I am 22 years old and I work full time as a dolphin trainer. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and I landed the coolest job on earth. Eight of my best friends are grey, slippery and don’t have legs. Tough life.
A lot of people think being a dolphin trainer means having fun and playing for 40-hours a week. I wish. My job does involve a lot of fun sessions throughout the work day and those fun times are ridiculously rewarding, but working in the field that I do involves a lot of late nights, early mornings, medical procedures, 14 day work weeks, low pay, and tolerating tourist after tourist asking if I can “make them jump” at least 450 times a day.
The most rewarding part of the job is realizing that what you do day in and day out has an impact on someone else’s life (whether human or animal). I love my job and I work really hard to make these animals’ lives absolutely amazing by offering them something new every time I see them, whether we are working on a new behavior together, we have public swimmers in the water for a swim with dolphins program, or we are just in the water together for snuggle time.
The coolest part about working with animals is that when you look into their eyes, you know that someone is looking back at you. They each have their likes and dislikes, behavior patterns (personalities), and their good and bad days. Those of us who work with animals every single day are the only ones who get to learn all of these little details about their “kids,” details that anyone from the outside will never be able to feel or completely understand. I am lucky enough to get to work with 8 amazing dolphins, ranging in age from 29 to 2 years old, and they have all taught me how to be a better person in one way or another.
1. Nobody is perfect and that’s okay
Being a skilled and effective animal trainer means using positive reinforcement to teach an animal what a hand or verbal signal means since animals don’t know our language. The word “no” is not in a dolphin trainer’s vocabulary, so you have to learn to only pay attention to and reward any behaviors you want to see again, you ignore behavior you don’t want to see again, and you move on with your life if they make a mistake. Everyone has bad days, including animals, and on some of those bad days they will fail at almost everything you ask them for. That’s okay, we all go through it. The way to have a successful session and a positive relationship with an animal is by rewarding the small things that they do correctly, even if you have to lower expectations a tiny bit. And yes, I’m implying that this works in human relationships as well. Pay attention to the little stuff that you want to see more of. Don’t acknowledge any behavior that you don’t like and you’ll save yourself a couple of meltdowns and some points on your blood pressure. Don’t believe me? Put these concepts to work with your significant other or a friend and you’ll see what I mean.
2. You have to get to know someone before you come anywhere close to understanding them
When I first started my job, the most dominant female dolphin would not do any behaviors for me. Not a one. I would give a hand signal and she would do whatever she felt like (if she did anything other than stare at me like I had a dog growing out of my face that is). It was really frustrating, but part of animal training is that you work through problems, you don’t just avoid them. A few months later, that dolphin and I had a pretty solid relationship and now she seems to enjoy working through a session with me. The same thing goes with people. When you start to get to know a new person whether personally or professionally, keep working on understanding them. Even if you don’t hit it off right away and won’t end up being each other’s favorite person, you’ll at least know how to interact with them which makes things easier for all parties involved.
3. You only hurt yourself when you lose your temper
We have a dominant male who has a tendency to chase the younger dolphins and trap them in corners or bite them or steal their fish. This is normal in the dolphin world because there are no dolphin police to hand out tickets and no one elects a leader; the biggest and the boldest is the boss. What is different about this particular dolphin, however, is that every single time he chases one of the other dolphins around the lagoon, he returns to his trainer with at least one new bruise or cut varying in severity and location on his body. If you think about it, this happens to people all the time. Every time we lose our temper we sever relationships we once valued, alienate ourselves from others and end up only hurting ourselves when we could react a little more calmly and save ourselves a little bit of emotional or physical pain.
4. A positive attitude can get you through anything
I have seen animals go through losing a two-day-old calf or injuring themselves to the point where they need immediate medical attention and months of medical care. While we humans have a tendency to wallow in our misery and ask ‘why me?’ I have never observed any behavior that even closely resembles self-pity or wallowing in dolphins. They just show up for the next session ready to go. That doesn’t mean that they’re 100% successful in everything that they do when they’re in pain or anything, but at least they show up and move on. There is life after disappointments, mild setbacks and even tragedy. Just keep swimming.
5. You have to accept an individual for all that they are, not just the parts you like
So I hate the fact that dolphins yell at each other, steal each other’s fish and beat up on each other no matter how much reinforcement we give them for getting along with each other. Alas, it’s what dolphins do out in the wild and in human care. It’s part of survival. So I also hate the fact that I work with animals who are smarter and cuter than me. That’s just a sad fact of life. Oh well.
Whether it’s an animal or a person, it’s important to understand that when you invest time in having a relationship with another individual, you have to have a relationship with all parts of them or none of them at all. Sorry folks, you can’t just pick to experience the parts of people you love.
6. Life isn’t all about hard work
Fun and play is a huge part of working with animals. Play sessions are one of my favorite things we do with the dolphins because unstructured play without any customers to please is just as relaxing for us as it is the dolphins. Whether we are playing hide and go seek, throwing jello and fish from a floaty raft, or just throwing a ball back and forth, play strengthens our relationships with our animals. It’s okay for you as a human to just unwind once in a while. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Or something. We live in a society where disconnecting is abnormal, but it’s really important to living a well balanced and happy life. Don’t believe me? Just throw a ball around for a while one afternoon, you’ll feel a lot more relaxed after a minute or two.
7. There is always room to learn and grow
Whether they are two-years-old or 29-years-old, we teach all of our dolphins new behaviors all the time. Humans should be doing the same. Whether you have a GED or a PhD, there is always a new skill or subject that we could pick up or improve upon. Pick up a book and learn something about the shrinking world you live in.
8. Be flexible, laugh things off
There are plenty of days where you step down to start a session with the dolphins and not a single one shows up. Not one. If we got mad at them, it still wouldn’t change the fact that they’re more interested in something other than us. In this case, you step back, even if you’re running 20 minutes late for an important session, laugh it off, and change your plans. It’s okay to just go with the flow, there are more things in life that you can’t control than there are things you can. Change the plan and move on. There are worse things that could happen.
9. Sometimes, you are the problem
Oh, so you’re working with a dolphin and they keep failing at what you’re asking them for? The best piece of advice my supervisors gave me is that the first step to addressing a problem is to ask if the problem is you. It’s hard for a lot of people to admit, but we all make mistakes. So in a scenario where a dolphin continually has no idea what you’re asking, you may be giving the wrong signal, they may not know that behavior, you might be giving them more fun of a reaction when you make a funny face and sigh in desperation when they don’t get it right. In the real world, it’s also possible to be the problem. So in a situation where your co-workers have no idea what you’re talking about or if your significant other isn’t getting any of those passive aggressive hints you’re sending out, the problem is definitely you. If you look at yourself first, I have found that 90% of the time you can fix a good amount of whatever isn’t working.
10. There’s always something to smile about
At the facility where I work, we see more people who don’t speak any English than those who do. On top of that, we see more people who want to get into the deep water and have never swam than people who are confident enough to enter 20 feet of salt water without panicking. It’s really easy to get frustrated when it is 100 degrees outside, you have a flailing French woman who is terrified of swimming, and she is poking an animal you love in the eyes. It’s even easier to show your frustration and ruin someone’s experience, day, vacation, or their life dream. The most important thing that I have learned from the animals that I work with is that there is always something to be thankful for or to smile about. So when said flailing French woman accidentally kicks your beloved dolphin in the side, you just blow the whistle, reward your dolphin for not reacting, and you concentrate on how much you love the animal in front of you to stay sane. If you keep a smile on through difficult times, people will enjoy your presence and that will make you feel good. PS- it’s still totally fine to envision a world where you are allowed to feed the people who make you mad to a Great White Shark. Just do it with a smile on the outside and no one has to know.