George V. Reilly

What Shamu Taught About a Happy Marriage

What Shamu Taught About a Happy Marriage

I read a piece in yesterday’s New York Times about some useful lessons learned from animal trainers.

So, like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and set about improving him. By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse: he’d drive faster instead of slower; shave less frequently, not more; and leave his reeking bike garb on the bedroom floor longer than ever.


I listened, rapt, as pro­fes­sion­al trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I’d kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my ap­pre­ci­a­tion, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call "ap­prox­i­ma­tions," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.


On a field trip with the students, I listened to a pro­fes­sion­al trainer describe how he had taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and shoulders. He did this by training the leggy birds to land on mats on the ground. This, he explained, is what is called an "in­com­pat­i­ble behavior," a simple but brilliant concept.

Rather than teach the cranes to stop landing on him, the trainer taught the birds something else, a behavior that would make the un­de­sir­able behavior impossible. The birds couldn’t alight on the mats and his head si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

At home, I came up with in­com­pat­i­ble behaviors for Scott to keep him from crowding me while I cooked. To lure him away from the stove, I piled up parsley for him to chop or cheese for him to grate at the other end of the kitchen island. Or I’d set out a bowl of chips and salsa across the room. Soon I’d done it: no more Scott hovering around me while I cooked.

I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer introduced me to least re­in­forc­ing syndrome (L. R. S.). When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn’t respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.


I adopted the trainers’ motto: "It’s never the animal’s fault." When my training attempts failed, I didn’t blame Scott. Rather, I brain­stormed new strategies, thought up more in­com­pat­i­ble behaviors and used smaller ap­prox­i­ma­tions. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might in­ad­ver­tent­ly fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too in­stinc­tive to train away. You can’t stop a badger from digging, and you can’t stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.


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