How to train a killer whale by Simon Chaplin

I have lost count of the times I have been corrected for saying “Bell Done” instead of “Well Done”, so thought it was about time I explained why the correction is not necessary.

Many moons ago I read a book called Whale Done by Ken Blanchard. Ken is a world-renowned management expert and trainer and the book claims that the two most powerful management and training tools are “reward” and “redirection.” Accentuate the positive behaviour by rewarding it and reduce the negative by redirecting it. This is how they train killer whales and you can’t beat them with a stick!

Here’s how you do it….

  • Play with them. Build their trust. Pal around with them. Respect them. Convince them you mean no harm. You are a friend of them.
  • Pay attention to what whales like. Never assume you know what they like, or what motivates them. For example, food is not the only thing whales like; they like to be touched and rubbed too.
  • Pay attention to what they do right, or “near right” and reward it immediately.
  • Ignore what a whale does wrong, or refuses to do. Why ignore? Because, the more attention you pay to bad behaviour, the more it will be repeated, just like attention seeking kids.
  • What you think about a whale and expect from a whale has a direct bearing on what the whale does. Whales, just like human beings, can “live down” to your expectations.
  • Channel their energy to something they like or something you want them to do.

So back to the killer whale show. How does one teach a whale to jump over ropes?

A trainer starts by placing a rope underneath the water at a height the whale can either pass over or under without much effort. If the whale swims under the rope, the trainer does nothing. However, every time the whale swims over the rope, the trainer feeds it a fish for reward. Guess what? The whale begins to think to itself, “Hum! Every time I swim over that rope, I get to eat that yummy fish.”

Once the trainer recognises that the whale has learned about the relationship between jumping the rope and receiving a fish, the trainer begins to raise the rope in increments. Lo and behold, the whale is jumping the rope higher and higher.

Sometimes, a killer whale gets a fish and other times a “rubdown.” They like that rub down a lot. They know when you genuinely like them and respect them. If you are insincere with a whale, it knows. Dave, the whale trainer says, “Whales can feel the insincerity in your hands when you give them a rub down. When the animal knows you’re not interested, he won’t want to work with you. He’ll swim away.”

“Whale Done!” is Blanchard’s pun for “Well Done!” and “Bell Done” was my take on it.

Just as a rubdown is a significant reward for a whale, so is a “verbal touch” such as, “Nice going!” or “Good job!” for human beings. A small percentage of humans appreciate a rubdown too, but ask for permission first…!

A simple ‘good job’ is great, but it’s appreciated even more if it’s publicly and deliberately expressed, rather than an ‘off the cuff’ remark. My technique? I have a bell on my desk that I ring every time someone achieves something positive.

Want to understand Whale Done more? I have invested in a video of the book and, if you like, you can come to our office and watch it. It’s only 20 minutes long so it won’t take up much of your day. All you need to do is give me (Simon) a call on 01733 372682 or email me and we’ll set up a time to watch it together.

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