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Sharing education and empathy with every reward.

How Positive Reinforcement Works

The theory is simple. The application takes practice! Take a moment to learn how Elephation applies operant conditioning principles to improve the lives of captive elephants and their caretakers.

Positive Reinforcement Explained

What We Do

Operant Conditioning


Simply put, operant conditioning means that behavior is shaped and affected by the consequences that follow it. Elephants, humans, and all sentient beings are very much alike in that most of the choices we make involve either gaining pleasure/comfort, or avoiding pain/discomfort. Behaviors that result in pleasurable consequences are strengthened and repeated, while behaviors resulting in painful or adverse consequences are weakened and not repeated. 


That being said, if you think about your own behavior, it is frequently much more complicated than that! The reasoning and motivations behind behavior aren’t always so clear-cut, particularly when there is severe emotional trauma involved, which is often the case with captive elephants and the people who care for them. Working to fully understand each elephant and the points of view of their caretakers allows us to find creative and compassionate solutions to complicated issues, so both can begin to heal and trust again.


 Positive Reinforcement; More Than Just Treats 


Positive reinforcement means adding a stimulus to the environment to increase the frequency of behavior. Because we are aiming to increase behavior, we are looking for behaviors that we want, or desired behaviors. Traditional elephant training tends to focus on correcting unwanted, or undesired behaviors. When training with positive reinforcement, the emphasis is put on what the elephant is doing right, thereby increasing the frequency of desired behaviors and naturally decreasing undesired behaviors. More importantly though, just like with people, this has a more constructive and rehabilitative psychological impact on the elephants and their relationship with their caregivers by significantly reducing stress, pain, and fear. Cooperation is more fun and effective when one is looking forward to it, rather than when one is threatened with consequences for not cooperating. 


When most people hear the term positive reinforcement, their first thought is food. Food rewards are extremely effective, but only when used correctly. Food is a tool, just like any other tool used when training. Where, when, and how food is used makes a big difference. If used incorrectly, food can quickly  exacerbate existing undesired behaviors and even create new, sometimes dangerous ones. We work directly with elephant caregivers to help them understand the science of operant conditioning, behavior, and consequences, and how to use food and other positive rewards in a way that clearly communicates to the elephant and creates a relationship that both elephant and caregiver understand and enjoy. 


Protected Contact = Freedom of Choice 


Protected Contact refers to a style of animal training and/or management in which there is a physical barrier between the animal and a person. In contrast, Free Contact refers to any time an animal and a person are sharing the same space. 


Elephant lovers and behavioral researchers alike can agree that elephants experience emotions very similar to humans. While this includes more virtuous emotions such as love, grief, and empathy, this also means elephants are capable of the ‘darker’ side of the emotional experience as well, such as anger, jealousy, and fear. Keep in mind elephants weigh 6 to 8 tons and are incredibly powerful, which means they have the potential to be extremely dangerous, sometimes even deadly. For this reason traditional elephant training, which takes place in Free Contact, depends greatly upon the caregiver maintaining a dominant relationship with the elephant. Because the safety of the caregiver, anyone else in the immediate area, other elephants, or expensive property are potentially at risk, the elephant is not allowed to disobey, make mistakes, or express themselves freely without the threat of sometimes harsh consequences. In other words, neither the elephants or caretakers have much choice in the matter. 


The barrier in Protected Contact works as a safeguard for the person, significantly reducing the risk of potential danger. Because risk is reduced, the need for dominance, control, and punishment no longer exist. Everything the elephant does is by his/her choice only, including leaving the training area entirely if they want to! They are free to express themselves in whatever way they see fit, without the stress and fear of adverse consequences. The caregiver is now able to reinforce desired behaviors, and safely ignore undesired ones. Undesired behaviors decrease in frequency when met with a completely neutral response, something caretakers are unable to safely give in a Free Contact environment. 


The caregiver’s challenge now is communicating to the elephant without the use of dominance and control. We teach caregivers how to use tools like target poles and food rewards to effectively communicate what behaviors they’d like to see. This often requires a great deal of creativity, and also consideration towards how their partner, the elephant, feels about any given situation. The relationship between caregiver and elephant is now a mutually beneficial partnership with both parties working together, trusting and understanding each other. 


Protected Contact is particularly useful in teaching elephants to voluntarily participate in medical procedures. Foot care, blood draws, rectal exams, injections, and other medical procedures can be highly stressful and frightening to the elephants, and dangerous for the caretaker and veterinarians involved. However, when the elephant is taught slowly with rewards and without the fear of punishment, has a choice and control over what happens to them, and can trust his/her caregiver  completely, we are able to safely provide the medical care they need without the addition of pain, stress, and fear. 


Beyond Protected Contact 


Protected Contact has many benefits, but isn’t always practical for facilities and organizations who have elephants, and there are frequently behavioral challenges that occur outside the Protected Contact area. It is possible for caregivers to have a trusting relationship with their elephants in Free Contact. We have had the honor and privilege to learn from some of the best mahouts (traditional elephant caregivers) in the world. Sharing and spreading this knowledge while utilizing operant conditioning principles is a top priority. 


Of all the stressors captive elephants face, boredom is predominant. This has a huge impact on their daily lives and can culminate in stereotypic behaviors, which are repetitive movements developed as a result of stress, typically seen as chronic rocking and/or swaying in elephants. The solution lies in enrichment, a broad term which includes anything that provides the stimulation necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well being. Socialization, welfare conditions, daily routines, nutrition/dietary needs, enclosure design, environmental stimuli, and training with positive reinforcement are all factored into enrichment. Happy, healthy elephants are our goal. There are a myriad of ways to accomplish this, and we help to find them. 


Often the lives of elephant caretakers are impoverished, dangerous , and difficult. Caretakers are frequently blamed for the mistreatment of elephants, when in reality they are not treated well themselves. They are doing a difficult job the best they can and need all the support they can get. We believe in a holistic approach to elephant welfare, which means taking care of caretakers. Social status, living conditions, economic welfare, and attending to individual needs and concerns are just a few of the areas addressed to improve their daily lives. Happy, healthy elephants are not possible without happy, healthy caretakers.

Want To See It In Action?

Now that you know a bit more about operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, and Protected Contact, click here for pictures and videos!