May 08

Animal Training Tools of the Trade

People use different tools depending on their jobs... Hammer. Stethoscope. Computer. Frying pan. Have you ever wondered what tools are used by SeaWorld Animal Trainers? You might be surprised! Here are a few.

It’s one of the most commonly asked questions of animal trainers… “What is the whistle for?” Whales and dolphins do not respond to verbal signals so they have been trained to respond to a whistle. The concept is pretty simple. Think of the whistle as taking a snapshot in time of a behavior. A quick “toot” of the whistle conveys to the animal that what they have done in that snapshot is correct and they should return to the trainer for a reinforcer (something they seem to enjoy… fish, toys, back massage, etc.) By blowing the whistle (referred to as "bridging the behavior") at various spots in the shape of the behavior, trainers are able to train and maintain some amazing behaviors. To put it plain and simple, the whistle tells the animal “What you just did was correct. Please return to us so we can have fun with you.”

How in the world do we communicate to an animal how to do a complicated flip or jump? Enter the “target pole”, a fancy term for a stick with a soft ball on the end. By repeatedly touching the ball to the tip of the animal’s rostrum (the tip of its mouth) and then reinforcing it, the animal quickly learns to follow the ball. This is known as target training. Once the animal is target trained, we simply move the target to shape the behavior. It certainly takes time to accomplish this, particularly in very complex behaviors like forward flips and vertical spins, but without the target pole it would be virtually impossible to teach the animal to do the beautiful behaviors that you see in the shows.

Amanda, Morgan, Laura and Krisie model the many wetsuit costumes at Beluga stadium.

Everyone thinks that our wetsuits keep us warm and dry. Well, yes and no. It does NOT keep us dry. The concept of the wetsuit is to get the person wet! A thin layer of water (cold water, that is) seeps ever so slowly into the wetsuit where it is trapped against the skin. After the initial jolt of this cold water is felt, the warmth of our body heats this layer of water to body temperature which keeps us warmer. I say warmer because no matter how you slice it, it's cold in the water. Wetsuits keep us warmer than if we didn’t have them, but make no bones about it, we still feel the chill of the water. Also know that the colorful costumes we wear are not always an actual wetsuit, but a lycra overlay that we slip over the neoprene wetsuit. With our animal venues often having different shows within the same stadium, these convenient overlays make it easy to change costumes to meet the themes of the different shows.

There are many other tools of the SeaWorld Animal Trainer’s trade. They all work together for us to perform Believe, Azul, and Cannery Row Caper as well as host animal interaction programs and perform husbandry behaviors. In later blogs we’ll share with you even more of them. In the meantime, if you have any questions on how we train animals, please feel free to post a comment.

Continued success and blessings to you and yours.