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Positive Reinforcement Training With Bambi

Bambi

We are totally charmed by Bambi’s silliness, overzealousness, and puppy-like behavior, but she is not exactly grasping the concept behind positive reinforcement training, which can happen for some elephants (and animals in general) encountering that style of training for the first time. Our goal is to teach her medically necessary behaviors, such as presenting her ear for a blood draw and presenting her feet for footwork. We can’t begin with teaching her an action; we start with teaching her the concept.

When Bambi was with the circus, she was trained using dominance. That is, she learned to move away from negative reinforcers (such as bullhooks). We use something called a “target pole,” which looks like a giant cotton swab, and we teach her to move toward the target in exchange for treats. She chooses to participate and can walk away at any time. There are no punishments or negative consequences; she receives treats if she does what we ask. Training sessions are brief– just a few minutes at a time.

Right now, we are focusing on teaching her to stand still, not to grab, and to let us gently hold her trunk. Standing still is difficult for her. Maia also had issues with this initially. She believed there had to be something else we wanted, so she would try to offer us everything. It seemed that she felt standing still and quiet was just too obvious and easy.

During medical treatments, we frequently have two people working with an elephant. The elephant will rest their nose in one person’s hand while the other person performs any necessary medical treatment. One person focuses on being present with the elephant, the other focuses on care that needs to be done. This helps us establish clear two-way communication. We are able to determine more easily if the elephant begins to tense up, which we can use to determine if she needs a break, reassurance, or anything else. They see we are listening and adjusting to what they are sharing.

As we have mentioned, Bambi isn’t the most focused elephant. She looks for immediate gratification and is generally mentally scattered and not interested in slowing down and focusing. She isn’t observing what is happening, making it harder to connect the dots, to understand what is happening and why. Analytical elephants like Lady tend to do well with understanding training, but Bambi isn’t very analytical. It’s part of the reason that Bambi is struggling with other elephants as well. She doesn’t stop and observe to determine if it’s ok to approach them. She didn’t look to see if Maia was eating or look to see if Mara was receptive.

In the same way, she isn’t paying much attention to why she gets treats during training. It’s her full speed mode – she just wants to experience everything. It’s sweet and charming, but it doesn’t always help her. She isn’t becoming frustrated, but she isn’t taking the time to figure out why she gets four treats for one behavior and twenty for another.

Her slow progress isn’t a big deal – this stage of training takes weeks for many elephants, not just Bambi. We are continuing to work with her patiently, and we know that it will eventually click. All elephants can be trained using positive reinforcement. Some just take longer than others. And for Bambi, the newness of sanctuary may need to wear off a bit before she is able to fully engage.

Photo of Bambi.

November 3, 2020

Comments(18)

  1. REPLY
    Sherry says

    Bambi has no idea what “positive” anything is. I know you will have to exhibit much patience! When I train my dogs everything is positive; treats, and words and love. They love all and especially attention. Good luck! 🍁🐿🐕‍🦺🐘

  2. REPLY
    Julie says

    So interesting! Many human persons are like Bambi. I’m hoping as the training method clicks for Bambi, it will also rewrite some programming in her head that’ll help her pay attention in other areas of her life, especially socially.

  3. REPLY
    Wim says

    May make your work a bit more demanding but on the other hand she’s SUPERCUTE.
    Must be giant fun to watch all her silly walks
    🙏🐘🙏

  4. REPLY
    Sunny says

    Between Rana and Bambi, I don’t who has the sweetest appearence. It’s like I’m witnessing a competition of sweetness 😍.

  5. REPLY
    pam says

    I love love love the sweet way you write about the girls. Thank you for all your doing to make their lives better—and you brighten our lives by sharing.

  6. REPLY
    Pam Knaggs says

    I love her! Thank you for treating her with the respect she deserves!

  7. REPLY
    JoAnn Merriman Eaton says

    So wonderful for her to want to experience everything new, it surely must be sensory overload for her. Always appreciate the in depth explanation and education you post about these wonderful souls. I always learn something new, and it also keeps me in check so that I do not want too much progress too soon for these girls. All about patience, kindness and love.

  8. REPLY
    John says

    Thanks for the post. It’s interesting to hear your perspectives on these dear creatures.

  9. REPLY
    Debbie Sides says

    Oh Bambi is just so cute! She will grasp the concept of training.

  10. REPLY
    Terry says

    Bambi has been in a box for so long, thinking outside the box is bound to be in this moment. She is like an excited puppy. Do you put a treat on the end of that Qtip type tool to get her attention?

  11. REPLY
    Patricia says

    Oh, Bambi, my angel. I am a scatterbrain, too. But I know you will triumph! I managed to get a doctorate years ago, despite my ADD. I know you and your wonderful people will find a way. In the meantime, I send mountains of love and so many prayers for you. I love you so much!

  12. REPLY
    Sallie says

    Miss Bambi is a “Smart Cookie”. I have all the confidence in the world, for her making gradual adjustments at her speed. No different than we humans, who patiently (hopefully) are patient in improving our progressions.

  13. REPLY
    Rosie P says

    I read these blogs with great admiration for you all at ESB. I very much appreciate the in-depth information. I know far more about elephants than ever before through reading these posts…and I thought I knew a lot!! LOL. Thank you for taking the time to allow us to feel part of the herd! Bambi will learn through kindness and patience just as Maia did. She is experiencing what it is like to really be alive and love life and make her own choices. Over excited to be born again!

  14. REPLY
    FRANCINE FORD says

    Sweet, exhuberant Bambalina! Maybe she was simply too TOO for Maison @ the zoo. But now she has humans & other ellies to show her the ropes & all the time in the world to learn them. Bless you all!
    ❤🐘❤🐘❤🐘❤🐘❤🐘

  15. REPLY
    Rachel says

    “I am a scatterbrain, too.” I love that Patricia! We all have obstacles we have to overcome to live the life we want, don’t we? Bambi is over the moon with this new life she’s living and I completely understand. In time, she’ll learn the details of doing this for that; for now, my heart is sooo happy for her. Congrats on attaining your PhD, Dr. Pat! 👏

  16. REPLY
    SHEILA says

    OH SWEET ❤️CHILDLIKE🐘 BAMBI‼️YES SHES SURE OVER ZEALOUS! LOVING THE SANCTUARY❗️ WANTING TO PLAY! TO BE FREE FROM ALL HER YEARS OF ABUSIVE BRUTAL SUPPRESSION❗️SO GREAT U AND SCOTT GET A FEW LAUGHS! AND ALOT OF PATIENCE TOO❗️BAMBI 🐘WILL CLICK ONE DAY IM SURE! I GUESS U WILL BE TALKING TO HER SAME THINGS OVER AND OVER FOR SOME TIME BUT IT WILL BE AMAZING WHEN SHE MAKES HER UNDERSTANDING AND BEHAVIOR CHANGE FOR MEDICAL ISSUES!👍! PERHAPS BAMBI WILL ALSO CHANGE BEHAVIORLY WITH MARA 🐘AND 🐘MAIA WHEN SHE UNDERSTANDS PATIENCE WITH HER SISTERS❗️I SURE PRAY 🙏❤️🐘SWEET BIG BAMBI WILL UNDERSTAND SOON!
    THANKS FOR UR PATIENCE WITH BIG SWEET BAMBI👍👍

  17. REPLY
    Carey says

    Thank you very much for this super interesting report on Bambi, we learn so much from these posts. So much neglect in the life of this sweet ele.

  18. REPLY
    Carey says

    Ps Her skin appears better already 😊

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