What Shamu taught me about marriage

The most emailed New York Times article from 2006 was written by a journalist who spent a year researching exotic animal training techniques. The article, written by Amy Sutherland, described how she used animal training techniques on a species known as the American husband.

Animal training techniques on people? Amy received a few flame emails, but it probably didn’t bother her. Why?

After researching exotic animal training, Amy Sutherland became an altogether different person. She became less judgmental, more optimistic, more patient, a better observer, and she got along better with people – especially her husband. Amy wrote about her experience in the New York Times article What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage. The article was wildly popular and a book deal followed.


What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage by Amy Sutherland

I missed the New York Times article in 2006. I was busy riding the emotional roller coaster called divorce. Recently, a book club buddy recommended the book and I stored the title away in my head. This week I saw the book on audio at the library. I picked it up, listened to Amy’s stories, smiled and laughed. Her writing is conversational and her marriage and animal training stories are fun.  

What animal training techniques did Amy use in her life?

She rewarded her husband’s good behavior and ignored the behavior she didn’t like. No more nagging. Animals can’t be nagged in to doing anything. Instead, like a progressive animal trainer, she learned to reward the small steps towards the behavior she liked, and to ignore behaviors she didn’t like. She practiced self control, and no longer responded to things that in the past would have annoyed her.

She adopted the trainers’ motto: “It’s never the animal’s fault.” When her training failed, she didn’t blame her husband. Instead, she analyzed her behavior and considered how her actions might have inadvertently fueled his. This makes perfect sense to me, since you can only control your actions.

Why was this New York Times article so popular? I think Amy had an unconventional idea about something of interest to most people – improving relationships

I found the book to be entertaining and interesting. And, I may even try a few animal training techniques on my kids.

Have you read a good book lately? Please share in a comment.

While we’re talking marriage… I loved Gretchen Rubin’s post this month: Five mistakes I make in my marriage


5 thoughts on “What Shamu taught me about marriage

  1. Thanks to the web, no longer do you have to permanently miss a news article. Here’s the NYT article you mentioned:

  2. Fascinating- my friend sent me the article back in ’06 while I was working 80 hours a week. I was resistant – it seemed of that genre that men are clueless, need to be trained, etc. But when I read it, I laughed and found a lot of it to be true. No one, men included, likes to be nagged. And almost everyone, male and female, respond to positive reinforcement, not negative reinforcement.

    So I loved the article, and didn’t even realize it was turned into a book. I’ll send another comment about what book I’ve read lately.

    • Kevin: Yes, the Internet is a miraculous.

      Angela: 80 hour work weeks. Egad! No time for fun stuff… glad you’re off that track

  3. That’s good a article. However, human is not the same as regular animal. There 2 distinctive words that I like to emphasize. They are “rewards” and “ignore” This is just training skill to animals, so rewards may improve kid’s behavior, but it could be felt to insulting adults. Also, ignoring people’s words or behavior can be created in another issue to human relationship.

  4. I believe that we cannot change other behavior at one time. The best thing to change is the way that we deal with people in a better way.

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