Dolphins LOVE to be Appreciated (and So Do We!)

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When my vacation plans recently crumbled at the moment they were poised to begin, I found myself unexpectedly ‘resting and rejuvenating’ in the Florida Keys. No, not at all a bad substitute for my unrealized international travels plans, but something that definitely required a ‘quick pivot.’ Thank goodness for Courageous Curiosity!
One of the opportunities that presented itself in this new vacation configuration was a day spent at the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Marathon, FL. While there are many places to see and swim with dolphins along the Florida Keys, the research center is unique in that it is a globally recognized center for research on these beautiful marine mammals.
A fun fact that you may not know about me is that I have a secret fantasy of an alternative life story in which I am a marine biologist who studies the behavior of large marine animals such as dolphins, whales, and even polar bears. I have been a scuba diver since I was 17 years old and I have had a fascination with creatures of the ocean for most of my adult life. I loved when my 4th-grade students turned our classroom into a replica of the ocean for a science fair back in the early 1990s. It was awesome! So shadowing a dolphin researcher for a day at the DRC was definitely a bucket list item for me!
After my briefing, the team of researchers and I settled in for a training session with two vivacious males: Flagler and Gambit. Dolphins are incredibly active and playful animals and they love attention. As mammals, like humans, they are capable of forming very strong bonds and they respond very emotionally to both the humans and the other dolphins in their lives.
As we began our first set of exercises, the trainers explained that the dolphins here are always free to do whatever they want so if the researchers want to study them, they need to gain their trust and find ways to engage them. Fish are certainly a motivator, but it was interesting because many of the dolphins didn’t really care about the fish; this wasn’t what was driving them to participate and perform. Instead, they participated and performed because (a) they liked the activities and (b) they received so much love and positive feedback from the trainers. We clapped for them, high-fived them, smiled and laughed, and cheered for them. In other words, they LOVED knowing that they had done a good job and they LOVED seeing us pleased with them. When they didn’t get things exactly right, we gave them more chances, we celebrated the parts they got right, and we let some things go… what they didn’t get today, they would get tomorrow with more practice and reinforcement.
As we head into this month of November, when there is typically a strong focus on gratitude related to the holiday of Thanksgiving as well as a focus within Courage to be Curious on acknowledging and appreciating others through our participation in the You Matter Marathon (begins today!), I have been thinking a lot about the incredible power of appreciation and gratitude. We have a lot we can learn from amazing mammals like dolphins (and dogs).
Overall, mammals (dolphins, dogs, humans, etc) are social creatures and like to be cared for and cared about. We are relational. As I watched the trainers work, I never once saw a trainer shame or reprimand a dolphin for not performing well. They never had a corrective action plan! Instead, the trainers knew the dolphins so well and positively reinforced them so skillfully, that they were able to help each dolphin meet its potential. And when there was a case when a dolphin didn’t really take to learning a skill, they didn’t force it; they simply shifted to other skills the dolphin could be successful with… they might return to it later.
How beautiful! How beautiful to live in a world that is based upon caring for others so well that all you want for them is to succeed and feel cared for. In what areas of our life and society could we take a lesson from the dolphins and their trainers? What opportunities are there for us to abandon shaming and focus on failure in exchange for patience and encouragement?

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