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Fish for tricks
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How can a dolphin be made to perform tricks in a pool ? By controlling its food. Trainers have the huge advantage that only they can open the fridge door. By using fish as a reward they can force hungry dolphins to learn and perform.


Alongside hunger, a form of conditioning known as "clicker training" is used to teach the dolphins new tricks. This method is directly inspired by Pavlov's conditioning of dogs. Dog trainers who use this method often quote its effectiveness in the training of dolphins.

Fish and whistle

The dolphin trainer uses two stimuli: a dead fish and a whistle. When the dolphin performs correctly it must be immediately rewarded. This way it learns to associate the fish with the last position it adopted.


If the trainer wants the dolphin to jump through a hoop, he or she mustn't wait until the dolphin has dived back underwater to throw it the fish: this would suggest to the dolphin that it will be rewarded each time it dives beneath the water's surface, which would not make for an "exciting" show.

On an empty stomach

The moment the dolphin begins its jump through the hoop, the trainer blows a whistle. For the dolphin, this means "that's right" and so the animal expects to be rewarded with a fish, which it is given. If however the dolphin doesn't perform as expected, there is no fish and the dolphin goes hungry.

Positive reinforcement

Some French dolphinariums endorse this method, known as positive reinforcement. Without actually admitting "we starve our dolphins to make them perform", which would hardly draw the crowds, they describe how food is used to reward each correct action, or on the contrary withheld.

An illusion

Naturally, marine parks don't want their audiences to feel they're watching hungry animals who are willing to do anything for a piece of fish. Hence they use "tricks of the trade" to create the illusion that trainer and dolphin work in harmony. When the dolphin adopts anthropomorphic poses such as "kissing" its trainer, applauding or nodding its head in answer to questions, the spectators are lulled into believing the dolphin enjoys what it does.

The navy too

Marine parks are not alone in training dolphins. The U.S. Navy has a long history of using dolphins: in the Viet Nam war, for example, dolphins were used in a combat role, and there are about 100 which are still employed today.

A CITES document on Black Sea bottlenose dolphins states that "Ukraine, as part of the former Soviet Union, captured and trained 70 Black Sea bottlenose dolphins for "special forces". When the Cold War ended, the trained animals were no longer needed and the military tried to persuade oil companies that the dolphins would be useful to them following retraining. In 1994, a large number of ex-military Black Sea bottlenose dolphins were reported to be kept in very poor conditions in the Ukraine (Anon. 1994). The destination of these animals is not known, although three years later about 20 Black Sea bottlenose dolphins are reported to be in use in Ukraine in 'human therapy' programmes." (Specter, 1997).

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