Subject: Training and communicating with Dolphins

Jen Philips (
Thu, 11 Dec 1997 22:05:41 -1000 (HST)

On Tue, 9 Dec 1997, Mark Rantanen wrote:

> Hello Jen,
> My name is Tiffany and I rencently watched "Touched By A Dolphin" that
> recently aired on telivision.  They were using hand signals to
> communicate with dolphins.  I am wondering if every scientist/trainer
> uses the same universal hand language when communicating with the
> dolphins.  
> Thanks for the help,
> Tiffany

Tiffany -

What you saw were the hand cues that trainers give dolphins to let them
know what they should do next.  Trainers that work with animals teach
their animals to 'understand' that when they are given a certain command,
either a verbal or a visual signal, they are supposed to perform a certain
behavior in order to receive the much desired reward.  For dolphins this
reward is, of course, fish!  But the command can be anything.  The
dolphins just needs to be taught what to do once he or she sees the
command.  How about an example:

BJ, our 7 year old female bottlenose dolphin, is taught to wave her flukes
when she sees her trainer raise his right hand in the air then bring it
down again fast.  BJ understands, through past conditioning, that when she
sees this signal, she presents her flukes, then shortly after hears a
whistle that lets her know she has done the right thing.  She also knows
that the game she is playing is to do the right thing so she can have the
fish.  She understands all this.  But, Boris, the 10 year old male
bottlenose dolphin living in a lab 100 miles away also knows how to
present his flukes on command.  Except, his trainer holds her left arm out
to her side to let him know he is to do this.  Each of these commands is
only 'communicating' to the dolphins because for each dolphin the command
has been explicitely taught and conditioned.  But there is no universal
language, in fact this is not really language in the pure meaning of the
word.  The main reason is that for language there usually is two way
communication. A trainer gives a command to a dolphin, but the dolphin is
not communicating back to the trainer.  So, in a way, communication is
occurring, but truly the signals trainers and researchers use to work with
their animals is not a universal language.  In this way, dolphins are the
same as most other animals, like birds, dogs, cats, monkeys, and even
humans, in being able to learn stimulus-response relationships.  

I hope this answers your question!  Aloha!

Jen Philips


Jennifer D. Philips

Marine Mammal Research Program - HIMB		(808) 236-4001
University of Hawaii, Manoa          
Honolulu, HI  96822	      "First, there were some amoebas. Deviant
			       amoebas adapted better to the environment,
			       thus becoming monkeys..."       - S.Adams