I recall very distinctly the interview that landed me my first college teaching job. I had just earned a degree in creative writing and, yet, there I was applying to teach a course that appeared - at least on paper - to be beyond my depth.

The interviewer seemed a bit puzzled as she leafed through my application file. "So," she began, "your degree was not in psychology?" I smiled confidently to cover a nervous gulp.

"Well, no," I confessed. "But I've trained dolphins."

In the conversation that followed, I did my best to convince that the most significant difference between people and dolphins was really only a matter of one small hole in the head. I added something to the effect that if I could successfully teach beings with such an obvious academic impediment, just think of what I could do for a class full of whole-headed folks.

Something went miraculously right, and I walked away with both the job and an urgent desire to purchase the course textbook to find out just what I had gotten myself into.

In the years since, I've discovered that training dolphins and teaching people really isn't all that different. Whether it's for fish, grades, or a paycheck, I tell my students, we all work for something, and we all have hoops to jump through.

"Yeah, yeah," they say, deftly skirting a consideration of existential parallels. "But how do you train a dolphin?"

"And we all learn effectively in similar ways as well," I continue. "With small steps, clear communication, and positive feedback we can all help each other reach our goals."

"Yeah, okay," they say. "But how do you train a dolphin?" They really want to know.

"Targeting," I say.

I point to the clock on the wall. The class glances toward it and lets out a collective groan, thinking I'm telling them we don't have time for a discussion of dolphin training.

"How'd you know to look at the clock?" I ask.
I'm staring at blank faces and eyebrows raised in disbelief until eventually someone says, "Well, you pointed at it - duh!" 

"That's targeting," I say. "But what happens when you try to point something out to a baby?"

"Nothing. They're stupid." The class laughs appreciatively.

"Naïve," I correct.


"Babies are naïve. Not trained. They don't yet know that a point means anything. So what do they do when you point?"

"They play with your finger." The class nods in agreement.

And they are correct, of course.

The natural curiosity animals (including us humans) display when investigating a novel object, or one used in a novel way, can be the starting point for what animal handlers refer to as target training.

Someone opens a door and gestures with a sweeping motion of the hand, palm open, not a word said. You enter because you've learned that following in the direction of movement indicated by a hand target is often a good thing to do.

Before you sit, someone extends their arm in your direction, hand out, palm sideways. You grab it and shake. The open palm shoots suddenly skyward. You slap it for a high-five.

Follow the target, touch it if you can.

That's the name of the game in targeting - and dolphins love to play it as much as humans do. So does your dog. Or your pet parakeet. Even goldfish can learn to follow a target.

When a curious dolphin is presented with a small floating buoy mounted to the end of a stick, he'll circle it cautiously and pepper it from a distance with a series of sonar sweeps - no telling whether that thing might bite, after all, so better safe than sorry. 

When the animal has satisfied himself that all is well, he begins to approach the buoy. As he does, the dolphin is met with a reinforcing toot from his trainer's whistle along with a few fish snacks tossed directly into the water. Then the snacks dry up until the dolphin is willing to make an even closer move toward the buoy until, eventually, he is rewarded only when his beak-like rostrum is touching the target.

Once a targeting behavior is firmly established over weeks and months, you can train a dolphin to do most anything if you move gradually enough and provide plenty of rewards.

Place a hoop in the water between a dolphin and the trainer's target pole, and the dolphin will soon be swimming through the hoop to get to the target and his paycheck of fish. Pretty soon, you'll be able to remove the target and just reward the hoop swim-through.

Lower the hoop in the water and the dolphin will still swim through it. Raise it in the air, and he'll jump for it. The dolphin has learned to follow the behavioral cue of the hoop, which has effectively become a new target. 

With enough target training, practice, and patience, dogs can learn to heel as they follow their human companion's open palm or closed fist. The pet parakeet can perform complex patterns of flight and then eagerly return home. Your goldfish can become an underwater slalom racer. And that baby we talked about earlier? She'll soon be following your finger point toward that bright balloon all the way across the room.

My students have done it again. They've lured me away from a carefully crafted lesson plan to while away our time training dolphins. Class is over, but at the moment I have their full attention.

Just to test them, to see whether they'll catch the subtlety of the targeting gesture, I incline my chin ever so slightly, a very discreet motion toward the door, which in fairness can hardly be counted as . . .

But caught it they have. They stampede and are gone. Amazing training tool, targeting, really.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2012

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