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. – Amy Sutherland, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage”
[Entry from Erin’s journal, 6/1/08] Progress today with this bizarre species they call “the American husband.” I was watching Jeopardy tonight when Ben came into the living room with chips and salsa, chewing like a freight train. It was deafening. I could barely hear myself think. But instead of nagging him about it, I ignored him.
This worked for all of three seconds. Clearly, he was turning my ignoring him against me. The decibel level of chewing was equivalent to an earthquake.
He forced my hand. It was his fault, really! I can’t be blamed! The spray bottle we keep on the coffee table for when Scooter chews our plants was right there. Instinct took over. In one fluid motion I grabbed it, reared back and chucked it at his head. Bullseye! And he stopped chewing! Thanks, Amy Sutherland!
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. – Sutherland
[Entry from Erin’s journal, 6/6/08] Baby steps. The pile of clothes on Ben’s side of the bed has reached the ceiling. But he had to push it over to get into bed, and one of his socks happened to tumble into the laundry basket at the foot of the bed. “Thanks, baby!” I said. He looked up quizzically. I leaned over to hug him and he jumped back, putting his hands up to shield himself. As he did he knocked a couple more socks into the hamper. “Come here and give me a kiss you big lug!” I said. He screamed and ran out of the room. Now he’s downstairs sleeping on the couch. I wonder if the dirty laundry odor is as bad down there as it is in here? At any rate: more progress!
Once I started thinking this way, I couldn’t stop. At the school [for exotic animal trainers] in California, I’d be scribbling notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, but I’d be thinking, “I can’t wait to try this on Scott.” – Sutherland
[Entry from Erin’s journal, 6/15/08] Ben didn’t load the dishes again tonight after dinner. Rather than despair, I put Amy Sutherland’s advice to use. “Ben, do you know how to walk an emu?” I asked. He looked up blankly. “Do you even know,” I continued, setting down the dirty plates in my hands rather aggressively, “what it takes to have a wolf accept you as a pack member?” I took a couple steps toward him, holding his gaze. His eyes got bigger. A look of discomfort — panic? — flashed in his face. Then I put down my trump card. “Have you ever considered — even once? — how to teach hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, or baboons to skateboard?” We were inches apart by now. I could see the fear in his eyes. He was starting to sweat. I had him right where I wanted him. He was about to say something when I put my finger on his lips. I stepped back and stretched out my arms. “I love you, honey,” I said, and bear-hugged him. He stood stiff in my embrace. I pulled back, smiled big, and kissed him. Then I turned and walked away before pausing in the doorway. I turned back. “By the way, could you load the dishwasher before you come to bed? Thanks!” Wink. Air smooch. I’m good!
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. In the margins of my notes I wrote, “Try on Scott!” – Sutherland
[Entry from Erin’s journal, 6/19/08] Backsliding. Thinking I had fixed Ben’s reluctance to load the dishwasher last week, I stayed out of the kitchen, assuming all was fine. Then today I peeked in there and saw hundreds of dirty dishes in the sink, piled on the counter, stacked on the floor — even crammed in the fridge. It looks like he just put some straight into the trash. Honestly, can he not tell the difference between plastic and Pottery Barn? Then it occurred to me, “Where has Ben been for the past four days?” I replayed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in my head. Had I actually seen him since Monday? He wasn’t sleeping in the bed anymore. I looked at the couch. The cushion indentations looked recent. Where had that little bugger gone? Was I too good at ignoring him? Darn that Amy Sutherland. She never told me I could be too successful at this. I should write her a letter.
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. – Sutherland
[Entry from Erin’s journal, 6/29/08] Ben resurfaced today, unshaven, speaking in guttural yelps, tongue-bathing himself and sniffing his butt. I have to remind myself, “It’s not his fault.” This is, really, a byproduct of success. Still, I need to brainstorm new strategies. And have my actions inadvertently fueled any of this? Still waiting to hear back from Amy. In the meantime, it’s nice to have the couch back. Ben seems to have burrowed out a sleeping area in the attic upstairs. When I poked my head up there, he was cowering in the corner, looking feral beneath the beam of my flashlight. There were droppings all over the place. Maybe my new strategy should be contacting Critter Ridder tomorrow? The ad says their animal removal process is humane. For now, I need to keep reminding myself that you can’t stop a badger from digging and you can’t stop a trapped animal from gnawing off its own limbs to set itself free. Marriage is a beautiful thing!