10 Questions (and Answers) On Becoming A Trainer
You Asked, I Answered…
This will probably be my last blog post for the year. To make it has helpful as possible, I decided to focus on as many aspects of marine mammal training as possible. So, I asked you guys to supply the questions and in return, I would supply the answers! Thanks to all of those who submitted questions through the website’s contact form, Twitter and Facebook!
The questions were copy and pasted exactly how you asked them and have not been altered except for the occasional punctuation or grammar adjustment.
The best thing you can do to prepare for this amazing career is to act on the advice provided in Wear a Wetsuit at Work: How You Can Become a Marine Mammal Trainer.
But Before We Begin…
Since this is the last post for 2014, I wanted to take this time to tell you, THANK YOU! This year I received just under 1,000 e-mails from aspiring marine mammal trainers. 1100 of you have signed up for my newsletter, where we’ve been able to stay in touch. I have heard your stories, your obstacles, and your triumphs. Many of you have told me that I have inspired and helped you. I am glad. That makes me feel great. However, I want you to know, that you inspire me.
Hearing about your passion for marine mammal care, rescue, rehabilitation, and wildlife conservation is truly inspiring. We have to work together to positively change the world, and you guys are the next generation to do that. Whether you study endangered species in the ocean or join an animal rescue team – you will be making a difference for thousands of animals.
Your dreams are not just dreams. Dreams are the preview of your life ahead.
You all have inspired me. Thank you for that. Thank you.
Now, let’s get to the questions!
“Hi. So I, like many others, I want to be a marine mammal trainer and I have basically my whole life. I have worked with multiple species, both exotic and domestic. I have also gained theatre and public speaking experience. I have been working at an AZA facility in the show department for 2 years now and was just wondering how do I show that I want to be a marine mammal trainer? I have been getting more and more frustrated because I am doing everything I possibly can to get all the experience I’ve been told I need. I am out of college so no longer able to take an internship. Just what can I do to get employers to notice that I want to work in the marine mammal field more than anything?”
Tell them! This goes for anything you want in life. If you want something, make sure the people who can make it happen for you know that you want it! Now, if your prospective employer already knows that you want to work in the field, then simply ask what they need to see from you. Maybe you are great with the animals but need improvement in guest relations? Perhaps you understand training basics, but not enough to become a full time trainer? Figure out what they need from you so you can improve accordingly.
Make sure you have the basic requirements for a marine mammal trainer, including SCUBA certification, CPR certification and excellent swimming skills.
Additionally, just because you are out of college doesn’t mean you can’t take an internship. In fact, I completed my first major animal internship after I graduated college. If you bought my book, then you have a list of every facility in the United States that have marine mammals. Use that list to find an internship.
Finally, don’t give up! You are doing great. You are already working with animals, so enjoy it! If you stick with it, you will get to where you want to be.
“Hi again. I was just wondering how old is the average marine mammal trainer? In other words how old would I have to be before I could get accepted into any companies? Thank you for any help you can provide!”
Hello! The average age is probably somewhere in the 30s. However, the oldest trainer I ever worked with was 65. The youngest was 22. I have worked with interns who were between 18-21, but interns have a different job description entirely.
At most facilities you have to be at least 18 years old. However, I don’t know any facilities who would hire a trainer at that age. Because most facilities are looking for trainers with a four year degree in psychology or one of the life sciences, most trainers are around 22-25 when they get their first job. The reason for the age range is because there is such a small supply of jobs, but a large demand. Many aspiring trainers have to wait for three years (or more) before they are hired.
Hope that helps!
“What is your favorite behavior to train?
I don’t have one specific favorite behavior. However, my favorite types of behaviors to train are husbandry behaviors, (AKA: healthcare behaviors). These are behaviors that allow us to get voluntary blood samples, chuff samples, urine samples, etc. It also allows us to examine animals while minimizing stress. Instead of physically restraining an animal, we can just train the behavior. In fact, I really wish more dog owners would take the time to train their dogs for vet visits. It would decrease the amount of stress a dog experiences during a vet visit. It would also make the visit easier for the owner and veterinarian.
I know you didn’t ask, but my favorite animals to train are sea lions! 🙂
“Hi Kyle! My question is about cover letters. What goes in them, how long, etc. Should you highlight that you’ve done your research, or your past experience?”
Great question! I actually have a draft finished for an article on this exact thing! I will probably publish it early next year. (UPDATE: COVER LETTER ARTICLE HERE!) I think your cover letter should highlight whatever it is that makes you stand out! If that is your ability to conduct research, great! If that is your experience working directly with animals, great! Here are some other tips:
Tip One: Make the first sentence stand out! Make it something super memorable. They are getting hundreds of cover letters, so a funny / exciting / edgy first line will get you noticed.
Tip Two: Keep it short. The point of the cover letter is to entice them to want to learn more about you and read your resume. It is not the time to tell them everything you’ve done – that is what a resume is for. (Here are some tips on how to rock your resume. When you sign-up for my newsletter, I will even send you my resume that got me my job at SeaWorld!)
Tip Three: Put your contact information on the cover letter. What if they like you but lost your resume and have to go digging for your contact information? Not good. Never make it hard for someone to get ahold of you. So, I say, include your phone number and e-mail in your cover letter.
Check back to the website early next year for the cover letter article!
“1. Do the relationships you build with the whales really exist?
2. Have you ever worked/trained with baleen whales before? Preferably humpbacks or minkes? If not, do you know anyone who has? Is it possible?”
Oh, you want two questions answered? Greedy! I am kidding. Okay, here we go!
1. YES! YES! YES! I don’t think I have ever heard of anyone saying otherwise. One of the most reinforcing parts about working with animals is the relationships you create with them. In fact, having a good relationship with each animal is what allows you to train more efficiently. You won’t have the same relationship with every animal (just like you don’t have the same relationship with each one of your friends). But yes, as a trainer, you absolutely build relationships with animals – whales included.
2. I have not. SeaWorld did rescue, rehabilitate, and release a Grey Whale named “JJ” many years ago.
“Not sure if my question is blog worthy, but I’m very curious about the huge q-tip I see being used at shows. What is it?”
It’s totally “blog worthy!” haha. Thanks for asking.
The “q-tip” is called a target pole. Trainers treat the target pole as an extension of their arms.
See, one of the first behaviors an animal learns is to place, or “target,” their “nose” on the palm of a trainers hand. If the hand moves, so does the animal (to keep their “nose” on the trainers hand). Trainers then transfer that behavior from hand to target pole. The animal learns to follow the end of the target pole and trainers then use the target pole to train behaviors like high jumps, flips, etc.
There are lots of tiny steps, or approximations, to get the animal from point A to point B. To learn more about the training process, I suggest reading Wear a Wetsuit at Work: How You Can Become a Marine Mammal Trainer.
“What college degree path is best to get a job working with animals doing AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy)? Also, any advice to mastering the swim test?”
Awesome question. Regardless of what you are training marine mammals to do, the fundamentals are the same; operant conditioning and positive reinforcement. That being said, the most popular degree for animal training is psychology. However, for animal assisted therapy you can also take courses from independent schools, such as the Animal Behavior Institute. They offer electives that focus on marine animal training.
As for mastering the swim test…practice! The difficulty of the swim test is what keeps most people from becoming a marine mammal trainer! I go through the swim test in detail in my book and I also offer free swim test tips in my newsletter. Make sure you not only practice your swimming, but you are able to lift and carry heavy objects and complete at least 20 perfect pushups. Note: You need to complete 20 pushups after completing the swim test. You will be very tired by the time the pushup portion comes around.
Don’t wait to be offered a swim test to start practicing. Start practicing now! You could apply for a trainer position on Monday and then be asked to come in and swim test on Wednesday! One day is not enough time to prepare. So, start now!
“What steps and training should one take in order to pass the swim test at Sea World? Do other parks require a swim test like Sea World?”
Looks like there is a theme here! As I mentioned above, you must be an excellent swimmer and complete at least 20 perfect pushups. Don’t wait to start practicing your swimming.
As far as I know, all marine parks have a swim test. I have heard that the SeaWorld swim test is the hardest, followed by Georgia Aquarium.
Keep in mind, that trainers interested in training Orcas will have to take an additional swim test which is even harder.
I’ve taken it. It’s very hard. Extremely hard.
“Kyle I would like to know how you teach a behavior the whale has never done before?”
Great question. Training a brand new behavior is really exciting! Depending on what animal you are training, what behavior you are training, your history with the animal, how best the animal learns, and your skills as a trainer – there are lots of ways to train a new behavior. In general, training a new behavior is accomplished by completing small approximations. For example, when we teach kids math, we don’t start with algebra, we start by teaching them numbers. Then we move to addition and subtraction. Then multiplication and division. Then fractions. And eventually we get to algebra. Training an animal a new behavior is kind of like that. Small approximations that add up to a final behavior.
When training a new behavior I would first figure out what behaviors the animal already knew that can help me train the new behavior. For example, let’s say we were trying to teach a dolphin to shake is head from side to side. If the dolphin already knew hand targets (mentioned earlier), then I could use those hand targets to ask the dolphin to move his head back and forth. If I wanted to train a whale to do a flip then I could use a target pole to lead the whale through the motions of a flip.
Many trainers, especially those starting out, will utilize a training pyramid. A training pyramid is a step-by-step guide on how they plan on training the desired behavior. It helps the trainer visualize the entire training process. Most of the time, you need to adjust your training plan to help the animal succeed. This is what makes a great trainer – someone who can read their animal and understand their behavior and then make adjustments accordingly. The best trainers are great animal behaviorists.
“Hello! What would your advise be for someone who lives in an area without many job opportunities related to marine mammal training?”
The short answer is that you may have to move to a place that has opportunities in the marine mammal care field. However, if you aren’t sure if this is the right career for you, then consider a short internship working with animals. Even if you aren’t working with marine animals, you will still get the idea of what it is like to care for animals. Remember, don’t feel like you have to get experience working with marine mammals to get a paid job working with marine mammals. You can, and should, get experience working with pets, other animals, in a variety of capacities, before you start working with marine animals.
Thanks for you questions everyone! If you don’t find what you are looking for here, search around the site and feel free to contact me!