To Teach A Dolphin How To Act-Getting Winter Ready for “Dolphin Tale”

It took a village to teach a dolphin named Winter how to act

As a lot of you may know, Winter, a bottlenose dolphin who resides at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL will be playing herself in the upcoming film Dolphin Tale which will be released in theaters on September 23rd, 2011. The trainers at CMA had trained all the dolphins, including Winter, in the same matter that SeaWorld trainers would train their animals for behaviors for upcoming animal shows.  These behaviors were all established through positive reinforcement and desensitization.

Positive reinforcement-Trainers ask the animal through hand signals, imitation and whistle (bridge) to perform a behavior, and reward them when they perform it. Nothing was forced during this process.

To prepare Winter for her interactions with movie equipment, props, scenes, and actors, the trainers used desensitization-the process of slowly exposing Winter to the items and situations so that she would then, be able to become familiar and comfortable with them. In fact, all bright lights, groups of people, and large cameras would always remain close by in order to help get used to such interactions when filming the movie. For example:

  • The staff has fashioned a fake “camera” made of gas cans and raised and lowered it on a fake boom (long stick that usually has a microphone attached) over her pool.
  • Volunteers took shifts holding reflective boards to familiarize her to the bright lights.
  • A large “blue screen”, similar to what weather people use, was placed in the pool.
The trick to desensitization is to go slowly with the training, pairing, every encounter with positive reinforcement/reward, and to make it fun! This way, the animal feels comfortable with the new experience and can enjoy these exciting interactions like a game.
Some of the new behaviors taught to Winter specifically for her movie role include:
  • Tossing bottles in the air
  • Responding to signals given by the actors

Winter, resting on her favorite movie prop, the floating bed.


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