As I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. "Have you seen my keys?" he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human's upset.Read the whole thing. It's not obnoxious, as you might jump to think. The author was writing a book about animal training and got the idea to use the techniques on her husband. At some point, she tells him what she's been doing and he's amused. Later, he uses it on her and she notices and is amused.
In the past I would have been right behind Dixie. I would have turned off the faucet and joined the hunt while trying to soothe my husband with bromides like, "Don't worry, they'll turn up." But that only made him angrier, and a simple case of missing keys soon would become a full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog.
Now, I focus on the wet dish in my hands. I don't turn around. I don't say a word. I'm using a technique I learned from a dolphin trainer....
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.
Why is this article so emailed? It's funny and well-written, full of detail about animal training and human behavior, including a precise description of a husband who's a distinct individual but who also seems a lot like someone we know or are. And it's got a specific idea that you either feel you can use or want to launch into criticizing.
Thinking back on why I rejected this article reflexively last Sunday, I can see that it made me think of a 50s housewife, the kind who would inspire what was once a trite wisecrack: "She's got him well trained." But I liked the piece a lot and am grateful for the "Most E-Mailed" list, which is a good backup to my ordinary instincts on what to read and what not to read as I flip through the New York Times each morning. (And, yes, I expect comments telling me I shouldn't read the NYT at all. I got email yesterday providing me with a list of NYT "media Business Units" and telling me that "[a]ll of these should be in the cross hairs of any boycott.")
I do wonder about the good of the techniques described in the essay. One is "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.My mother did something like this -- not that she picked it up from dolphin trainers. I think it allowed us to think that some bad things we did passed unnoticed and caused no pain. Much later, I realized how deluded it was to think she lacked normal perceptions and feelings. Of course she saw and of course we hurt her.
But I take it the animal trainer uses multiple techniques and remains ever focused on the goal of producing the desired behavior. If ignoring wrong behavior did not eradicate it, the animal trainer would try something else.
Is it wrong to treat a person as an animal to be trained? Perhaps a better question is whether it is wrong to blunder along doing things that encourage your loved ones in their bad behavior. The image of the "full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog" really struck me. It may take more wit and nerve than you have to turn down that role if you've got a fired-up, scenery-chewing emoter in your house insisting that you co-star.