What Animal Trainers Are Forgetting About Their Job

dolphin training tips

A wonderful friend and trainer once told me, “Kyle, we have the greatest job in the world, but it’s still a job.” 

Hearing this one sentence put the career I had wanted since I was three years old into perspective. Yes, working with and caring for these amazing animals, was a dream come true. I would have done it for free. (In fact, I did work for free when I first started in animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release.) However, as it is true for every aspect of life, being a marine mammal trainer is no different – there are parts that suck. 

  • You are essentially on-call 24/7, 365 days a year. 
  • You miss Holidays with your family. 
  • You miss weekends with your friends. 
  • You work in all weather conditions. 
  • You make little money. 
  • You smell awful. 

Now, at this point you may be thinking, “Okay, I get it, Kyle. The title of the article is ‘what animal trainers are forgetting about their job,’ and we’re supposed to look past all the sucky parts and remember how lucky we are, blah blah blah.’” 

Suggested Reading: Does the Public Hate Zoos & Aquariums?

While I agree that you should remember how lucky you are – this isn’t about you at all. 

This is about the animals. 

Beware of Routine

Routine will kill your passion for this career. 

In turn, your lack of passion will aversively affect the animals. 

Often trainers get into a routine in order to “cope” with the stresses of the job. They show up to work at the same time, drop their stuff off, change into a wetsuit, go to the same scrubbing station, prep the same food, do the same shows, the same educational presentations, the same training sessions, and then they go home, go to bed, and repeat.

We are creatures of habit, and that habit, allows us to show up day after day, week after week, year after year, and complete similar tasks over and over again. And over time, that can hurt us. 

Suggested Reading: Animal Trainers, Why Haven’t You Unionized?

When the passion is gone, so is your desire to move away from the routine. What losing your passion should do is act as an indicator that something is missing. Something isn’t right with us. 

[A quick note about routine: Many facilities, and myself included, advocate for routines for animals. They thrive under certain expectations and more importantly, once a routine is in place, we are able to deviate from that routine and use that deviation as a secondary reinforcer. However, if the routine never changes for the animal, it can have an aversive affect. To keep routines reinforcing, change as a means of reinforcement must strategically occur.]

It’s Time to Change It Up

When is the last time you really mixed it up for the animals you care for? 

When is the last time you made such a reinforcing change that you actually SAW a correlated changed in the animal’s attitude and behavior? 

When is the last time you designed a new EED (Environmental Enrichment Device)? (And I don’t mean you put a rope around a buoy. I am talking about something brand new. Something the animal has never seen, touched, smelled, seen?!)

If you are being honest with yourself, it probably has been too long. 

If you haven’t made a significant change, the good news is, it’s so easy to start. 

10 Easy Ways to Make a Change for The Animals!

I will continue to use marine animals as the example, although any of these can be modified for other species.

1. 5x the number of feedings you provide the animals. If you are stepping up to a dolphin an average 10 times a day, tomorrow make it 50 times. You use the same amount of food – but you vary your session length, frequency, and other reinforcers to change it up!

2. “Jackpot” one behavior that “doesn’t need it.” So many animals have such solid behaviors that trainers take them for granted. The dolphin always jumps. The sea lion always goes to the water. Tomorrow, take an entire session’s worth of food and give it all to them for that one, super solid behavior. (And is there even such thing as a “jackpot” when it comes to animal training? Discuss below.)

3. Provide 12 “toys” over 12 hours. Tomorrow, give one dolphin a new toy every hour on the hour. You could make it 24 toys over 12 hours if you have the staff. Have someone stand off to the side and intermittently throw fish or other reinforcers when the dolphin is playing with the toy. 

4. Utilize your waterproof phone and play some music for the animals! I prefer Britney – but play whatever you want. You can either stick your hand in the water or get in the water with your phone! If you want to introduce them to this potentially new stimuli, try first playing the music in another pool they don’t have access to. 

5. Bring a TV poolside or at the glass. This can also work with a large iPad. Animals are often intrigued by moving images. 

6. Ropes! So many animals love ropes. They aren’t expensive and last a long time if properly cared for. Tie a rope across the pool and give the animals some time rubbing up against their new toy. 

7. Have some extra wigs, masks, and capes? Of course, who doesn’t? Well, if you do, dress up and have a little party near the animals. This sounds so juvenile (and it is) – but it’s a huge change for the animals who only see you in wetsuits. You can also bring props, such as; umbrellas, large poster boards, or megaphones. <—- Also, this is one of the weirdest things I have written.

8. Give animals alone time. We often assume that because the animals we’re working with are social animals, they should only be in their pod/group/flock/herd. Instead, mix it up by giving the animal some solo time. 

9. Showoff other animals. Bring some parrots to meet some dolphins! Bring a dog to meet a sea lion. Some facilities are super worried about zoonosis – but I’ve never heard of a structured interaction between two species at the same facility resulting in an aversive health consequences

10. Don’t stop after the show/presentation. Many facilities have regular shows and presentations to educate the public. 99% of the time, after that presentation is finished – everyone takes a break. This time, don’t! Instead, right after the presentation when the animals expect you to be leaving – go right into a training sessions, playtime, or just do the presentation again for some other trainers. 

I literally came up with these in less than 15 minutes. It isn’t hard to come up with some new, novel, and exciting for the animals.

What is hard is implementing those changes – especially when management appears unwilling to accommodate. 

So, let’s talk about the wrong and right way to propose getting out of your routine, getting your passion back, and making the lives of these animals even better. 

How to Implement Reinforcing Change for Animals and Handle Management

  1. Make a change that is novel for the animals and easy for the trainers. Presenting management with the idea to install a wave pool, isn’t going to work. It would be coo. I personally think wave pools are amazing for the animals, however, management isn’t going to just spend the money because you said so. When you present the change you want to make, emphasize how that change doesn’t add man hours, takes advantage of current staff, is more efficient with time, etc. It is important to explain how this is better and easier for the people who have dedicated their lives to animals as much as it is important to stress how necessary this is for the animal’s overall wellbeing.  
  2.  Figure out the goals of management. Schedule a meeting with a supervisor, curator, or team leader. Ask them this simple question, “what are your goals for these animals we care for?” Based on their answer (and EVERY good leader will have an answer) create some novel changes. Spend a few days considering management’s goals, write down your ideas on paper, and point out the benefits both for people and animals. This makes it very difficult for management to not approve your plan. 
  3. Set as firm as a timeline as possible. If management tells you that this is great and that they will implement this change, it is up to you to get them to give you a date. Otherwise, it is likely the change will never get made. If they can’t give you a date, simply explain that you want to have a date so you can prepare accordingly, and if they can’t give you one now, ask when they will be able to. You are essentially asking for a date to give you a decision on when the start date will be. 
  4. Get the rest of your team on board. This process doesn’t need to be done by yourself. Instead, grab a few co-workers and make it a team effort. 

Suggested Reading: 10 Questions (and answers) on Becoming a Trainer!

Important Note: This can and should be done by anybody and any level. From unpaid volunteers to senior managers – ask yourself, “what have I done to make the lives of these animals better?”

2 comments

  • Amazing advice, as always! Will definitely use this when I become a trainer.

  • There is one thing I believe is imperative for aspiring trainers is to view some of the live Dolphin Drive hunts at Taiji Cove! Why ? Because Taiji Cove is unique in that they supply the aquarium industry worldwide except Australia where exporting and importing them is banned and practically all aquariums have closed down bar a coupe and one of them has a marine hospital attached. Taiji dolphin trainers work side by side with hunters . The hunters drivre them into the cove and the trainers go through each dolpin and take the best as they reject one deemed not suitable the hunter slaughters it. They use a unbelievably cruel method to kill them which takes a long time. It’s extremely painful. It’s called pithing. They stab a long thin rod behind the blow hole and push it in deep and then move it around and pull it out. They then cork the hole to stop the blood flow because they don’t like being seen doing this. They also constructed tarp that they draw across the killing beach. They hide all this so we can’t see however there is plenty of video’s and footage of the killing before the tarps were used and we also use super zoom lenzes and can veiw under the tarps. Sometimes theey reinsert the rod and move it around again. Why? To sever the spinal chord. It’s horrific The dolphin suddenly goes still staring straight ahead and after about a minute or two their beaks start to twich next their body bends side to side and next they are slapping around violently after about 15 minutes they stop slapping around but that is because their unable to move with cut spinal chord. They are still fully conscience but parylized . That is only if they did actually cut the spinal chord. If the hunters missed it takes much longer. Many times we see a dolphin come slapping violently out from under the tarps using one side of their bodies to try n swim .Their movement resembles the way a seal romps on land. These dolphins also have their babies abducted forcefully most babies are dumped 2-3 miles back out to sea. Bottle Nose babies if rejected by the trainer who choose will be chased back out to sea with the other rejected dolphins from the pod. These trainers are females all female trainer and they will choose which will live n die. When it’s the baby they want they forcefully wrestle it into a sling that hangs on the side of the skiff and the mother who is rejected will be forced into a netted area with other rejects. Many mother die from the grief and stress .Recently 3 tiny babies died from the selection process which took 3 day and three nights netted in the cove no food which meant no fluids from the fresh fish they eat. One mother was so grieved she sank after spy hopping and the throwing herself in a exhausted breach movement only on the surface though. There is no leaping or porpoising. The grief seen if very clearly obvious. A the moment they are over crowded with upto 7-8 and even 9 in a sea pen they construct. They have to be taught to eat dead fish and they drug them also stick tubes down heir throats to give them fluids since fluids are gone with the dead fish. Also it’s easy to see which ones have lost their mothers or babies. They log in the middle as the others swim round and round. We have seen 3 days in a row slaughters and as I write these hunters are about to head out. They have been taking Risso’s from a breeding pod. As you probably know Risso’s nurcery pods are made up of many pods that joint to form a super pod. Risso’s don’t really migrate. So I m very concerned they will take more . These nurcing pods swim slower for the little babies. During the

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