Dolphins are highly social animals, which appear to have a well-developed communication system. They can understand some symbolic language (some researchers have developed a sign language that dolphins can learn to understand). Because of this, many people believe that dolphins are highly intelligent animals, according to some even more intelligent than people.
But what really is intelligence? We all have some idea of what intelligence is, but nobody has a good definition for it. It is very difficult to measure in people across cultures. So it is even more difficult to define some measure of intelligence for other species, like dolphins. It is therefor illogical to use human standards of intelligence for animals, let alone for animals like dolphins, that live in a totally different environment. Their needs will be different from human needs and therefor their intelligence can be expected to be expressed differently.
The size of the dolphin brain, which is comparable to the human brain in size, has been used as a measure for intelligence. Also the surface area of the brain cortex in dolphins and humans has been compared in this context. However, the structure of the brain of dolphins is quite different from that of most land mammals. In fact, the structure of the dolphin brain cortex is like that of the early common ancestors of land and marine mammals.
In land mammals, a new structure of the cortex developed. In whales and dolphins, the structure remained unchanged but instead grew in size. All in all, every animal is intelligence when viewed in the context of its environment: it is equipped to deal with the hardships of its environment and has the skills to survive in those conditions. When speaking of intelligence in animals, it does not make sense to compare them with humans or even to compare them with other animal species. What is intelligent from the point of view of a human, may not be intelligent at all from the point of view of a dolphin, vice versa.
What is behaviour?
Behaviour is defined as the manner in which a person, animal or other object acts under specified conditions or in relation to other things. Or, the way in which a person or animal reacts to some stimulus.
Behaviour is a very wide subject, which includes both innate and learned responses to known and novel stimuli. Often, animal behaviour is misinterpreted and viewed from a human perspective. This anthropomorphism can lead to confusion about the real behaviour.
The science that studies behaviour is called ethology. Behavioural ecology is the science which studies how an animal's behaviour is adapted to its environment.
What is learning?
Learning can be seen as the ability to change behaviour, based on previous experiences. Learning ability is not the same as intelligence, although there can be no intelligence without it. Also, the brain is not an essential organ for learning abilities.
Even animals like flatworms have the ability to learn. Quite a number of animals, including dogs, sheep, sea lions and parrots, have demonstrated to be able to almost instantaneously learn complex behaviours.
Man as animal teacher
Man has been teaching animals ever since the first attempts at domestication started thousands of years ago. For instances, water buffalos, oxen and cows have been taught to pull a plow, hawks and falcons have been trained for hunting, dogs have been taught to herd sheep, pull sleds and hunt, and elephants, camels, horses and donkeys have been used for transport and as riding animals. Recently, animals have also been learned to act as companion animals for people, as pets. So people have used animals for company and as workmates, in exchange for shelter, food and care.
How are dolphins taught in an oceanarium.
Dolphin training is based on the concept of positive reinforcement. This means that a dolphin is reinforced (rewarded) if it performs a desired behaviour correctly and that it is not reinforced if the response is incorrect.
A dolphin is never punished for an incorrect behaviour. This concept is increasingly and successfully used in the training of other animals, like seals and sea lions, dogs, birds, apes, elephants and rhinoceroses. And actually, it is a method we use in everyday life as well: we are rewarded for doing a job by getting a salary or for doing our homework by getting praise and good grades from the teacher.
For a reward to be effective in training, you must be able to deliver it at the exact moment when a dolphin is doing what you are looking for. Using a fish only as reward is not very useful, since delivering a fish when a dolphin is at the top of a jump is impossible. So instead a token reward is used. This token is called a bridge or a conditioned reinforcer. In many oceanaria, a whistle is used as a bridge. In the early stages of training, the whistle is blown every time the dolphin gets a fish. In this way, the dolphin starts associating the whistle with fish. The whistle can then be used as a reward, since the dolphin knows that a reward is coming when it hears the whistle.
The whistle has become a conditioned reinforcer. Dolphins can be rewarded by a variety of things. Food is one of them, but dolphins also like to petted for instance. Also a toy or a game can be used as rewards. A good trainer knows what a certain dolphin likes and can use that as reward in training. By combining the whistle with a variety of rewards, the whistle still has a reinforcing effect, also if a dolphin has no interest in food. As a matter of fact, it has been shown already quite some time ago that a dolphin is just as likely to perform when he is hungry then when he is not.
There are several ways to teach a dolphin a behaviour. One technique is called scanning, which makes use of the natural playfulness of the dolphin. By watching the dolphin closely, you can occasionally see a dolphin do something you like. By rewarding the dolphin for it (by blowing the whistle!), you make it more likely that the dolphin will do the same thing again. The next step is rewarding the dolphin only for that behaviour after a certain signal. That signal will then become the cue for the dolphin to perform the new behaviour. Scanning can be very effective for some types of behaviour (like speed swimming o jumps) but cannot be relied on as the only way to develop new behaviours. About half of the behaviours the dolphins performed in their first year at Särkänniemi were obtained by scanning.
The other method is using successive approximations. This means that you develop a behaviour by working towards the desired behaviour, taking small steps at a time. A trainer will often use a target in such training steps. Often, a target looks like a foam ball on a stick. The dolphin is initially trained to follow the target. This is done by first rewarding the dolphin for approaching the target. Once a dolphin does that, it is rewarded only if it comes within a certain distance from the target and ultimately only for touching the target.Once this has been established the target can be used to guide the dolphin. By lifting the target out of the water, the dolphin needs to reach higher and higher to be able to touch it until the target can only be touched by jumping at it. This can be one way to teach a dolphin to jump to a certain height. This process of using small steps to develop a behaviour is also called shaping. Often, behaviours are developed by scanning first, followed by shaping to get to the desired end result.
The hand signals a trainer uses are not orders to the dolphin to perform a certain behaviour. Rather it is a signal that a certain behaviour will be rewarded. There is such a signal for each of the trained behaviours. Dolphins cannot be forced to perform any of the behaviours: they do it voluntarily or they don't do it at all. If the dolphins decide not to co-operate there is nothing a trainer can do about that. But because the interaction is a positive one, the dolphins usually perform the behaviour for which the trainer gives the hand signal (or cue).
Dogs can easily be trained using the same methods: reward them when they are doing what you want and don't reward them when not. You can even use a whistle like a dolphin trainer, but you can also use a clicker or your voice as a bridge. Consistently saying "good boy" or "good girl" when the dog behaves properly can be an effective bridge.
Why train dolphins.
There are many reasons for training dolphins in an oceanarium. One reason is that training can be a very useful tool in the husbandry of the dolphins. First of all, it gives the trainer a reference for evaluating a dolphins behaviour and noticing behavioural changes. Secondly, dolphins can be trained to co-operate in medical examinations. For instance, they can be trained to present their tail flukes, so that a blood sample can be taken for a regular health check. Also, they can be trained to position themselves quietly for ultrasound examinations, so that a pregnancy can be easily monitored.
Also, training can be seen as a necessary distraction for the animals. In the wild, they spend a considerable amount of time looking for and hunting down fishes. In an oceanarium, they don't need to do that and consequently they have a lot of spare time. Training is a means to redirect the energy they would otherwise spend on foraging. If they are not trained, they get bored and stressed.
In addition, the training makes it possible to present these animals to the public and show them the grace and agility of these beautiful sea creatures. The performance is also a tool to get some basic knowledge about these animals across. Every year millions of people visit oceanaria, zoos and marine animal parks. Most come to be entertained, but this is good opportunity to educate them about these animals and their natural habitat at the same time.
Dolphins can also be trained for research purposes. By designing experiments
carefully, much can be learned about dolphin physiology, energetics, sensory
capabilities and echolocation as well as about mental abilities. Many of
these experiments are possible only with trained dolphins, since it is
essential that the dolphin can show the researcher if it can see or hear
the difference between certain object, for instance. Such detailed information
cannot be obtained from untrained dolphins. Research training is essentially
the same as training for show behaviours or medical examinations. Also
here, the dolphins have a choice to co-operate or not. It is the combination
of research using trained dolphins and research in the field that is needed
to get a full understanding these marine mammals and their environment.