to be with her new sibling. Physical proximity and body contact were a priority. Immediately afterwards, Wiggle started swimming around the pond again rather than just bunkering under the rock and became very excited again when food was put out.

If fish can experience (not joy or sadness, grief or loneliness, I won’t go that far) a grade of emotional pain and pleasure such as Wiggle had, where does that leave our dogs who have far larger brains and capacity for feeling, and particularly, when we consciously or otherwise inflict punishment on them? Whether that’s jerking the lead when they pull, shouting at them, leaving them alone for hours on end without providing any exercise or stimulation, or in some of the more extreme cases, using shock collars or plain outright cruelty of which the Internet unfortunately contains an abundance of examples.

Wiggle has reminded me that there is a lot we don’t know about animals. So aren’t we better of working to positive outcomes as we don’t yet understand the impact of punishment properly? I’m not a scientist, zoologist or a veterinary behaviourist and can’t pretend to understand the science of animal feelings, but I am a dog trainer that wants to get the best outcome for all dogs – for them to feel safe, loved and happy because the humans they live with are consistent, predictable and have their best interests at heart.

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