Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Teaching old dogs new tricks.

K. directs me to "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage." Frustrated by some of her husband's habits, Amy Sutherland began to apply the tricks and techniques of animal trainers to modify his behavior.
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.

* * * * *

Once I started thinking this way, I couldn't stop. At the school 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."

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.

For a more extended treatment of the same basic insight -- and lots of emphasis on the how-to angle -- I recommend Don't Shoot The Dog!, by Karen Pryor. Pryor has trained dolphins, among other animals, and is a strong advocate for positive reinforcement. It's hard to punish a dolphin, so much of the challenge of training dolphins is in figuring out how to structure things so that positive reinforcement will work. And as Sutherland would agree, that's also true when the behaviors you are modifying are those of animals with whom you cohabit.

I think it's more about the wife becoming humane than about her husband being an animal. Oddly, we seem to talk about humane treatment for non-human animals mostly. But what's humane and "civilized" often is to treat people like the animals we are. Angry dogs and angry people aren't so different. Instead of answering anger with anger--barking back or stabbing with a knife--you address the fear and suspicion with words or gestures (handshake, gift of a cracker). We really aren't foremostly rational beings. I suspect that the idea that we are is largely the fault of the Bible. "God" giving us "the word" and so on. Like having just a hammer is supposed to make every problem look like a nail, I think the apotheosis of verbiage makes every issue look intellectual--that is, conscious and rational. Har de har har.
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