They’ve trained dogs to sit, dolphins to flip mid-air, and bears to balance on balls and play the harmonica. But can animal trainers also teach us a thing or two about taming our romantic partners? It’s a strange concept, and yet Amy Sutherland, who’d observed animal trainers in action, decided to apply the same techniques toward changing a few of her husband Scott’s less savory habits. After secretly subjecting him to a few training sessions, Sutherland was pleasantly surprised to see major improvements: Suddenly, Scott was happily picking up socks, shaving more often and driving under the speed limit. In short, animal training had helped her mold her guy into a model sweetie.

A few years ago, Sutherland wrote about her odd success story in The New York Times — and her essay quickly topped the charts as the newspaper’s #1 most emailed article that year, while Sutherland’s inbox was flooded with questions. Can you train a guy to call when he says he will, or convince an overly clingy suitor to back off? Could the same tactics that convince lions to jump through hoops help the rest of us make the leap into loving relationships? To answer these questions, Sutherland wrote What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. We interviewed her for some of her best advice:

Q: First off, isn’t it a little insulting to “train” people like animals? Haven’t we evolved more sophisticated ways to convey our needs, like talking?

A: Talking is overrated. We rely on it too much when we have other tools at our disposal. We think, “If only I explained things just right to my date, that will solve the problem.” And it’s fine to say something once. But all too often we just end up repeating ourselves with no luck. Animal trainers, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of speech. They can’t tell a hyena, “Now, if you could just stand up on your hind legs and turn around….” As a result, they’re masters at changing behavior in an entirely different way. And we can learn from them.
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Q: So what, in a nutshell, is the secret to training a romantic partner?

A: The most important thing to remember with people as well as animals is that punishment isn’t an effective way to get what you want. You don’t teach a sea lion to flip by nagging; likewise, I couldn’t convince my husband Scott to change by nagging, either. So instead of punishing him when he didn’t pick up his socks, I started rewarding him when he did. And it worked. The same technique applies to dating scenarios, too. If someone says he’s going to call on a certain night then doesn’t, chewing him out when he finally does contact you will only further discourage him from calling. So, while it’s tempting to say, “It’s great to hear from you, but…” stick to: “It’s great to hear from you,” period.

Q: So what should you do if you’ve got the opposite problem, where someone is calling too often and being clingy?

A: For this, what comes to mind is a technique I learned from a professional trainer who’d taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head. Rather than discouraging the cranes from landing on him, he laid some mats on the ground and encouraged the cranes to land there instead. Likewise, if someone’s calling you constantly asking when you’re free, fighting off the entreaties with “I’m busy” won’t do much good. Assuming you really do want to see this person when you can, you can put an end to the pestering simply by setting a firm date to get together, even if that’s far in the future. Since you’ve made a plan, your date can focus on that and no longer has a reason to bug you before then.

Q: What if the person you’re trying to train doesn’t seem to be improving?

A: Take baby steps. You can’t teach a baboon to ride a skateboard all in one day. First, you teach the baboon to sit on it, then stand on it and so on. Likewise, if your date is chronically late, you can’t expect that she’ll suddenly start showing up on time. Maybe, instead of being a half-hour late, she’ll only make you wait 15 minutes. That’s progress, and you should acknowledge that.

Q: Only what exactly should you give someone as a “reward”? Obviously you’re not talking about biscuits here.

A: The reward can be anything someone likes, and it’s good to mix it up. Any prize will lose its value if it becomes too predictable. My dog Penny Jane loves treats, but she also likes getting her chin scratched, so I’ll use that, too. My list for Scott includes smiles, kisses, hugs, head rubs, compliments and presents — especially stereo and bike gear. On dates, if you always bring flowers, give the same compliment or wait until the end of the evening to move in for a kiss, things will get stale pretty fast. A little variety — by, say, kissing at the beginning or in the middle of the date instead of at the doorstep — will keep things interesting.

Q: Are there certain behaviors that are too entrenched to change?

A: Absolutely. You can’t keep a badger from digging, and I can’t stop Scott from losing his wallet and keys. In relationships, women often pressure men to be more talkative, while men try to get women to cool it on the communication front. I doubt either gender will train the other to change any time soon, so it’s a waste of time to try. A woman once complained to me that her boyfriend tended to text her rather than call. She took it personally, as if it were a sign he didn’t care. But chances are, it has nothing to do with her. He just loves texting, and she might have to accept that’s how he prefers to communicate.

Q: So now that your husband Scott knows to pick up his socks, shave and drive under the speed limit, what’s next on your wish list?

A: Scott could really use a haircut. In the past, I would have nagged him about it, but now I keep my mouth shut. The day he does come home with a haircut, though, I’m going to shower him with appreciation.

Q: Does Scott train you, too?

A: Totally. When I briefly had braces and was on a teary tirade about how much pain I was in, Scott didn’t respond at all. This is a common technique that trainers use on dolphins called the Least Reinforcing Scenario, or “L.R.S.” for short. When a dolphin misbehaves by squirting water on the trainer, the best response is to ignore it, since any reaction, positive or negative, will only fuel the behavior. Once I realized Scott wasn’t going to coddle or carp on me for whining, I ran out of steam. Then it hit me what he was doing. I asked him, “Did you just give me an L.R.S.?” He didn’t respond to that, either. But clearly, it worked.

Photo of Amy Sutherland courtesy of Jay York.

Judy Dutton (judy-dutton.com) is the author of Secrets from the Sex Lab and Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch…and What It Takes to Win.