How to Train an Elephant

In our 10th Anantara Hotels Resorts & Spas #ElephantProfessional lecture, Dr. Andrew Mclean from The Human-Elephant Learning Programs shared his elephant training methods.

Although Dr. Mclean came from the background of equestrian training, his understanding in animal cognition had allowed him to apply his method on other species.

And while he and his team were doing the pilot project in Western Nepal, Dr. Mclean wanted to create a system in order to facilitate the learning process between mahouts and elephants.

“The real crux of our work is not so much to tell elephant people who’ve been doing this [mahoutship] for centuries; it’s about understanding what their goals are, and where they use their signals on the elephant to move the elephant, whether it’s a ridden elephant or an elephant on the ground,” said Dr. Mclean.

Below is a summary of the H-ELP training method:


Training principles

  1. Easy-to-discriminate signals: such as a distinct tap or poke with fingers on a distinct part of the animal’s body.
  2. One response per signal: each signal on the animal’s body part should not correspond to multiple commands. For example, if tapping on the elephant’s heel means “stop”, it should always mean stop. Do not tap on their heel again and command them to “walk” or “turn”.
  3. Multiple signals per response: however, a trainer can use multiple signals for the same command. For example, tapping on the front of an elephant’s leg thigh and right thigh can both mean “step back”.
  4. One signal at a time: only begins a new command when the animal has finished the previous one.

Training steps

  1. Voice command: start by giving the command verbally. This step is particularly crucial to elephants since researches have found that they respond better to auditory cues than visual cues.
  2. Light pressure: if the animal does not respond to the verbal command, begin apply physical pressure on the animal’s body such as by tapping with fingers or a stick. Do NOT use tools that would hurt the animal!
  3. Increase pressure: if the animal is not responding, increase the frequency at which you tapping on the animal’s body. Again, increasing pressure does not mean poking harder and harder to hurt the animal.
  4. Release pressure: when the animal begins performing the command, release all physical pressure at once. Note that the release of physical pressure is called negative reinforcement, but it does not mean hitting or abusing the animal.
  5. Praise & stroke: verbally praise the animal while stroking them physically. Initially, praise and stroke mean nothing to the animal. But by combining with a food reward, the trainer is turning praise and stroke into a positive reinforcement through the process of association.
  6. Food: at the beginning, you might want to reward the animal with liberal amount of food in order to let it associate praise and stroke as something positive. But slowly reduce the use of food once the praise and stroke is enough to do the trick.

Each body part is associated with one command. Screenshot from Dr. Mclean’s lecture.

You can now watch his lecture in full here.

Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily represent Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.