Have you ever been to an aquarium or amusement park that had dolphins that could do incredible tricks? If so, you’ve probably WONDERed how the trainers were able to train dolphins to perform these magnificent feats.

After all, it’s not like humans can speak dolphin, right? Plus, we live on land and dolphins live in the water. We’re very different creatures. So how do they do it?

Professional marine trainers can teach dolphins and other aquatic creatures, such as sea lions, seals, whales and walruses, to do many different specific types of behaviors. They do this through a system called positive reinforcement through operant conditioning.

What does that mean? It means they break down the behavior they want to see into many different steps and then teach the animals one step at a time.

For example, a dolphin might be taught to jump through a hoop by breaking down the desired behavior into simpler steps. Each step is then taught by having the dolphin follow an object called a target. For example, the dolphin may first be rewarded for swimming through a hoop. Then the hoop is raised so it’s at the top of the water. Once the new goal is achieved, the dolphin is then only rewarded for the more advanced task.

Various tools are used throughout the process. One such tool is the hand signal. Trainers come up with unique hand signals for each behavior they want the dolphin to perform. When a certain hand signal is given, the dolphin will learn which behavior the trainer wants it to do.

The target — it can be any object, such as a float on the end of a pole — tells the dolphin how and where to do the behavior. By following the target, the dolphin learns to perform the desired behavior.

Trainers also use whistles. A whistle tells the dolphin that it performed the desired behavior correctly. Performing the desired behavior correctly also earns the dolphin a reward. The reward can be food, a toy or special attention from the trainer.

Rewarding an animal for performing a desired behavior is known as positive reinforcement. The reward is a positive (good) event and receiving the reward reinforces the behavior desired. In other words, the dolphin learns that performing the desired behavior correctly earns a reward. This makes the dolphin want to perform the behavior correctly on command.

You may WONDER what happens when a dolphin performs a desired behavior incorrectly. When that happens, the trainer gives no response and gives the dolphin time to think about what went wrong. Animals are not punished for incorrect behavior. Instead, they just don’t receive positive reinforcement. In this way, the positive reinforcement becomes an even more powerful tool to shape desired behavior.

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