It isn’t Fido and Fluffy whose behavior needs improving
By Laura Oppenheimer
The guy I’ve been dating for several months does something that drives me up the wall. When we’re saying goodbye at the end of the night, he flashes a peace sign at me. It makes me cringe. Every time he does it, I momentarily think of asking him, “Why would you ever think that’s a good way to say goodbye to me?” And then I take a deep breath and smile.
It’s all part of the new me, the me who doesn’t nudge, gripe, or whine. That’s probably an overstatement (no one who knows me would ever associate me with a no-whining mantra). But I am learning, and it’s all thanks to an unlikely book, What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers, by Amy Sutherland. Sutherland wrote the book after spending a year researching exotic animal training techniques for a previous book. A 2006 column in The New York Times detailing her discovery—that animal training techniques can be used on people with surprisingly positive outcomes—ultimately became the most emailed story of the year and the basis for Shamu.
The simple premise behind the book is that, while humans may have big brains and opposable thumbs, we’re still just animals, and thus respond to the same type of training as dolphins, elephants, and monkeys. Despite our insistence that a higher consciousness elevates us above our animal friends, our feeble minds (and the minds of our significant others, family, and coworkers) work in many of the same ways as Fido’s.
It’s all based on easy-to-use progressive training techniques. While old-school methods in the animal training world involved punishment for bad behaviors, progressive training suggests rewarding the behaviors you want and ignoring the ones you don’t.
Which is how I found myself standing on a windy Chicago street, smiling at my oblivious date as he flashed me a goodbye peace sign. While I momentarily thought to make some offhand comment, I channeled my inner SeaWorld trainer and said nothing. And you know what? It felt good. I liked the version of myself that didn’t get irritated about the small things while recognizing the best qualities in my date. With this small success in mind, I turned back to Shamu to see what else I could learn.
As I read on, I discovered that I had already been using some of the techniques without realizing it. When trainers want to curtail an animal’s bad habits, they often rely on using incompatible behaviors. A cat, for example, can’t be scratching the side of a couch and eating a treat at the same time, so when trainers need to stop one behavior, they often ask an animal to do a different one. I realized I do this … with myself of all people (which led to another realization—you can train yourself just as well as you can train others). I have a laptop that I frequently work on while sitting in my bed. When I do this, I often end up asleep, or most of the way there. Not surprisingly, this isn’t a very productive way to work. I know, however, that I can’t both be sleeping in bed and working at my desk, so if I need to get work done, I move my laptop back to the desk where it’s supposed to be. Problem solved.
An additional point Sutherland highlights is that animals internalize any reactions they perceive from their trainer. For example, if every time your dog barks loudly, you stop what you are doing to take him outside or give him a treat, you’ve just taught him a lesson that barking equals treats and attention—which is pretty much the opposite of what you want to drill into his adorable little head. Humans are no different, so she suggests that instead of responding to these negatives, we practice the “least reinforcing scenario.” This is when a trainer, faced with a bad response to a cue, does not respond for a few seconds so as to not encourage the exhibited behavior. The main idea is that a negative response will still be internalized by the animal, so no response is better.
Not too long ago I tested this out, and to my surprise it worked. On a recent weekday evening, I met up with the same date. I was in the mood to sit down and have a nice, relaxed dinner. When I asked him what he wanted to eat, he responded, “beer and a medium-rare burger.” I looked at him for a few seconds, somewhat blankly, at which point he said, “Or we can go wherever you want to go. Why don’t you pick?” And so I did.
I realize this might sound manipulative—and in this particular instance, it probably was, since he had just as much a right to his burger as I did to my glass of wine—but I don’t think of it that way. After all, I’m not practicing some sort of secret voodoo; I’m simply using tricks and techniques that people have been using on animals for years. And if this means my date ends with a kiss instead of a peace sign, you won’t hear any complaints out of me.