Their high level of intelligence means that dolphins are prime candidates for training. Training is used for entertainment. Crowd pleasing displays draw in hordes of tourists to attractions such as Seaworld and make huge amounts of profit, as do holidays offering the chance of a lifetime to swim with such majestic creatures.
Training is also used for research. The more that trainers can teach dolphins to do, the more that we can begin to understand about their species and how to protect them in their natural environments.
Trainers usually get the dolphins to perform different tasks by positively reinforcing desired behavior. That is to say, dolphins will be rewarded each time they do something right. Primary reinforcers, such as food, are used to directly associate a learned behavior with a positive outcome for the dolphin.
Secondary reinforcers are used once the training becomes slightly more complex. This is when trainers substitute something, such as a sound or action, which has been associated with the learned behavior, for the primary reinforcement itself. If the trainer starts off by giving the dolphin a fish and a making a clicking noise each time the dolphin jumps through a hoop, then eventually they will move on to just making the clicking noise. The dolphin will associate this noise with a positive outcome and so will continue to be motivated to perform the desired behavior.
The most important element of training a dolphin is the bond which is established between the trainer and the animal. Training usually starts when the dolphin calf is between 6 months and 2 years old. This means that the dolphin is still young enough to be influenced by human behavior and has not fully matured in the wild. The trainer will therefore be its only real known source of food and the dolphin will depend on them for play and stimulation.
A strong bond is formed between dolphin and trainer by spending a lot of time together and by slowly building up the dolphin’s trust over a period of months or years. For a fully grown dolphin, the ultimate sign of complete trust in their trainer occurs when they choose to pull them through the water holding on to the dorsal fin. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to get to this stage, but it is obviously a very rewarding experience when it does happen.