Elephants – Target Training
Here at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation we are attending a workshop on the Target Training of captive elephants, led by renowned Mexican veterinarian and animal trainer Dr. Geraldo Martinez. Geralo’s MO is to train elephants with positive reinforcement so that veterinarians and mahouts can safely and effectively give them health care and medical treatments. He designs ‘walls’ – large metal structures through which the elephant can present its feet, mouth, trunk etc for treatment. Yesterday we watched as, in just two 45-minute sessions, Renaldo and his assistant Michelle trained an elephant to stand against the wall in various positions and present different parts of her body. They used only voice, a ‘target stick’ which the elephant was encouraged to move towards, and rewards – handfuls of sunflower seeds. They worked with great focus, consistency and precision – key elements that we fully appreciated today when it was our turn to give instructions to an elephant. Dag was the lead trainer, I was his assistant; we learned that our spatial positionings provide the elephant with as much information as vocal commands, and the exact timing of giving her the ‘treats’ is crucial. I think we did pretty well! Though the workshop is about safe and effective health care, the wider implications are huge, and we are happy to be part of a growing movement working towards a sea change in how captive elephants are trained and managed.