If you've ever trained a dog, you know that the training process requires infinite patience and heaps of concentration from both parties. Even the most eager dogs need lots of guidance and lots of rewards to keep them interested in training. Now, try to imagine training an eager and inexperienced dog that happens to be 100 times heavier, smarter, and stronger than your typical retriever. Welcome to the world of elephant training!
The training that is performed at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is essential to providing the elephants with a healthy lifestyle rather than a new form of entertainment. In order to perform veterinary checkups and administer medical care, we need our elephants to present us with different areas of their bodies, and to stand still for prolonged periods of time. To this end, the GTAEF constructed a training "wall," a large enclosure where our veterinary staff can work safely with the elephants. Once an elephant has been fully trained, she can enter the wall and present any part of her body for inspection, including her ears, mouth, and feet. But how do we train elephants to the point at which they are comfortable entering an unfamiliar area and receiving medical attention? Target training!
For anyone who has trained animals, target training should sound familiar. It is used to train animals from birds to orcas, and it is based on positive reinforcement and behavioral shaping. The concept is simple: First, you create a "target" that your animal will learn to touch. In most iterations of target training, this is a round object attached to a stick or pole. The first step is to get your trainee to touch the target with the desired body part (typically the nose or snout). Any contact with the target gets the animal a reward, and soon the animal should begin associating the target with rewards. From there, you can begin shaping more complex behaviors. In dogs, this can prove an effective way to train good walking behavior as well as many other fun tricks. After teaching your dog to touch the target with her nose, you can walk with the target beside you, and your dog will follow with her nose right at the target.
For our elephants, the vets use a long pole with a ball attached at the end as the target. Each year the GTAEF is lucky to host Dr. Gerardo Martinez, a veterinarian and animal trainer from the Africam Safari in Mexico. Dr Martinez has experience target training an incredible range of species, from hippos to tigers, elephants, manatees... the list goes on! While he is here, Dr. Martinez helps GTAEF staff train any new elephants in the camp, and he also helps teach the mahouts how to work with their elephants using target training. After completing the training, our full-time veterinarian Dr. Cherry and her assistant Gae continue and maintain the training throughout the year.
Dr. Martinez working with Somjai at the wall
The first step in training is encouraging the elephants to enter the training wall area. This is easier for some elephants than others--depending on their personalities; some elephants are eager to enter the training area, while others are a bit more dubious. Over the course of hours or days, the elephants learn to associate the training area with positive reinforcement rewards: big handfuls of sunflower seeds and lots of verbal praise. Some elephants now try to enter the training area when they are simply passing by, looking for some easy sunflower seed snacks!
Once the elephants willingly enter the training area, they can begin target training. The vets will touch one area of the elephant and verbally request the elephant to present it at the wall. There are special areas of the wall customized for presentation of certain body parts: windows where feet can be presented or where the vet can safely look inside the elephant's mouth. Every touch of the target gets the elephant a reward. Eventually, the elephant learns to present the correct body area, like "side" or "leg," on verbal request.
Thangmo presenting her leg to Dr. Cherry for inspection
One of the most important areas that target training allows our vets to inspect is the elephants' feet: captive elephants that don't receive proper veterinary care can be at risk for developing serious foot problems. Some of the elephants that arrive at the GTAEF camp have broken nails, deep fissures, or other foot issues. Dr. Cherry and veterinary technician Gae have continued our elephants' training and working with them at the wall. By training them to show their feet to the veterinary staff, these elephants can finally get the treatment that they need and start healing.
Finally, we hope that this style of positive reinforcement training will eventually replace many aspects of the traditional training methods used with elephants. For thousands of years, elephants have been trained through punishment and aversive behaviors. However, by showing that elephants can quickly and willingly learn training through positive reinforcement, Dr. Martinez and the GTAEF are slowly changing the existing culture of elephant training. By working alongside both elephants and their caretakers, we hope to slowly affect widespread and long-lasting change.