Sunday, May 29, 2016

From The Archives: Dolphin and Humans Share A Lot in Common: Refer to Owner's Manual

This blog has been in action for three years.  What!!!!

It's crazy how much time has passed.  Three years in trainer-world means I've made a lot of mistakes, I've learned a lot of new things, and I've made a lot of new friends (humans and non-humans).

Oh, you're so right Albert.

I've been in a reflective mood the past few days, especially about enrichment.  We do an enrichment talk at my current job, and it reminded me of one of the first posts I wrote.  It's a common misconception us animal trainers have that you "must" pair enrichment items with food in order to make them reinforcing.

While that's true in some cases, it's not true in others.  In fact, it's not so much that you're magically creating fun by using're actually -

- wait, I already wrote about this.  Read on!


There are a lot of bizarre parallels in the realm of dolphin training and being human.

One of those parallels involve Instruction Manuals/Booklets/Tutorials.

I am one of millions of human beings who experience the ironic emotions of receiving some kind of gift and realizing it has an Instruction Manual. For those of us born after 1970, we experience the love/hate relationships with Instruction Manuals from a young age, usually after some Major Commercial Holiday such as Christmas, Hannukah, Birthdays, or Temper Tantrums.

I recall the first toy I received that needed an Instruction Manual to operate. It was a Robie Jr. the Remote Command Intelligent Robot.

Yay! It's Robie Jr!

I don’t believe I could read Instruction Manuals at the point of my life when I received Robie Jr. In fact, I don’t believe I can read Instruction Manuals now, but at the time I recall my father attempting to absorb as much information as to how to animate Robie Jr. 

Robie Jr. had a tray that could hold a Coke. He could (in theory) roll around the house and deliver you that very Coke. He had a little bumper that when pressed said, “That tickles”, “Oops, excuse me”, or “Ouch, that hurt!”. His eyes lit up in meaningful ways; like if he was turning left, only his left eye lit up. I guess he didn’t need both eyes all of the time, because they didn’t shine when he wasn’t moving. 

Pulling Robie Jr. out of the box, he doesn’t seem like a guy that requires a lot of thought to figure out. But that isn’t true. He needs different types of batteries for his remote and his body. My young self did not quite understand how many degrees of torque poor Robie Jr’s arms could endure before they snapped off. And he said 9 phrases and had four modes of operation. I wanted to know them all!

I hated waiting for my dad to finish reading the Instruction Booklet. This hatred has exponentially increased as I age and am exposed to newer technology that does not have arms or apologize when it bumps into things (e.g. smart phones, adding Digg buttons to blog posts, starting a car without a key ignition, etc). Sadly, my overwhelming feelings of anxiety and anger are simultaneous with my understanding that in order to play with Cool Things, I have to read how to use them. Gone are the days of Cool Things that are simple to play with, like teddy bears or bags of marbles.

Humans rely so heavily on well-written Instruction Manuals* to usher them through the Fog of Confusion and Desire to Play with Cool Thing and guide them to the Realm of the Savvy User. I dare you to use a DROID platform phone without spending 49 hours learning how to unlock the phone and dial 911. Without the Instruction Manual, you can’t use your Cool Thing for anything other than a door stop.

Like humans, dolphins play with a lot of toys. They are curious, they are playful. In trainer and zookeeper terminology, we call toys “enrichment”. Enrichment isn’t exclusive to toys, but can include different sights, smells, habitat changes, social group changes, awkward ice-breaker socials, etc. 

But let’s just focus on toys, because dolphin trainers usually provide a wide variety of toys for their animals.

Dolphin toys can be as simple as basketballs or boat buoys, or they can be an aggregation of Dolphin Safe Things (e.g. items that a powerful, 500 pound animal cannot destroy). 

Many dolphin training facilities require that newer trainers or interns build a new toy for the dolphins, so they can understand what goes into providing dolphin-safe enrichment to their family of sea mammals. Veteran trainers will also make new toys when they are inspired by what other facilities are creating.

When this happens, we enter the Parallel Universe of the Instruction Manual. 

A dolphin usually knows what to do with this object:

A Basketball.  Simple. Elegant.

So fun!

So easy to use!

It’s round. It doesn’t make sound. It doesn’t sway in the current. It is a toy that other dolphins play with, so it must be safe. The dolphins can watch other dolphins play with it, so they have a good idea with what sorts of things they can do with it. It is User Friendly, like a ipods, pop-up books, and pizza. 

A dolphin does not usually know what to do with this object:

W. T. F.

Wait, let me retract the aforementioned statement. Sometimes, a dolphin will not know what to do with a new, Crazy Toy. Sometimes, the dolphin will Freak Out, his/her whole life flashing before his/her eyes, and won’t return to the place it saw the Crazy Toy for decades. 

This is not such a far stretch from humans interacting with a new object, especially one that seems daunting and has only slight components of familiarity to it, like Twitter. I will not go anywhere near Twitter, because it terrifies me. Other people ignore it because they don’t know how to use it.

Most humans are able to read, and therefore can take initiative to read Instructions. If their will to play or use the Cool Thing is strong, it will outweigh the frustration of deciphering the Instructions and they will prevail as a Savvy User.

To get a dolphin to the point of Savvy User, trainers must use another method.

A lot of people are surprised to hear that we “train” our dolphins to play with toys. It almost seems to cheapen the point of play. We are suppose to let the dolphins play because it keeps them engaged in something, it is a way they can choose to pass the time, and they are really smart animals, so why would they need to be trained to play?

Because none of their toys come with an Instruction Manual.

As far as this author is aware, dolphins are unable to read, so Instruction Manuals are simply out of the question. It is also impossible to sit in front of the dolphin and attempt to explain what they are supposed to do with the new Crazy Toy.

Trainer: Okay, Dolphin. Just pull on this car wash strip to drag the gigantic yellow ball with you. The traffic cone will follow. Or you could just drape the car wash strip over your flippers, for a carefree look. 

Dolphin: The car wash strips, yellow ball, and traffic cone look okay. It’s the dangling garden hoses also attached to the ball that concern me. They look dangerous, like monster tentacles that specialize in terror.

Trainer: No, no. I can see where you are getting that from, but take my word for it. These hoses are perfectly safe. You can carry the toy by the hoses, or just enjoy the sound they make as you drag them along the surface. Here, why don’t you just take a gander at this Instruction Manual. 

Dolphin: Oh, thanks. I’m glad we had this chat. 

So with what method of communication are trainers left? Training. Training is the easiest, most effective way to communicate with animals that do not understand fluent human language (this includes ex-boyfriends). 

If a dolphin is completely horrified by Crazy Toy because they have not seem certain components of it, the first step trainers need to take is to reward the dolphin for being calm when in the presence of the Crazy Toy. Usually, the reward comes in the form of fish, but we can use other things that motivate the individual animal. Some animals go ga-ga for ice cubes, rubs, and favorite toys. It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as you are rewarding them with something that motivates them to stay calm.

Once they realize, “Oh wait a second, that oversized hula hoop ISN’T the stuff of nightmares and all things unholy!!!!” the dolphin can then be taught how to play with the toy.

Sometimes, once you’ve taught the animal that Crazy Toy is not dangerous and therefore isn’t scary, the dolphin will get brave and will start playing with it on his/her own. But sometimes the dolphin is content to ignore the object. At this point, this is when the dolphin trainer becomes the Instruction Manual.

How do you do this? Well, that requires a lot of boring, technical babble. There are an infinite number of toys we can create or find for the dolphins, and therefore there are a lot of different ways to play with the toy.

Generally speaking, most dolphins like to push their toys, carry them in their mouth, toss them around with their mouth or flukes, or rub on them. Whenever the dolphin starts to investigate Crazy Toy by pushing on it, rubbing it, our mouthing it, you reward them. Because their training is reward based, and reward means “correct”, they start to put together their actions and when they are rewarded. 

Then, the dolphin begins to experiment with what he/she can do with Crazy Toy. They become familiar with its basic use, and eventually become a Savvy User.

Training a dolphin to play with toys is great for a lot of reasons. It allows the animal to expand his/her horizon in terms of enrichment and in terms of what they are motivated by in training. That makes you as a trainer less boring. It’s better to have a lot of different types of rewards instead of just one or a few. And for you skeptics, food is not everything for every animal. Even animals who want nothing but to be stuffed with food until they explode will get bored with a trainer who turns into a vending machine.

Training a dolphin to play with Crazy Toy -especially a dolphin who is terrified of it- builds a lot of trust between you and the animal. Because you are taking a neutral or negative experience and turning into something fun, the animal trusts you more. You also benefit the dolphin, because the more Crazy Toys they’re exposed to, the less and less nervous they are of new things. In essence, they become more Worldly.

So much of animal training is defined in cold, “scientific” terminology and it sometimes makes us forget that humans are animals too. Those of us who have brains share the same neurons and neurotransmitters. We will learn in the same way. 

The only difference in learning to play with Cool or Crazy Toy in humans and dolphins is that dolphins get the fun version of Instruction Manual. The humans are still suffering through their own, mundane version. But hey, maybe the dolphins will suffer with us when they start showing an interest in the latest version of the ipad. God help us.

* Ha ha, this is a joke. There is no such thing as a well-written Instruction Manual.


  1. Happy Anniversary Cat!! Also, thank you for reposting this article/post-thingie. I've been wondering lately about the whole "we train our animals to like these things" thing. I'm not currently a trainer, I'm just a member of the Aspiring-Trainer-Trying-Not-To-Be-A-Groupie club ;) I LOVE your blog, I feel like the knowledge you share in your hilarious way will give me a step up when I get my first gig in the field. Thank you :)

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