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Hand-raising Orphan Asian Elephants

Chapter 10: Training for Veterinary Procedures


By Khyne U. Mar

With contributions from Susan Mikota  

Positive Reinforcement Training in Myanmar.jpg

Sections in this chapter include the following: 

  • Principles of Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT)

  • Methods and Terminology

  • Behaviors to be Trained for Veterinary Care


Orphan elephant calves that are destined to remain in captivity because of severe injuries or for other reasons should be trained for specific behaviors that will facilitate their health care, husbandry, and well-being.

Positive Reinforcement Training in Myanmar. Photo credit: Hollis Burbank-Hammarlund

Training can: (1) improve the quality of life (in other words, welfare) of captive elephants; (2) create a safe working environment for both elephants and staff; (3) give mahouts/owners/camp managers the necessary skills to care for elephants humanely; (4) develop bonding between handlers and neonates allowing the calf to live in harmony with humans the rest of its life; and (5) teach an elephant to willingly participate in performing a required behaviour and to voluntarily accept veterinary intervention and medical procedures.

Traditionally used methods for veterinary procedures involved manual restraint or chemical immobilization as a first choice. This approach came from the idea that the quicker the procedure was carried out, the better for the animal. However, capture and restraint are extremely stressful, and the fear, pain, and discomfort experienced from these operations can permanently damage the mahout/keeper-elephant bond. Risks associated with physical or chemical restraint will be greatly reduced if the elephants are trained as they will be easier to handle, negating the need for the use of force to control their behavior. Thus, in terms of animal welfare, behavior training is very important for elephants under human care.


The most important aspect of any animal training program is the safety of the animal and the trainers. Because of their size, intelligence, and social needs, elephants can be challenging to keep in a way that is safe for humans and satisfactory for animal welfare. Training has many benefits for captive elephants and should be part of the elephant management and enrichment program in captive facilities.


Training should involve only positive reinforcement. The calf should never be hit with the hand or any object. Even loud yelling to discourage an unwanted behavior can be a negative experience and should be avoided. Many facilities in Asia are transitioning to Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) techniques to improve the care and welfare of their elephants.

Done properly, PRT is an enriching experience and elephants will look forward to and eagerly participate in training sessions. Unskilled trainers, however, can make mistakes that can lead to frustration for the elephant and the trainer. It is always best to consult with someone who has knowledge and experience. Trainers should be re-evaluated periodically by experts (ideally yearly). The success of behavior training depends on the skill of the trainer and the uniformity of the training methodology.

While a detailed presentation of training methods is beyond the scope of these guidelines, basic information and general principles are presented.

Principles of Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT)

Positive reinforcement training allows the elephant to associate training with a reward so that they enjoy their sessions with the trainer. There is never any physical punishment.

Ideally the same trainer should work with an elephant so the methods used are consistent. Sessions can be held daily or twice a day preferably in the early morning and in the late afternoon but depending on weather. All mahouts in an orphanage facility should learn the basic principles and methods of PRT. 


There is no set rule for how long a session should last. Experienced trainers often continue the training session until the elephant shows sign of boredom. Sessions typically last 15-20 minutes or longer if the elephant continues to enjoy participating. Each elephant is different. When first starting, shorter sessions are better.


When elephants do not want to collaborate in training or do not respond to a verbal cue or target, it is important that the mahouts and elephant camp officers evaluate the situation to try to determine why the elephant chooses not to participate and to find a solution. It is often better to pause the session for a couple of hours and start again.

Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) Methods 


Positive Reinforcement Training can take place in free contact where there is no barrier between the elephant and the trainer. For information on this method see Human-Elephant Learning Program Foundation Training Program

An alternative method uses a simple enclosure constructed to physically separate elephant and trainer. This enables the trainer to manipulate the elephant’s behavior safely in a protected contact environment. See Figure 10.1.

Figure 10.1 training wall.jpg

Figure 10.1 Simple three-sided training wall constructed using local materials

Elephants should first be trained to enter the training area (also termed the training wall). This is easier for some elephants than others depending on their personalities and previous familiarity to human presence.


The training place should be away from human habitations and free of distractions as much as possible. There should not be too many people around when training is taking place.


The second step is to get the elephant used to a target. A target is a tool — a long, flexible pole with a soft, spongy end. Its purpose is to create a focal point for the elephant to focus on and then touch with the desired body part (typically the forehead, head, side, extremities, or part of limbs). The target is a communication device that helps to cue the desired behavior. Any contact with the target results in a reward, and the elephant learns to associate the target with a reward. PRT is sometimes called Target Training. See Figures 10.2 and 10.3 and Table 10.1 (below).

Figure 10.2 Target pole with adult.jpg

Figure 10.2 Target training of calf with adult onsite

Figure 10.3 Target Training pole.jpg

Figure 10.3 Making a target pole

Food is a typical reward. The food reward can be put directly into the mouth making sure the trunk is raised above the elephant’s head. This will help to desensitize the calf to having the mouth touched which can help later for oral administration of medicines or for examination of the oral cavity. Touching the tongue can also help to desensitize the calf to human touch. Placing the hand in the mouth should be done with caution as elephants can clamp down and cause injury.


The trainer has to remember to touch at the same place for particular behaviour and praise the elephant by saying “good” at the moment of the correct response, especially in the early phase of training; it is important that the elephant doesn’t learn any incorrect responses to food rewards. From this point more complex behaviors can be shaped.


Bridging is an important aspect of training and trainers must learn to correctly bridge. A bridge is an instant signal to the elephant that the desired behavior (or an approximation of it) has been performed. A bridging stimulus should be given exactly at the moment the animal performs a desired behavior immediately followed by the reward. Whistles or clickers are typically used for this instant signal and are consistently followed by giving the primary positive reinforcer, usually food (Desmond and Laule 1991, Fagen et. Al, 2014) (Laule and Whittaker 2027). See Figure 10.4.  If whistles or clickers are not available, a verbal bridge can be used.

Positive Reinforcement Training makes it possible to carry out veterinary procedures in a stress-free manner. See Figure 10.5.

Figure 10.4 Using a whistle to reinforce a behavior.jpg

Figure 10.4 Using a whistle to bridge a behavior

Figure 10.5 PRT training to facilitate xray.jpeg

Figure 10.5  Using PRT to train a young elephant calf for X-ray

Table 10.1 Glossery used in Positive Reinforcement Training.jpg

Behaviors to be Trained for Essential Veterinary Care


The following is a summary of core behaviors that captive elephants should be trained to perform using PRT methods. See also Tables 10.2 and 10.3 for more details on scheduling training and the types of training needed to diagnose and treat specific medical conditions.  

  • Stand voluntarily on scale (weighing machine)

  • Present all four feet for inspection and foot work

  • Permit close inspection of eyes

  • Open mouth wide for examination of tongue, teeth, and mucous membranes

  • Allow trunk to be handled; perform trunk wash (to collect sample for TB)

  • Allow tusks to be trimmed without sedation

  • Allow culture of biological samples (blood, urine, feces, saliva, trunk wash)

  • Present and hold ears steady for blood collection or infusions

  • Accept oral medications

  • Accept treatment of wounds

  • Perform mobility test by walking clockwise, counter-clockwise, and backwards 

Experienced trainers may be able to teach the elephant to swallow orally administered medicines (pills or fluid).


Of the behaviors listed above, opening the mouth for examination and presenting and holding ears steady for blood collection are particularly important for calves because of the threat of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV) – a life-threatening disease that affects mainly young elephants.


Elephants that become severely ill because of EEHV- HD (Hemorrhagic Disease) require blood samples to be collected and may need IV injections. Daily inspections of the oral cavity may detect changes that occur with EEHV and allow early treatment to be initiated. EEHV is discussed in detail in Chapter 9 Medical Problems and Treatment and in Guidelines for Management Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) in Asia, 2nd edition in Appendix X.

Additional information about EEHV and other diseases and disorders--and the training methods used to diagnose and treat them--can also be found in this PDF: "Behaviors to Train for Veterinary Care of Important Diseases and Disorders in Captive Elephants".

Table 10.2- Behavior Training (1).jpg
Table 10.2 Behavior Training (2).jpg

Other Helpful Resources for Positive Reinforcement Training


  • Human-Elephant Learning Program Foundation Training Program

  • Online course: Elephant Positive Reinforcement Training

  • Video:  Target Training Anantara Elephant Camp and Resort (2.38 minutes):

  • Video: Target Training Positive Reinforcement Workshop for Myanmar Elephants (15.52 minutes):

Literature Cited


Fagen A, Acharya N, Kaufman GE. 2014. Positive reinforcement training for a trunk wash in Nepal's working elephants: demonstrating alternatives to traditional elephant training techniques. J Appl Anim Welf Sci 17:83-97.

Kemp C, Thatcher H, Farnigham D, Witham C, MacLarnon A, Holmes A, Samplke S, Bethell AJ. 2017. A protocol for training group-housed rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) to cooperate with husbandry and research procedures using positive reinforcement. Appl Anim Behav Sci 197:90-100.


Laule G, Whittaker M. 2007. Enhancing nonhuman primate care and welfare through the use of positive reinforcement training. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 10:31-38.

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