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If you have ever trained a dog to sit, come, beg, play dead or roll over, you know how much commitment and patience it takes. Dolphins can be trained too. Trained dolphins do flips, play ball, and jump through hoops. While these feats delight audiences at aquariums and marine animal shows, training dolphins is a way to keep the animals in shape. It also prevents them from becoming bored in captivity.
Dolphins are marine mammals that belong to the family Delphinidae. They are members of the order Cetacea. In the wild, dolphins live in large herds. They swim at speeds up to 25 miles per hour and can dive as deep as 1000 feet. Dolphins can live for between 25 and 50 years. Since they are highly intelligent social animals, marine biologists study dolphin behavior in an effort to learn how they communicate.
Dolphins that are in captivity are well fed and their pens are shark-proof so they have very little need and no space to swim at the speeds they would in the wild. Training is a way to provide these dolphins with consistent exercise. It also serves to keep them alert and mentally flexible. Trained dolphins learn to submit to various veterinary procedures, which makes it easier for the humans to study and care for them.
The tricks performed by trained dolphins include leaps, dives, walking on top of their flukes on the surface of the water and playing with balls. Each trick is really the dolphin's execution of a chain of behaviors that it learned by repeatedly being rewarded for success. The rewards may be material, like a fish snack, or emotional, like a specific whistle of praise. Either way, the trainer uses positive reinforcement to build trust and rapport while teaching incremental steps that end up being a trick for an audience to enjoy.
The training is called operant conditioning, which is an application of psychologist, B.F. Skinner's behavioral psychology. First the dolphin learns that when he pleases the trainer he will get a reward. Then the trainer uses the animal's desire for the reward to teach it to return to the trainer whenever it hears the sound of a pinger. Next the dolphin learns to station, or assume an attentive posture that signals its readiness to respond to the trainer's command. Then the dolphin is trained to do more sophisticated tricks like touch a pole or the trainer's hand. Some dolphins can even recognize a personal symbol when it is placed in a dock or a pool.
Trained dolphins don't just entertain tourists and provide data for marine biologists. They have a military function as well. Since the 1950s the US Navy has been using trained dolphins to approach enemy ships and divers. Some dolphins are equipped with lances to spear enemy agents. Others are trained to locate underwater mines and track torpedos so that they can be disabled and avoided. The dolphins live at a naval base in San Diego, California.
Lesley Barker, director of the Bolduc House Museum, authored the books "St. Louis Gateway Rail—The 1970s," published by Arcadia, and the "Eye Can Too! Read" series of vision-related e-books. Her articles have appeared in print and online since the 1980s. Barker holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Washington University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Webster University.