If you are a working dolphin trainer you know that everyone wants to ask you how to become a dolphin trainer. It is asked by anyone who meets you. Whether it is a 7 year old girl or a 77 year old gentleman, that is the one question they are bound to ask.
“How do I become a dolphin trainer?”
To answer this question in detail I wrote my book, Wear a Wetsuit at Work. It answers that question in detail and many more! It doesn’t just give you an answer that leaves you in the same position you are in now. You know the answer I am talking about? “Work hard and do well in school and you will achieve whatever you want to achieve!” Thanks, but we know that. What we want to know is how to become a dolphin trainer.
Now, you may not like my first response but bear with me. There is no clean-cut answer to this question. Everyone’s path in becoming a dolphin trainer is different. Also, depending on what type of dolphin trainer you want to become may decide your route in getting there. Please see our article, “What type of dolphin trainer do you want to be?” What we can tell you is what you should be doing in order to be a very attractive candidate for aquatic facilities across the country.
First, there are some basic qualifications we should get out of the way.
1. SCUBA Certification. Most facilities require this and your state regulations will decide at which age you are eligible to become certified. While the certification process will vary, it is not a quick certification. There are multiple written portions and multiple diving portions that you must pass. The two major SCUBA certification companies are PADI & NAUI. You can also read about an aspiring trainer’s journey on getting SCUBA certified, by clicking here!
2. First Aide/CPR Certification. Since you will be spending a lot of your time around water, it is a good idea (and required by most employers) that you be First Aide and CPR certified. These certifications are usually pretty easy to get and most cities offer lots of classes on the matter.
3. Age. In order to become a dolphin trainer you more than likely will have to 18 years or older. Some facilities will allow younger individuals to volunteer or complete an internship.
Now, before we move on to the more detailed information on how to become a dolphin trainer we need to talk about your love for dolphins. You love dolphins, so that’s good. You also need to have a love for the other marine animals. You may only want to work with dolphins but chances are that you will work with a variety of species during your career. This means killer whales, sea lions, and penguins are fair game and you should start accepting that working with them is very likely. Now, this shouldn’t be a bad thing! In fact, this is a great opportunity and a blessing! These other animals are incredibly smart and a joy to work with. They also will teach you things that dolphins can’t teach you. So be open to all of the amazing creatures of the sea. Now, let’s get to it.
The first thing you need to do in order to become a dolphin trainer is have some animal experience. “But, I don’t even know how to get experience with marine animals,” you may be saying. I didn’t say “with marine mammals” I said, “have some animal experience.” Do you have dog? Yes? Perfect! Do you know a veterinary office you can volunteer at? How about your local zoo? Do they have volunteer or internship opportunities? All of these are viable options in gaining your animal experience. Learning to interact with animals (any animals) will help you in preparing for working with dolphins. If you can’t successfully train your dog to sit on command, how do you expect to train a dolphin to push you around a pool?
Gaining this experience will give you more credibility to your future employer. It shows that you are not just in it for the dolphins (even though maybe you are, and that’s okay, just be quiet about it) but for your general love of animals. An important note on achieving this experience: the more hands on the better. If you are volunteering at your local veterinarian’s office and spend all day cleaning up dog poop, a major facility like SeaWorld, for example, may not care about your so called “experience.” However, if you have assisted in the bathing, feeding, and caring for the dogs, then that will make you stand out. It may seem silly now, but learning how to interact with a hyper husky is preparing you for your interactions with an energetic dolphin.
The other major recommendation while you are gaining this experience is to network and create relationships. The doctor from the veterinarian’s office or the supervisor at the zoo can make wonderful references down the line when you apply for your first dolphin training job. After you are finished working with them, stay in touch! These relationships are invaluable. The animal training world is a small world indeed, and everyone is bound to know someone.
These days dolphin shows are more than a just a few dolphin jumps here and there. They are elaborate collaborations with acrobatics, pyrotechnics, and other “rock concert-esque” influences. This means that themodern day dolphin trainer needs to be well versed in public speaking, performance art (acting), and dance. Sounds silly, right? “How to become a dolphin trainer” includes signing up for dance classes? Well, not quite. You may consider some classes if you have two left feet, but most people can get by with just practicing at home. Have some rhythm and be able to keep a beat… at the very least.
When deciding how to become a dolphin trainer, mastering the talent of public speaking is a must. Are you nervous to talk to 5 people? 10 people? What about 5,000 people? The latter is potentially the size of a crowd you may need to speak in front of once you are a dolphin trainer. Companies are looking for employees who can continue to improve the company image. Sounding great on a microphone and appearing comfortable does just that. Put yourself in situations that force you to come out of your comfort zone. Try talking with someone in line with you at Starbucks or see if you can quiet down an entire restaurant and make a toast. It doesn’t matter what the toast is about – just as long as you can deliver it with confidence and you sound great.
Performing on stage is another way to perfect your public speaking abilities and feel more comfortable in front of large crowds. Even if you have no desire to perform in a school or community theater production, you can still go audition! Believe me, if you can’t sing but you confidently audition for a community production of the musical Hairspray, then you will have the confidence to perform with dolphins in front of thousands of people.
Make your performance background a priority and look for opportunities to show off. An applicant who has experience in front of people is better than an applicant who does not, wouldn’t you agree?
Most dolphin trainers learn the majority of their work on the job. This is true especially since each facility operates slightly different from one another. It is important, however, that you understand some basics of animal care and training so that you prove you are competent to a future employer.
Most facilities look for applicants with degrees in psychology. This is because psychology is the study of behavior and training dolphins is completely based on behavior observation and modification. If you really can’t stomach four years of college to get your psychology degree than a secondary preferred field of study would be one of the life sciences like, biology or animal science. Occasionally, you will find a trainer with marine biology degree, or something obscure, like business finance, but to make yourself as attractive as possible – go with psychology.
You also have the option of attending an animal training college. These are smaller colleges that focus on training a variety of species. Since the methods used to train most land animals is the same for dolphins, these colleges are highly tailored for those aspiring to work with marine life. Please see our article “Dolphin Training Colleges” and “The Basics of Marine Mammal Training.”
Perhaps the most obvious qualification, yet the one people don’t prepare enough for. You can have all the experience you want and be an Oscar award winning actor, but if you don’t meet the swimming expectations, you will not get hired. Large facilities often time require applicants to pass a swim test before being formally interviewed. Many smaller facilities require this as well, although it is less common and usually less vigorous. These swim tests can be brutal for some. In fact, it is reported that at certain facilities the pass rate is only about 10%. That means only one of every ten swimmers actually pass and are granted an interview. That 10% are not people who got jobs, it only represents the people who got interviews. Talk about weeding out the weak ones. It is not good enough for you to be able to swim, you have to be a superb swimmer. All swim tests are different, and we will be writing on this important topic in more detail, but for now you focus on being able to:
Swim over 70ft underwater
Tread water with your hands above your head for 5 minutes
Swim freestyle at a moderate pace while still maintaining good form
Retrieve a weight 20-40 feet below the surface
Dive off a platform with perfect form from 5-20 feet high
Complete 20-40 military style pushups
Haul yourself out of the water on to a deck without struggle
There is usually a time limit on these tasks as well. These distances will vary and some facilities may include modified or other skill tests, but this gives you an idea of what to expect. It is also important to note, that your swim test will most likely take place in salt water – cold, salt water. Diving 30 feet may seem only somewhat challenging in a warm pool or lake, but it is harder in 50-degree salt water that keeps you buoyant. You cannot over prepare yourself for this swim test and receiving professional instruction is highly recommended. In a sentence, practice, practice, practice! If you do get a chance to swim test, congratulations! Most people never get the opportunity to swim test.
You already show signs of drive and ambition by seeking out how to become a dolphin trainer. Continue to educate yourself about this industry. Take action! Don’t just think about practicing your pushups, actually practice! [How to Do the Perfect Push Up]. And overall, you must endure. You are not the only one who wants to work with dolphins and there are not a lot of spots available. So keep pursuing, check out the other resources this site and one day you will be the one giving someone advice on how to become a dolphin trainer.
Is there something more you would like to know? Ask us here!
Kyle Kittleson is a former senior animal trainer at SeaWorld Orlando. Kittleson is author of the book, Wear a Wetsuit at Work, and helps aspiring trainers enter the competitive field of marine mammal training. You can learn more about Kyle Kittleson by visiting his Facebook Page!