Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Henry. Henry Wonders, “How do you train dolphins?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Henry!

Have you ever been to an aquarium? How about an ocean-themed amusement park? If so, you may have seen dolphins that could do amazing tricks. They might have jumped through hoops. Some dolphins even roll over or swim with trainers on their backs. 

Have you ever WONDERed how the trainers train these dolphins? After all, it’s not like humans can speak dolphin, right? Plus, we live on land and dolphins live in the water. We’re very different creatures. So how do they do it?

Professional marine trainers can teach dolphins many behaviors. They do this through a system called positive reinforcement through operant conditioning. They start by breaking down the trick into many steps. They then teach the animal one step at a time. When the animal does a step right, the trainer rewards them. This teaches the animal to keep up that behavior.

For example, many dolphins are taught to jump through a hoop. Trainers break down the trick into simpler steps. Then they teach each step by having the dolphin follow an object called a target. The target can be any object, like a float on the end of a pole. By following the target, the dolphin learns the desired behavior.

For example, the dolphin may first be rewarded for swimming through a hoop. Then, the hoop and target are raised to the top of the water. Once the new goal is achieved, the dolphin is only rewarded for that task.

Another tool trainers use is the hand signal. Trainers have a unique hand signal for each trick they want the dolphin to perform. When the hand signal is given, the dolphin knows what the trainer wants it to do.

Trainers also use whistles. A whistle tells the dolphin that it performed the desired behavior correctly. Performing the behavior correctly also earns the dolphin a reward. The reward can be food, a toy or special attention from the trainer.

Rewarding an animal for a desired behavior is known as positive reinforcement. The reward reinforces the behavior desired. This makes the dolphin want to perform the behavior correctly every time.

How about when a dolphin performs the trick incorrectly? When that happens, the trainer gives no response. Instead, they give the dolphin time to think about what went wrong. Animals are not punished for incorrect behavior. Instead, they just don’t get positive reinforcement. In this way, positive reinforcement becomes an even more powerful tool.

Have you ever trained a dog or other pet? If so, this process might sound familiar. Most animals respond well to positive reinforcement. Do you enjoy teaching animals new tricks? Maybe you have a future as a professional trainer!

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.`10, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.7, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2

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