February 2008

Amy Sutherland

A whale of a job: training your spouse
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For those who have ever said of a spouse or partner, "Can't live with them, can't live without them," Amy Sutherland offers a third option: train them. The Boston-based writer had been immersed for a year in the world of exotic animal training when the light went on: Why not try these progressive training techniques on my husband, family and friends? After all, humans are just a DNA twist or two away from jungle creatures, and they bite less frequently (on average).

In her new book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers, Sutherland surveys the training techniques behind SeaWorld and Siegfried &andamp; Roy and finds, to her surprise, that they are equally effective on her husband, Scott, and assorted other humans. What's more, they tend to be far kinder than the clumsy techniques we use at home.

Let's start with the obvious: Why Shamu, as opposed to a fox or ferret?
The New York Times selected Shamu for the headline of the column my book is based on, but it was such a good fit I kept it for the book title. That humans have been able to train killer whales, the ocean's top predator, speaks to the wonders that progressive animal training can accomplish.

Many of these techniques run counter to the way we train animals, kids, and yes, even spouses. What are we doing wrong?
We use punishment too much, and in hundreds of little ways we aren't aware of. In doing that, we often discourage behavior we want. It also erodes our relationships. We'll never stop using punishment, we are primates after all, but I hope this book encourages people to at least lay off a little.

What was your scariest moment during the research?
While doing my research I got to pet cheetahs, walk alongside cougars and kiss a couple sea lions (really soggy smooches). I was always super-cautious, but only once was I scared. One day, as a student took Rosie the baboon for a leash walk, an awning flap blew against her and scared her. She screamed, jumped around and showed her teeth. Baboons are freakishly strong and the student was relatively inexperienced, but to his credit he calmed Rosie down pretty quickly.

Humans assume that because we have speech, we communicate much better than other animals. Not true?
Well, we underestimate how much animals communicate and overestimate how much we do. We are terribly lazy and over-rely on the power of speech. Working with animals forces you to learn how to read body language and behavior. That done, you see how that says volumes.

The notion of "training" one's spouse seems somewhat cold.
Spouses have been calculating how to change each other's behavior ever since homo erectus stood up and thought, "Wow, this is a lot more comfortable." I realized I already was essentially "training" my husband, but in a very ham-fisted way that often blew up in my face. Lucky for me, animal trainers showed me a much more effective, not to mention kinder, way.

Did it change your dynamics?
Yes, for the better. We're more appreciative of each other. There's just a lot less daily wear and tear, and snarling. I nag less. He bosses less. The small animal kingdom of our house is much more peaceful.

Based on our cultural norms, who are the better innate trainers, men or women?
I'm not sure if either is a better innate trainer. Women are more motivated, I think. Men can and do use dominance to get what they want. That doesn't work nearly as well with women, so they are more likely to turn to diplomacy, which training basically is.

How would you solve the current debate over spanking a child?
Well, progressive trainers would rarely, if ever, hit an animal because that's clearly punishment, which can create more problems than it solves. They realize that the blow would damage their relationship with the animal and, if used too often or thoughtlessly, would lose its effect. So whether it's wrong or right, spanking, from an animal trainer's perspective, is a flawed technique. Better to try something else.

Did your immersion into progressive training leave you with a generally optimistic view of the world?
Very much so. First, to see that these behavioral principles work across all species, us included, speaks to the great web of life. I am happy to be so clearly reminded that I am a member of the animal kingdom. What works on Shamu works on me.

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