Training the Dolphins

Training a dolphin requires two-way communication between human and animal that is based on trust and positive interactions. 

Marine Mammal Specialists must first develop a relationship with the dolphins by spending time with them. During this time, while they feed and interact with the dolphins, the speacialists get to know each animal’s distinct personality and discover what the animals find rewarding. 

Marine Mammal Specialists use rewards—called reinforcement—to train the dolphins to do specific behaviors. Dolphin reinforcers can be fish, toys, rubdowns, or interaction with specialists. When given after desired behaviors, these reinforcers can increase the frequency of these behaviors in the future. 

To train specific behaviors, Marine Mammal Specialists use tools to help them communicate with the dolphins. One such tool is a whistle that is used to let the dolphins know they have done the correct behavior. A whistle is called a bridging stimulus (or “bridge” for short) in training terminology, because it bridges the time gap between the end of the correct behavior and the reinforcer that is given.

For instance, if a dolphin jumps high in the air and the whistle is blown, the dolphin knows it has jumped correctly and returns to the specialist to get a reinforcer such as a fish. The whistle is blown at the precise moment that the correct behavior is performed. You can listen for the whistle during the dolphin shows when behaviors are performed. When you hear the whistle, it means “good job!” to the dolphin and the dolphin will stop the behavior and go to the specialist for a reward!

To train more complex behaviors such as a flip in the air, we train it in small steps and use a different tool. Marine Mammal Specialists use a “target pole,” a long pole with a small buoy at the end, to shape different behaviors. The dolphins are taught to touch and follow the buoy on the pole. 

To train a flip, the specialist would start by holding the target on the surface of the water and moving it in a circle below the water so that the dolphin follows it in a flip motion. Once the dolphin is flipping underwater, the specialist would do the same thing slightly above the water.

The specialist would have the dolphin follow the target in a flipping motion above the surface of the water a little higher each day. The specialist would then fade away the target and introduce a hand signal to the dolphin before each training session.

Eventually, the dolphin will flip without the target pole and on the hand signal! A flip can take several months to a year to train.

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Dolphins 101

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