Why do we train dolphins? There are actually quite a few reasons why dolphins in human care are trained. First of all, there are safety reasons. Throughout the year, thousands of people pass through The Dolphin Connection getting the opportunity to meet our dolphins. Dolphins, amongst themselves, play quite roughly with one another. In short, it is okay to bite your friends and family members if you are a dolphin. Training the dolphins allows us to provide our guests with safe interactions where the dolphins remain gentle around them.
Second of all, we train for educational purposes. As a trainer, I am viewed as an expert in my field. How would I know anything about my “craft” if it weren’t for research? Research with dolphins in human care not only allows us to learn about our dolphins, but also their counterparts in the wild. The more we know the better care we can provide for them.
Lastly, we train dolphins in order to provide them with the best care possible. In order to do this, we need the dolphins to participate in their own medical care, much like us opening our mouth after the doctor has asked us to. Our dolphins are trained for certain medical behaviors which allow us to give them daily checkups as well as routine physicals throughout the year.
How do you train a dolphin? Positive reinforcement is a very powerful tool that we utilize. Think of it this way, you do something good and you receive your favorite treat, which then increases the chance that you are going to do what you just did again in order to receive that treat again! Obviously, the best treat for a dolphin would be their fish. When our dolphins are young, 3 to 6 months of age, they are fed after hearing a crisp blast that comes from our trainer’s whistle. By pairing the whistle with their fish, we are teaching the dolphin that the whistle is a positive thing. After all, once they hear the whistle they get fish.
After this association is accomplished, we introduce a tool called target training. For this, we use our hand in a fist position and touch the dolphin on a part of their body we wish to target. One spot may be the dolphin’s mouth. As our fist touches the dolphin’s mouth, we blow the whistle and feed them a fish. Eventually, we are able to pull our fist back and the dolphin figures out that it needs to lean and touch our fist in order to hear the whistle and receive fish. Once that is established, there are lots of behaviors that can be trained.
For example, if I continue with the dolphin using their mouth to target my fist, I could move my hand from right to left in order to train the dolphin to shake its head “no”. Keep in mind that each dolphin is different. Some learn very fast and some learn slowly. Some behaviors are easy and some are hard. A headshake “no” may only take a couple weeks to learn, but a flip could take 2 to 3 years to learn.