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Did Dolphins Go AWOL?

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Steve Dale, nationally syndicated pet writer and radio host, recently interviewed Navy representative Tom La Puzza, on Animal Planet. Navy dolphin trainers use operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, exactly as clicker trainers do-with fish, patting, and social attention for rewards, and a whistle or other sounds for the clicks and cues. Steve Dale writes:

Dogs aren't the only animals deployed by the U.S. military. As of press time, two Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins continued their efforts helping to locate mines in the Persian Gulf.

The dolphins were trained through the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. Spokesperson Tom La Puzza pointed out on his appearance on "Animal Planet Radio," "There is no man-made sonar that comes close to being as precise as the millions of years of evolution that is dolphin sonar."

Even in training, no dolphin has ever accidentally set off a mine. However, this is the first time the dolphins are participating in a combat mission.

Press reports about one of the two marine mammals disappearing were erroneous. It is true that one dolphin did go AWOL for about 48 hours, but he returned on his own accord. "The dolphins seem to enjoy the work, and they are definitely bonded with their people," La Puzza says.

The two dolphins were flown to the Middle East in giant transporter boxes filled with salt water. The dolphins, Makai and Tacoma, were held in place by a fleece-lined sling (the same kind used for human burn patients). "They were constantly being stroked and fed fish," says La Puzza. "For dolphins, this was very much like flying first class."

Following a year of basic training, the dolphins trained an additional two years to search for mines before their deployment.

The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program is also training California sea lions to identify bad guys in the water, and to recover military hardware. To date, sea lions have not been used in Project Iraqi Freedom.

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