Posts Tagged 'dolphin training'

How to Train Your [Insert Subject Here]

national aquarium animal expert update

We have all been there…contemplating how to change a behavior you don’t like in yourself or another subject. It can manifest in many ways – How do I get my dog to stop pulling on his leash? My husband to stop leaving coffee cups around the house (true story for me)? My kids to clean up their rooms? It can also be a positive behavior you want them to keep doing, such as colleagues keeping the workplace clean and organized.

Whether you are trying to decrease an unwanted behavior or increase behavior you want to see more frequently, it can all be achieved (or conditioned) the same way.

Here at the National Aquarium, and in most marine mammal facilities across the country, we use a method of training known as “operant conditioning” or positive reinforcement training.  Simply defined, this means that behavior is likely to increase or decrease in frequency based on the consequences that follow.

Chesapeake

Think about the last time you did something and what followed; if you experienced a positive outcome, you are probably more likely to do that specific something again. However, if the outcome was negative, then most likely it is not something you would want to repeat.

We use the same training technique with our dolphins. When a dolphin does a behavior correctly, we blow a whistle that basically says “good,” and then we follow it up with reinforcement. Reinforcement for the dolphins can be fish, enrichment, toys or tactile rubs.  If the behavior is incorrect, then we simply do nothing. We can choose to ask again or simply move on to something else. By not giving a reaction, we communicate to the animal that the particular behavior requested was not correct, but they still have the opportunity to earn reinforcement so the session does not become negative.

A really important lesson for any animal (or human) to learn is that it is OK to fail! Failure is all part of learning; however, it is what you choose to learn from it that provides the opportunity to grow and then succeed.

Say a child is not cleaning his or her room. The first step is to make sure that the child is capable of accomplishing such a task (i.e., is the task age appropriate?). The child receives a signal that asks them to perform the desired behavior (clean a room). Once the task is complete, they receive their reinforcement. Now I am guessing most kids do not find cold, dead, raw fish very reinforcing, so something they would like, such as piece of candy, a game of catch or sometimes something as simple as a nice big hug and lots of verbal praise, could be used as the reinforcement.

Let’s take that same scenario, only the child doesn’t perform the behavior.  Depending on the child, you can ask them to try again or even provide some help.  If not done correctly, they simply lose the opportunity for that special treat.  However, the next time you ask them to clean their room, they may remember that consequence and hopefully change their behavior. One strategy is to start simply and have them just pick up a few things, then gradually increase the amount they have to clean. In training, these steps are called approximations.

Remember the key: Always set your subject up for success!

Blog-Header-AllisonGinsburg

Happy Birthday, Chesapeake!

National Aquarium is celebrating a very special birthday! Chesapeake, one of our female dolphins, born at the Aquarium on March 7, 1992, is 21 years old today!

Guests can recognize Chesapeake by her short rostrum!

Guests can recognize Chesapeake by her short rostrum!

About Chesapeake

Name meaning: She was the first of dolphin to be born at the Aquarium, so our trainers decided to name her in honor of the Chesapeake Bay!

Gender: Female

Weight: 380 pounds

Chesapeake with her calf Bayley shortly after her birth!

Chesapeake with her calf Bayley shortly after her birth!

Family Tree: Daughter of Shiloh (dam) and Akai (sire), mother to our youngest dolphin, Bayley!

How to Recognize Her: Chesapeake’s body is shorter overall and plump! Guests can recognize her by her short rostrum and slight under bite!

chesapeake

Chesapeake has a shorter overall body than the rest of our dolphins!

Trainer’s Note: Chesapeake is very energetic! She does a lot of high-energy behaviors like flips, breaches and porpoising! She eats about 39 pounds of fish a day!

Can’t come wish Chesapeake a Happy Birthday in person this weekend? Leave her a message on this interactive well wisher wall or on our Facebook page

Better yet, spend some one-on-one time with our birthday girl and her friends during our Dolphin Mornings behind-the-scenes immersion tour THIS Saturday, March 9!

Checking in with the dolphins

The National Aquarium’s dolphin colony is a dynamic, close-knit group that is made up of mostly mothers! Nani, Chesapeake and Jade are mothers to three of our young dolphins. Nani gave birth to Beau in 2005, and Foster was born to Jade in 2007. Bayley was born to Chesapeake in 2008 and she will be 3 years old tomorrow!

Spirit and Maya were also born here at the Aquarium in 2001, and this is the first year they produced calves. In late June, we shared the sad news of the loss of these two dolphin calves. The loss of the calves proved to be upsetting and stressful not only for the staff, but also for the dolphins themselves.

From years of working with these animals, we know that dolphins are very social animals. When something of this nature disrupts the group, the animals get upset. In this case, the moms were distressed, which in turn created stress in the entire colony. Social changes can be very upsetting for every dolphin in the group.

The health and welfare of all of our animals is of first importance. In the weeks following the loss of the calves, staff decided that the best thing to do for the dolphins was to discontinue shows and other programs until our Animal Health team and trainers are satisfied that normal social behaviors have returned.

Continue reading ‘Checking in with the dolphins’

How do dolphins do that?

From Justin Garner, dolphin trainer at the National Aquarium

One of the most common questions that we get here at the Aquarium is, “How do you get the dolphins to do that?”   dolphinshow22As trainers, we spend most of our day building positive relationships with the dolphins to provide them with an enriching, healthy, and stimulating environment. 

Training the dolphins for medical behaviors not only makes veterinary visits positive, but also allows the animals to voluntarily cooperate in their own health care.  Training the dolphins to perform natural behaviors in the dolphin show provides our guests with the opportunity to be entertained and educated about this species’ plight in the wild.  And, believe it or not, all of this is done completely with positive reinforcement, which means that we never punish or force our animals to do anything that they do not want to do.

We have several different types of training sessions.  1) Relationship sessions build and solidify the unique relationship that has been established between the animals and trainers.   2) Play and enrichment sessions provide the opportunity for the dolphins explore novel objects and exhibit natural behaviors.   3) Learning and practice sessions teach new behaviors to the animals as well as practice behaviors that they have already learned.

We are getting ready to open our new dolphin show, “Our Ocean Planet”!  We (and the dolphins) are busy with the training process for the show.  So that guests can witness their unique adaptations for life on our ocean planet, the dolphins are learning many new behaviors, including one that will allow the audience to see them swim up to their top speed of almost 25 miles per hour!  The dolphins are learning new behaviors every day.  We will always be adding new behaviors to “Our Ocean Planet” – this means that every show will be different from the one before.  So, stay tuned and and click here to recieve updates on our new dolphin show!

Continue reading ‘How do dolphins do that?’


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