How to avoid misunderstandings during interactive programs

In my extended years as a trainer I had the opportunity to train dolphins from scratch for shows and swimming programs many times. We trainers are very curious and we always enjoy to visit new facilities and see other animals and trainers working.

Over the years, during visits to facilities and observing others on-line, the one thing common to all of them, is the interaction between the trainers, customers and the animals. The experience for all should be pleasurable and if any person or animal is struggling during the experience, their enjoyment will suffer. I believe my experience and advice can help avoid any such struggle and help make the interaction really enjoyable for trainers, customers and animals alike. Hopefully my help will make it easier, especially for young trainers, to develop their skills, perform their tasks easier and create a positive environment for all.

Handling people in the water can be difficult in itself add to this, handling the animals’ behaviour at the same time and it can be very challenging. Furthermore, in seminatural environments, where sea currents are a factor, the weather can also add to the difficulty of that challenge.

Here is my advice to help with the challenge of handling both animals and customers in the water.

How to avoid confusion and accidents during swimming programs

Sometimes the dolphins, being animals, want to swim away and play with other dolphins, they are not totally under your control, swimming in-between the customers and generally not behaving in the best way. In that situation the trainer is struggling to ask the animal for a behaviuor or juggling with two animals and interacting with the people at the same time. The trick is, as a trainer you should be patient and actually take advantage of their playful nature and enjoy it together. If you are open minded, here are some techniques and tips you can use.

If your dolphins are chasing after each other, the best thing is to bring the people in the water, as close as possible to the platform or to an area where the water is shallow. Here the animal has less opportunity to manoeuvre, so stay there until the animals are ready to go on with the interaction.

If you are working with two dolphins and one of them is giving you trouble, ask the animal giving trouble, to go under your station as many times as possible, to create a break in their unwanted behaviour. When that animal least expects it, send them to do an interactive behaviour such as kiss or petting.

If the situation is too difficult, then ask another trainer, or use one of your assistants to help in the water, while you are correcting your animal’s behaviour. Having an assistant in the water during your program is actually more professional, you will get a much more positive outcome from the customers in the water. With staff in the water, people make better connections and interact more confidently, whilst also having much more fun. This will make the peoples experience, more exciting and unforgettable. If you have implemented, amongst the trainers, a set of signals to communicate in case of emergencies, then this will make it even easier. In addition, the trainer is more concentrated on the animal and has much more control.

Avoid problems when moving people around

Trainers are responsible for the program, they must keep their eyes wide open, observing closely at all times, whilst doing program. The area of interaction should be clear and enjoyable, for the animal, the people and the trainer. Trainers must keep their animals focused during an interactive program. Finally, it is important to remark and make clear, that the whole area in front of the platform is only for the animal to manoeuvre within, where they receive their reinforcement.

Avoid accidents by continuously scanning the environment during a program and by keeping the right distance.

Must Dolphinarium comply with international measurement rules, whether they are artificial or seminatural, trainers should be able to perform the programs in comfort. When starting a program, the people should be kept away from the front of platform, put them where you can see everyone’s movement, including the animals when they interact. After the introductions between the animals, the people and the trainer, place the people on the left side of the platform and one by one or two if you prefer send them forward to do the behaviour with the animal. When the behaviour has finished, send them to the right side of the platform. This means those who haven’t performed the behaviour are on the left of the platform and those who has done it are on the right.

For behaviours like petting or kissing, trainers should make sure they take the first people from the left and position the people in front of platform at least 4 metres away from the platform. When they have finished tell the people to go to wait on the right-hand side. For behaviours where the people should come closer to the dolphin, such as a kiss, trainers should keep the people at least one metre away from the animal and the best way of doing this is for the trainer to target or handle the animal very closely. Dolphins measure from six to twelve feet in length and their movements are very quick, so they need enough space to move around. They could hit somebody without even realising. Trainers must constantly monitor the distance between the animal and the people in the water, to avoid accidents, this is very important. Never forget, to keep a clear the space in front of the platform, this space is only for the animals.

Keep the animal engaged

Trainers should be able to know and understand the behaviour of the animal they are working with. Observe the animals body language, when they are about to misbehave, there is always a precursor, they usually give the trainer a look…like saying…watch what I am going to do next… The trainer’s job is to have the vision and to be able to predict their next unwanted behaviour, which is usually avoidable, if a trainer knows their animal and are focused. Their cheeky look to the trainer, will allow the trainer to anticipate their next move. When you see the first sign act on it. Change the scenario, in other words ask the dolphin for a behaviour that requires their concentration or move around with your animal or give the animal secondary reinforcement, anything that distracts them from what you preserved to be their next unwanted behaviour.

All situations have solutions

If your animal is not interested in a particular interaction, work with another animal, if available. If there are other programs around you can distribute your people amongst the other group, so they are distracted from the current situation.



Find out how a dolphin can recognise their trainer

When 10 years has passed and you see with your own eyes, the proof of a unique bond between an animal and a human.

I was so flabbergasted it took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes.

Misty… the closest animal to me and the smarted dolphin I have ever trained, proved to me once again, what a special bond we had after 10 years without interacting with each other.

When I remember how we found her its breaks my heart!

She was just a baby, floating lifeless, like a piece of drift-wood in the open ocean, alone and close to dying, when we came to her rescue.

It was April the 4th 2005, she was a very sick, cast away from her family, very dehydrated body, with severe infections plus around six ulcers in her stomach, which I later observed through our endoscope camera.

After nursing her back to health, she soon became the most intelligent and responsive animal and after sleeping many nights by her side on the trainer’s platform, we developed a bond that was evident in her reaction to me, whenever we were together.

Fast forward now to two weeks ago, on a visit to see all my friends at Dolphin Cove Jamaica Ocho Rios, my one thought was how was Misty. She was 16 years old whilst I was there, so I wanted to see my young friend!  I was asked if I wanted to help feed her and naturally, with such a kind offer from the trainers who by now had heard of our history, I could not miss the chance to see Misty.

I gave her a tactile signal, which I used to give her always when we used to play, only she and I knew about it, it was our little secret… I was speechless when she responded positive and with fluency to my signal after 10 years…my heart was bursting with happiness, after she showed me that she remembered my unique signal and touch. I spent a short while with her and could tell by other unique signals and touches that she remembered each one perfectly.

It was an amazing experience and confirms my belief that not only are these beautiful animals so intelligent, but that a special bond can exist between a trainer with an honest kind heart, putting their love into how they treat their animal and an animal respecting that treatment. Often, Misty offered to perform without constant positive reinforcement, because she trusted me to reward fully at the end of the program, this was also somewhat unique to Misty and I, but it also demonstrates what can happen, if you treat the animals with love and respect.

In my experience, having a particular tactile signal (SD) for a very simple behaviour, one that only you and your dolphin knows, proves an animal can remember specific signals for many years, years that they have not been in contact with that trainer or signal. The story about my recent encounter with Misty demonstrated this perfectly to me.

A big thank you to you guys at Ocho Rios for making this experience possible, it will remain in my heart, as will Misty, forever.