An Elephant Never Forgets (Ever?)

An old elephant with a spotted nose stares into the camera

photo by Black Zack

Does an elephant forget what she’s learned? Do other trained animals forget what they’ve learned? What implications does this have for training dogs, horses and other domestic animals?

Elephant Memory Tests

In 1964, Leslie Squier used operant conditioning to train several elephants at the Portland Zoo. He presented his findings that year at the meeting of the American Psychological Association. Then, due to policy changes at the zoo, his research was discontinued.

However, eight years later he secured permission to conduct follow up tests with the same animals he had trained in 1964. The research team wanted to know if the elephants would correctly complete tasks that they had not been asked to do for more than eight years.

Did the elephants remember their training?

During the follow up research study, Markowitz, Schmidt, Nadal and Squier (1975) tested three adult female Indian elephants for long-term memory on a visual discrimination task. Eight years earlier these elephants had been taught to distinguish between a dark colored disk and a light colored disk using the same equipment and procedures. Each elephant was tested over multiple sessions until she made 20 correct responses in a row, This was counted as success.

In the follow up tests, one elephant, Tuy Hoa, reached the success mark after a mere 6 minutes. In 43 attempts, she made only two errors. The other two elephants, however, did not seem to remember their earlier training and had great trouble re-learning the task. One reached the criteria for success after about 3.5 hours of testing, the second after almost 12 hours.

Why did the elephants “forget” their training?

At first glance, it appears that one elephant remembered her training and the other two forgot. However, further investigation by vision specialists revealed that the two “forgetful” elephants had vascular deficiencies in their retinas. (Basically, they were having a lot of trouble seeing.) It’s hard to do well on a visual task if you’re having vision problems!

Why zoo training programs are important

The trunk of a brown elephant

photo by Valerie

Most modern zoos have training programs and behavioral research programs. These programs allow keepers to learn more about exotic animals and provide optimal care for zoo animals.

For example, animals can be taught to cooperate during injections and other medical procedures. Here’s a great video of some baboons showing off what they’ve learned with clicker training. Animals can also be taught behaviors such as “trade,” which helps keep the animal safe if it gets access to something it is not supposed to have. As well, if animals fail to perform routine tasks correctly, it can alert keepers to possible medical problems.

Has your animal ever “forgotten” how to do something?

Many times when a horse, dog or other pet won’t follow a cue or command, the trainer grumbles that the animal has “forgotten” the command. I know I’ve done this too before! It’s easier to blame the animal for forgetting, then to see if there’s possibly something else going on. Rather than labeling an animal as stubborn or forgetful, take the time to reevaluate your training program. As bird trainer Steve Martin says, we must take responsibility for our animal’s behavior!

What are some reasons why an animal might “forget” a task?

1. Medical or physical limitations. Like the elephants, an animal who doesn’t perform might be telling you that he hurts, he’s sore, he’s out of shape, or he has some other physical limitation that is preventing him from understanding or completing the task.

2. Conditions have changed. It might seem like you’re asking the same thing, but to the animal, it’s different. Last winter I taught Ginger to bow in the kitchen. It took her awhile to learn that she could bow on cue in the living room as well! When we change conditions and settings or add additional distractions, performance can often deteriorate until the animal adjusts to the changes. Sometimes, we might even have to re-teach all or part of a behavior.

3. Didn’t know it to begin with. Sometimes we think that we have a behavior under control or that the animal understands what we’re asking. However, when we increase criteria or tweak something a bit, the behavior falls apart. The animal might not have had a firm grasp or understanding of what was required.

4. Lack of motivation, punishment and aversives. The horse who refuses to get into the trailer hasn’t forgotten at all how to load up. Instead, he might be trying to tell you that the last four trips have been horrible for him, due to your poor driving skills. An animal who has found a task punishing, frightening or otherwise unpleasant is not going to be motivated to complete the task in the future.

Animals have remarkable memories and can be trained to do many complex and complicated behaviors. If an animal doesn’t perform a behavior when you ask, don’t immediately think that he’s forgotten! Instead, consider if there are other limitations or conditions that are keeping him from understanding your request and following through.

Reference
Markowitz, H., Schmidt, M., Nadal, L., and Squier, L (1975). Do elephants ever forget? Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8(3), 333–335.
Full article text available here

photo by Stuart Bassil

photo by Stuart Bassil

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  • I find it amusing that everything has to be quantified before people will believe it and don't think there is an easy answer here for a number of reasons.

    For instance, animals I've worked with from the past have remembered my 10, 15, 20 years and longer.

    While some want to equate that to specific triggers, depending on the situation, I have no doubts that they do.

    When it comes to task acquisition and long term retention, it does vary because the animals have different cognitive skills and health and physical influences do come into play as you point out.

    But also, what seems clear to the trainer is not always what is interpreted or experienced by the animal.

    Also, as you noted, just because the animal grasps a concept in one location does not mean that it will transfer easily to another location or context.

    I know you've been through different parts of my site but there is a column where I talk about moving forward before a behavior is stabilized and similar challenges also occur when you take an animal from a low distraction (familiar) area into one of higher distraction.

    In the last group of elephants I worked there were so many inconsistencies in handling and clarity that sometimes it was necessary to break the behavior back down into small steps and very distinct SDs.

    The animals knew the behaviors but it was the failure on the part of the trainers to differentiate or clearly identify what was required or asked.

    Finally, I've trained elephants a couple of times in my lifetime and have to say that it was very gratifying to be greeted with great enthusiasm after an absence of several years. <g>
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