Though a gazelle’s flight response can be helpful in some situations, it also makes the trust between a keeper and a gazelle that much more important. To make training sessions a rewarding experience, we use positive reinforcement. This means rewarding the behaviors that we want to see and ignoring undesired behaviors. Our nutrition department provides us with a variety of healthy snacks that we can offer Amaya as training rewards outside of her regular diet.
They make a variety of biscuits for herbivores, including cinnamon flavored, banana flavored and some that have a faint apple taste. Amaya’s favorites are the banana biscuits. When she sees me coming with a yellow bucket that she knows holds biscuits, she follows me around the holding yards until I enter for her training session!
Amaya was used to seeing her mother step onto the scale that we use to weigh gazelles. It’s a platform about 2 inches off the ground, topped with a mat for added traction. While this may seem innocuous, a gazelle’s instincts tell it that danger could be hiding around any corner — even in the 2-inch gap under the scale. So, step one in getting Amaya scale trained was to remove the scale entirely! I wanted to get her comfortable with my presence first.
To begin, I introduced the concepts of a bridge and a reward. A bridge is a sound or word that helps to connect a behavior with a reward. When training an animal, it can be difficult to establish the exact behavior that we want to see. Timing is incredibly important, and using a bridge helps pinpoint the behavior we want an animal to perform. For Amaya’s bridge, I used the word “good” and paired it with a snack for a reward.
Amaya’s first day of training was pretty easy. I would approach her, say “good” and then offer her a treat immediately after. I did this a few times throughout the day, so she would begin to associate the word “good” with getting a treat. The next step was to shape her behavior. I began rewarding Amaya for stepping closer to me. Every time she approached me, I would give her the bridge and the reward. Then, I would move to a new spot in her yard and wait for her to approach again.
Next, I began to incorporate the mat that normally lays on top of the scale. I would stand to one side of the mat and have Amaya approach me from the other side. If she stepped onto the mat, she heard “good” and received even more treats! Once she was comfortable stepping onto the mat in front of me, I started to add more pieces of the scale, so it progressively got taller.