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What I learned from Shamu

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

He may be a whale, but he sure does have a lot to teach us about relationships.

I'm always on the lookout for practical tips that will help women improve their marriage - especially when they are actions they can take on their own without needing to actively get their husband on board.

So when I saw references to Amy Sutherland's book "What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage," I was intrigued. Sutherland wrote the book after she was researching modern animal training techniques and wondered: what would happen if she tried out some of these new ideas on her husband, Scott?

Now whoa, whoa, calm down there. Cuz' I can hear the screams all the way in my home in Richmond Hill, Queens: "WHAT? You want us to train our husbands? Like a dolphin???? What kind of marriage coach are you, anyway???"

So let's all take a deep breath and go back to the beginning, with some history.

You see, in the early days of animal training (think: ponies jumping over fences, lions opening their mouth wide while the trainer puts his head inside), trainers relied heavily on physical force and deprivation to teach their subjects their routines.

But along came marine animals. How do you force a dolphin or whale to do anything? He will just swim away. So how do you even communicate what it is that you want him to do, let alone get him to do it on command?

Ah, here's the secret. The marine trainer's technique (now adopted by most land-animal trainers as well) is comprised of some basic principles:

  • Define the desired behavior. Break it down into tiny steps if necessary

  • When the subject performs the behavior (even if by accident), provide positive reinforcement immediately

  • When an undesired behavior occurs... ignore it.

The results? If you have ever attended a marine animal show or other wild animal demonstration, you've seen them for yourself.

Sutherland couldn't help notice that she was unwittingly attempting to train her husband every day, usually through nagging, occasional diplomatic overtures, pleading, sarcasm, and 'the cold shoulder'.

She realized - perhaps for the first time - that these methods rarely got the results she wanted.

Not only that, but she had accidentally trained him to some undesirable behaviors - like taking refuge in the bathroom every time she mentioned gardening, and mysterious bouts of 'spousal deafness' when she called for him.

Sutherland pondered the possibilities: what would happen if, instead, she tried out some of the techniques that worked so well in the animal world?

Ignoring negative behavior does not come easily to most of us. In fact, we are most likely to yell at the kids to quiet down in the car, complain when our husband forgets to take out the trash, and write up negative employee reports - but rarely do we praise the kids when they are quiet, thank the husband for removing the garbage, or compliment an employee on daily tasks well done.

Sutherland realized that her husband was actually doing many positive things - washing the dishes, keeping the car running, bringing in the mail - that she had been taking for granted. At the same time, few of his negative behaviors had improved by her negative approach.

So she committed to dropping the complaints and criticism, and ramped up her positive reinforcement of the behaviors she wanted to see, through smiles, eye contact, and compliments.

The results were astounding. Under the new regime, Scott

  • started doing more of the behaviors she appreciated (in his case, shaving daily) and less of what she didn't (tailgaiting, for one)

  • became less defensive, and more responsive to her requests

  • had a dramatic reversal of Spousal Deafness syndrome.

Amazing, isn't it? Maybe the whales have something to teach us after all.

(And yes, in case you're wondering, these techniques work on co-workers, children, and even yourself!)

Curious about how Sutherland's revelation might affect YOUR relationship? Try it out and let me know how it goes!

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