In her new book, “Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers,” Amy Sutherland chronicles students’ lives at the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at California’s Moorpark College, where they learn how to interact with cougars, baboons, snakes, wolves, tortoises, and more. The two-year program prepares students for jobs at zoos, aquariums, animal sanctuaries, and even Hollywood.Sutherland, who also wrote “Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America,” found that some of the techniques students learned to train animals she could use on her husband to “nudge [him] towards perfection.” (Read an excerpt of her New York Times column on this topic, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.”) Sutherland gives Today's readers some tips on how they can change common, but annoying behavior using those same techniques she saw at Moorpark. Here are her suggestions:Dear Amy: Can you help me tame my tiger? He is almost a perfect specimen with the exception of one little problem — his horrid road rage! I hate going to the grocery store with him much less on a real “trip.” Do I need a chair and whip? Or can just a few “whispers” do the trick? Can you help me? — Cheryl, Sacramento, Calif.
Dear Cheryl: This is a perfect example of when I would use an incompatible behavior. If you don’t like a certain behavior, you train an animal to do something else so that they can’t possibly do both at once. In this case, the incompatible behavior would be to have him be the passenger. That means you drive. Then, he is not in control. Even if he does lose his temper, he is no longer behind the wheel.
The trick I have found with using incompatible behaviors with humans, who tend read many meanings into our smallest actions, is to keep everything positive. I would just say something to your husband like, “I’d like to drive more.” I’d avoid pointing out to him that you want to drive because he scares you witless, even if that is the case.
Dear Amy: I call my husband Drop-and-Go, because I am constantly finding screwdrivers, dirty diapers, dirty clothes, water bottles, work clothes, dirty socks, jeans, or you name it in places where they shouldn’t be. He tells me he gets distracted and moves on to the next thing. I tell him he simply doesn’t have the ability to double task. When he wants to work on another project, he drops whatever he is doing and leaves it right there. Please help me. I am losing my mind (and my voice from repeating myself day after day). — Vexed in Vermont
Dear Vexed: First off, animal trainers are taught to never repeat commands. By doing so, they train the animals to ignore commands. So, in this situation, I would suggest that you stop repeating whatever it is that you’re telling your husband over and over again. Next, I would think about working, like a trainer, in approximations — that’s a fancy word for baby steps. Trainers would never try to solve this many behavioral issues at once. They would pick just one like asking him to hang up his jeans or throw away a dirty diaper.
Dear Amy: How do you get results from stubborn hubbies without being accused of being the “nagger.” — Gail, Tampa, Fla.
Dear Gail: Simply adopt the approach progressive animal trainers use: reward behavior you like and ignore, as much as you can, behavior you don’t. When I did this with my husband, I found that I almost stopped nagging. Almost, I say, because I am human, after all.
Dear Amy: I would love to get my husband trained to do the whole job. It seems that he likes to save a little bit of every project to complete later. For example, he’ll paint the whole porch except the banister. He’ll save that paint job for later. He’ll put away 90 percent of the groceries and leave the rest on the counter to finish later. Or he’ll cook all but three pieces of bacon in a one-pound package. And he’ll use all the eggs in a carton, but one. This drives me crazy! Help!— Mrs. N., Chicago
Dear Mrs. N.: From an animal trainer’s perspective, your husband/animal is doing pretty well, meaning he almost completes the intended task. He’s like a dolphin who jumps out of the water on command, but not as high as the trainer would ideally like. My point is that he does jump. I would make sure that you reward him for what he does do around the house, such as painting the porch and putting away most of the groceries, and don’t just punish him for what he doesn’t do. I think that is the crucial first step. Then I would pick just one behavior to focus on, say putting away all the groceries, and I would use approximations. If he one night puts 91 percent of them away, thank him. I know it sounds silly, but it’s worth a try.
Another idea is to put the groceries away together, so that he gets the experience of putting all of them away. In animal training, this would be a form of mimicry, meaning showing an animal how to do something by doing it yourself. In this case, you also want to reward him, even though you did half or more of the work. The point is to keep it positive and he might just catch on.
Dear Amy: I’m a husband and I’ve always wanted to be trained, but my wife has never taken the time to do it. Does that mean she doesn’t love me? Does that mean she doesn’t care? I want to be like all the other trained husbands out there. They seem so much happier and fulfilled. If my wife doesn’t want to do it, is there a husband training school that I could attend? Please help! — Shawn, Plainfield, Ill.
Dear Shawn: Savuti is the hyena at the teaching zoo at Moorpark College. He loves training so much that when the trainer comes up to the cage, Savuti will start “throwing behaviors,” as trainers call it, meaning that he does all the behaviors he knows hoping one might win him a treat. Maybe you could start your training by “throwing behaviors” or doing lots of things you think she might like. If she rewards you for any one behavior, make a mental note that it’s a keeper. And be sure to reward her for rewarding you. And thus, you begin to train your trainer to train you.