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How to Become a Dolphin Trainer: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a dolphin trainer. Research the job description and the education requirements, and find out how to start a career in dolphin training.

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Do I Want to Be a Dolphin Trainer?

Dolphin trainers strive to keep the animals healthy, mentally stimulated, and physically active while living in a captive environment. Trainers are often responsible for keeping a dolphin's water clean and providing nutritious meals. Although programs at zoos or aquariums use dolphins for public entertainment, many of these same programs try to incorporate a message of conservation awareness for dolphins and other marine mammals. Trainers may do this by providing commentary about dolphins and their habits during public shows. Work hours may be irregular, since care is needed around the clock. Dealing with sick or injured dolphins may be a more difficult aspect of the job.

Job Requirements

A dolphin trainer usually needs a bachelor's degree and plenty of practical experience working with animals. The following table lists the common education and skills required to begin a career in dolphin training.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree is preferred*
Degree Field Biology, marine biology, zoology, animal science*
Certification CPR, first aid, scuba diving **
Experience Entry-level jobs usually require a certain minimum of previous animal handling experience; senior-level trainer positions might require multiple years of work experience in the field*
Key Skills Swimming, communication, public speaking*

Sources: *SeaWorld, **O*Net Online.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

Zoos and aquariums usually require entry-level trainer applicants to have bachelor's degrees. Because there are no undergraduate programs specifically in dolphin training, employers usually prefer someone with a degree in a life science, such as biology, zoology, marine biology, or other area that is related to animals.

These programs might include courses in foundational sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics. Higher mathematics may also be required. Courses specifically related to animals include animal behavior, zoology, and marine mammalogy and physiology. Oceanography, marine ecology, evolution, and topics on conservation are courses that may be part of a marine biology program.

Success Tips:

  • Gain experience with animal handling. Experience working with animals is very important to developing a successful career in dolphin training. Many zoos and aquariums have volunteer and internship programs for students to learn animal husbandry and care skills. Although rare, internships exist where students can shadow dolphin trainers and assist in certain daily care duties. Interns are usually not allowed to have hands-on contact with the dolphins, though. Other sites to find animal handling experiences are humane societies and wildlife rehabilitation centers. Certain internships also count for college credit and provide an hourly wage.
  • Gain skills in communication and public speaking. An important aspect of a dolphin trainer's job is educating the public about dolphins and marine conservation. This may be done by talking with zoo or aquarium visitors directly or by providing commentary over a microphone to a large group of spectators. Students may gain experience by adding drama and public speaking courses to their undergraduate education.

Step 2: Earn Scuba Certification

Many aquariums or zoos with marine mammals require their animal trainers to be scuba certified. One may choose to complete only basic scuba diver certification, or take additional courses to rise to the levels of rescue diver or master scuba diver. The first section of many basic scuba courses involves classroom or online learning, complete with tests. The final section involves the applied portion of the training, which includes learning how to use scuba equipment in a pool and/or in open water locations, such as an ocean or a lake.

Success Tip:

  • Become certified in CPR and first aid. Some scuba programs also provide training in CPR and first aid. Since all three of these skills are required by many marine mammal facilities, completing such a program may allow aspiring dolphin trainers to learn all these skills in a short amount of time and in environments relevant to their future career.

Step 3: Gain Dolphin Trainer Work Experience

Depending on potential trainers' level of experience and place of employment, they may be required to shadow more experienced trainers or complete a similar training period before they are allowed to perform more complex behavior training. Trainers advance to senior-level positions as they get to know the dolphins under their care and as training techniques are refined and mastered. Trainers might work in aquarium settings or in the natural ocean environment.

Success Tips:

  • Keep swimming skills up-to-date and stay physically fit. Dolphin trainers must be able to handle the demanding physical activity their careers require, both for practical and safety reasons. Trainers should keep their swimming skills in top form so they can safely interact with their animals and possibly perform acrobatics alongside dolphins.
  • Become a member of a professional organization. Marine mammal trainers and animal keepers may join organizations, such as the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) or the International Marine Animal Trainers' Association (IMATA). Members have opportunities to read current news and literature about the field, make professional connections with other trainers, and attend voluntary continuing education workshops.
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