NPR logo
Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic
  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Shamu's Life Lessons

Shamu's Life Lessons

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic
  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Can you teach your spouse how to back flip like this? Source: slimdandy hide caption

toggle caption Source: slimdandy

Shamu (v.): to use "the principles of animal training to solve a behavioral riddle" between humans.*

That's the subject of Amy Sutherland's new book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. It builds off of an op-ed she wrote in the New York Times in June 2006 about her attempt to improve her relationship with her husband — and get him to pick up his dirty laundry — by using the techniques of exotic animal trainers. It became the newspaper's #1 most emailed article for the entire year. Today she joins us to talk about her methods, and what worked and what didn't. If you have questions for Amy, about animal training, or about how the techniques can be applied to human interactions, leave them here. And if you've ever shamued someone, we want details!

* That's right, she verbed a proper noun.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

My husband and I have used Shamu as a verb since 1977 when we went to SeaWorld and he took a whole roll of film of the killer whale during his show. We still say "don't Shamu it" meaning "don't overdo it", lol. Thanks for the memory.

Sent by Carmen | 3:05 PM | 3-4-2008

Great...this gives women yet another tool to manipulate their husbands/boyfriends. I thought they were experts in that field without this new finding: SHAMU!

Sent by Homayoun Samadi | 3:20 PM | 3-4-2008

I wish we could expand these methods to world politics. Non-violent punishment free international policy would be revolutionary.

Sent by Jeff Bramlett | 3:24 PM | 3-4-2008

When I was starting my teaching career I was also reading a dog training book. The gist of the dog book was, "Be firm, fair and fun." I have used this same philosophy with my students and it works!

Sent by nancy in Oklahoma city | 3:26 PM | 3-4-2008

Who has trained whom??
To get my cat to come home when I call him I reward him with food. He has figured this trick out and on those occasions when he especially likes the meal of the day he'll go out one door and ask to come in a different door. Hmm??

Sent by Crystal listening in Wiesbaden, Germany | 3:26 PM | 3-4-2008

If we tell children that they should read books because for each book they will receive a pizza, what is the message? It is that the reason for reading a book is to obtain a pizza.

What happens when the program ends? There are no more pizzas for books. What is the message to the child? It is that there is no reason to read the book.

Rewards and punishments are just the different sides of the same coin. They are short lived in effecting changes. What we should be interested is long-term and lasting changes.

Please invite Alfie Kohn to be a guest on the show. He is the author of Punished by Rewards.

Thank you.

Sent by Jaime | 3:30 PM | 3-4-2008

Please keep in mind that intermittent reward is what fuels gambling and gambling addiction.

Sent by Liz | 3:30 PM | 3-4-2008

About stopping self rewarding behavior...I learned to use the star chart as a tool to change behavior in my sons and still use it for myself at 51 years old. I earn a star on the calendar for every 30 minutes of exercise I get in a day. The stars are visible to me and my husband and we both celebrate the success of getting off the couch!

Sent by Betsy Turner-Bogren | 3:35 PM | 3-4-2008

is the guest familiar with the Book Don't shoot the dog by Pryor? We used this book to raise our children.

Sent by Sheryl Reily | 3:36 PM | 3-4-2008

I am a Board Certified Psychiatrist. Behavioral Psychiatry has been ignored by Psychiatrist. There is a lot of evidence for Aaron Becks Cognitive beahvioral therapy for Depressive Disorder which is based on rewarding the shanu moment and Home Work exercises. This is used widely in Canada. American Psychiatry has not embraced behaviorism ever since Freud Hijacked IT and now the Big Pharama. Try finding a Psychiatrist in Private Practice who offers Cognitive Beahvioral Therapy in USA given the financial (Not variable) rewards for medication visits.
H. Harichandran M.D

Sent by H.Harichandran M.D | 3:54 PM | 3-4-2008

I'm glad someone finally mentioned the classic book "Don't Shoot the Dog" by Karen Pryor. I have not yet read the guest's book, but it sounds like a direct restatement of Pryor's book and experiences. It's a wonderful book on behavior shaping in both animals and humans.

Sent by Dave | 4:00 PM | 3-4-2008

In 2000 I was trained in these methods to be a professional dog trainer. The dog I had prior to this was trained "more traditionally" and to this day she although she is "obediant" she always seems to ask "do I have to do this or I am not sure I want to do this... make me. Which we tended to do then, but with my younger dog who was trained with the positive training. She does what I want with the attitude... why would I not do this? My clients' often comment does this work for kids too? We are so scared to use too much reward but if it is a true reward (not a gift) there is an action and a reward for that action whether it is a "treat" or a continuation of the activity. What I have found with corrective training is I always have to correct... my older dog still expects it. With my younger dog she offers behavior because it might be rewarded even better! It is much more rewarding for all to look for good behaviors. However it seems that some humans prefer to get their "reward" (sense of power and rightness) from punishing others...

Sent by Liz Droege | 4:04 PM | 3-4-2008

I have learned so much by being a volunteer puppy raiser for a service dog organization. We also catch the dog doing what is desirable and give a reward. Sometimes the reward is praise or an ear scratch. The undesirable behavior is ignored or the dog is distracted away. The dogs seem to want to please and it is just a matter of learning how to communicate with each other.
Thinking back on my own youthful years, I think the methods of discipline and punishment taught me who was the bully, who to avoid, and was detrimental to my self esteem. I also was eager to do the right thing, but think I was often misunderstood. Interesting how raising a socially well behaved happy dog has informed me about dealing more affectively with my human connections. One of our sayings is that "you are always training, whether you realize it or not, why not do it thoughtfully". Life is more of a joy for both sides.

Sent by Glea | 4:05 PM | 3-4-2008

Can these same methods be used to train the author to allow her husband to drive the way HE wants to drive, not the way she insists he should? She could also take another form of transportation is she likes. There are so many available, these days. Would that be behavioral modification or just common decency?

Has her husband ever asked her to change her hairstyle, or commented on whether or not her appearance meets his standards? Is it beyond her understanding of how a mutual relationship can work to actually learn to speak up, clearly and plainly, if she wants to save some cookies for herself? What would be wrong with simply letting him know that multi-tasking is beyond her skill level while cooking, and that conversation about what he has been reading isn't something she can engage in while those pots are simmering?

Humans have a higly evolved form of communication called language which, when employed properly and not layered in obfuscation, can work wonders in a relationship. So can a sense of humility, an understanding of one's proper place in an intimate, long-term, EQUAL relationship.

I was waiting to read when she actually got around to tossing him a bone. Guess I'll have to buy the book, huh?

Sent by William Hughes | 6:22 PM | 3-4-2008

I am reading Amy's earlier book "Kicked, Bitten and Scratched" and can't wait to read this new book which I won in a contest.

I think my husband needs to use some of these Shamu techniques on me because I am the one who is searching for my keys and wallet, just before I have to head out.

Sent by Vijay | 9:06 PM | 3-4-2008

A behaviorist here--Came here specifically to mention the Pryor book, which is a wonderful resource. Glad to see I was beaten to the punch. This new book sounds interesting; I do hope the author credits Pryor, and/or offers something different, deserving of a new book.

Sent by Mark | 9:42 PM | 3-4-2008

Often the complaint about behavior modification and using rewards is getting the behavior without the reward and weaning them from needing the reward. If the desire for the reward is not strong enough, you loose the behavior. How would you defend behavior modification.

Sent by Nina | 10:38 AM | 3-5-2008

I'm surprised that I have not heard nor read any comments regarding Ken Blanchard's book "Whale Done!" The premise and model of Shamu are exactly the same as in this book except that Blanchard's book deals more with employees than spouses.

Sent by Jim | 4:52 PM | 3-5-2008

This method also works well for pre-schoolers, if you can stand the interim.

Sent by Jane | 11:03 AM | 3-6-2008

actually, I first heard of this principle as a plot of an old Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin movie from 1962 "If A Man Answers." They were married in the movie and she was training him using a dog training book...if life could be so simple!

Sent by Janis Hutchinson | 2:26 PM | 3-6-2008

A couple people have mentioned Alfie Kohn and asked about weaning off rewards. Good behavior modification gradually raises the criteria so that only more advanced, more sophisticated, more accurate, or more complex behaviors end up getting rewarded. Also intermittent rewards are introduced to protect against extinction (two things that Kohn seems to be completely unaware of).

In the example of getting kids to read a book, if all they got out of it was a sticker or pizza then that's all they will learn. But presumably the teacher or parent also discusses the book, highlights the best parts, explains the confusing parts, talks about other books that might be of interest, etc. Thus is a love of reading born. But if you can't get a kid to open the cover, you will never get to that stage. Reward the first step and shape from there.

This from a mom who is also a dog trainer and dolphin trainer....

Sent by Stacy | 5:14 PM | 3-6-2008

As a teacher, identifying good behaviour on the spot is an excellent classroom managing technique - but I must admit, it's so hard to catch it when you've got an entire lesson to get through in an allotted amount of time. Silly as the title may be, it clearly has uses, both at home, and at work, and for me, in the classroom. Thanks for the episode!

Sent by Thom in the UK | 5:59 AM | 3-9-2008

Does anyone else find this quite a sad, almost pathetic, commentary on the state of this woman's marriage? Honestly, are the two incapable of simply communicating their wants and each trying to take care of the others'? Using this sort of reward/punishment behavior modification on your spouse is a bit like using a dowry to GET a spouse. It might "work", but it will get you just just the kind of marriage your methods deserve.
I think I'll stick with love, communication, and mutual effort.

Sent by Lauren D. | 1:23 AM | 7-29-2008