Life in the Splash Lane



Ken Ramirez introduces Bruce to his co-cover model.

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is home to more than 32,000 animals. Most are those you’d expect to find at an aquarium––dolphins, seadragons, turtles, penguins. Some came in as part of the Shedd’s rescue program, such as Cruz, a blind sea lion who was discovered injured on a California beach, or Nickel, a sea turtle who had been badly maimed by a boat propeller in Florida.

Then there are those animals you might not expect to see: specifically, four unique mammals who were also rescued, but not from beaches or reefs. They are Coral, Dory, Bruce, and Marlin, and they are the Shedd Aquarium’s resident dogs.

The aquarium has always had a strong commitment to rescue. For five decades it has assisted in the rehabilitation and rehoming of countless animals. Most of these are marine wildlife who return to their native habitats when they no longer need specialized care. For the Shedd’s rescue dogs, however, their “forever home” is right inside the grand walls of the aquarium.

“Part of our mission here at the Shedd is to connect people to our animals, and we find that our dogs connect with people in a different way than the more exotic animals,” says Ken Ramirez, the aquarium’s executive vice president of animal care and training. “Everyone either has a dog or knows somebody who does. Having the dogs allows us to talk to people about rescue and rehabilitation and how we train our animals in a way that people can identify with.”

Far from being fish out of water, the dogs—who were all adopted locally—are very much at home at the aquarium. They spend their days interacting with trainers and visitors, and nights hanging out in their doggie lounge, a large room housing each dog’s kennel and bed as well as a space to play and roam. They are well looked after and always in the company of doting handlers and fans.

One of the most important components of the dogs’ care is their training. Ramirez and the other staff use positive reinforcement, a training technique that rewards good behavior rather than punishes bad behavior. It is the same way they train dolphins to jump on cue and penguins to waddle down walkways. In fact, Shedd trainers have been using positive reinforcement training for so long that they refer to it as the “Shedd Way.”

“The best way to teach a dog or any other type of animal to do a hard task is to start with an easy task,” Ramirez explains. “Make the whole process fun, let them do the things they like to do, and then build in more difficult behaviors.”

“Difficult behaviors,” however, don’t necessarily mean tricks. The trainers at the Shedd are mostly focused on teaching animals to do tasks that make their care easier and their lives better, such as politely interacting with guests, sitting still during grooming activities, and coming when called. The goal is not to make the dogs aquarium attractions, but rather aquarium ambassadors––illustrating the benefits of rescue and proper care in a way that visitors can relate to and use in relationships with the animals in their lives.

All of the animals who live at the aquarium are trained using the Shedd Way. Similar training techniques can be used across the board because, as Ramirez explains, we all learn the same way. “Where a dog differs from a cat differs from a dolphin differs from a fish is in the food they eat, their history, and their natural behaviors. But when it comes to the laws of learning, there is no difference; it just requires an understanding of how to work with each individual species.”

Marlin, the Shedd's newest rescue dog.

Marlin, the Shedd’s newest rescue dog.

One of the dogs’ most important jobs is participating in the Shedd’s popular “One World” show. The show features belugas, dolphins, penguins, and the dogs to teach about the interconnectivity between all of the animals who live on Earth. Though some of us swim, some of us walk on two legs, and some of us walk on four, we all share the same planet and the same need to express ourselves. On the day I saw the show, Coral, an Airedale mix, was enjoying the attention of the crowd. She came out following the graceful jumps and dives of the belugas and dolphins and performed a few fun tricks of her own, tail wagging and tongue hanging out.

She hadn’t always been so calm, Ramirez explains. “Coral came from a family where she was highly reactive. She used to bark at everything––at kids, at women, at men, at the leaves on the ground. The hard thing for her was getting her used to all the people sitting and watching who she would normally want to be reactive toward. She’s done really well, though, and just focuses on the show. That’s because we’ve made training fun and created a safe place for her.”

Creating a safe environment for the dogs goes further than helping them feel at ease with a crowd. The Shedd staff takes extra care to ensure the dogs are comfortable and happy with each other as well.

One of the resident dogs, a Pit Bull named Bruce, spent his early years being trained as a fighting dog and came to the Shedd through Safe Humane Chicago’s Court Case Dogs program, after his guardian was sent to prison for a crime unrelated to dog fighting. “Each time we introduce a new dog to the program, Bruce really has to learn how to behave around them and work with them. It’s been an important part of his training,” Ramirez says. The extra work has been worth it, though, and Bruce lives happily alongside his canine companions, evidence of the power of animal rehabilitation and rescue. The dog program is now a permanent part of the Shedd Aquarium, Ramirez says, and they hope to add at least one more dog in the near future. In the meantime, Coral, Dory, Bruce, and Marlin  will continue to live and play alongside the many aquatic creatures who call the Shedd home. They will also continue to help spread the Shedd’s message about the importance of animal rescue.

Visitors who meet the dogs hopefully leave with a new appreciation for rescued animals and their ability to adapt to new environments, as well as for the amazing capabilities animals have to learn and grow.

At the end of the “One World” show, Coral prances away from the spot where she was performing and runs eagerly to her handler. Before audience members leave, Ramirez stresses one last message, an important one to get out to the 2 million people who visit the Shedd Aquarium every year: There are many great shelter pets out there looking for homes— adopt, don’t shop. Surely nobody agrees more than the four dogs who all found their happily-ever-after at such an unexpected place as the Shedd.

Coral and a trainer perform during the "One World" show.

Coral and a trainer perform during the “One World” show.

Images by Karen Morgan Photography


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