How to Train a Man

Here’s an idea for the recalcitrant man in your life: train him like a dolphin.

These minor annoyances are not the stuff of separation and divorce, but in sum they began to dull my love for Scott. I wanted — needed — to nudge him a little closer to perfect, to make him into a mate who might annoy me a little less, who wouldn’t keep me waiting at restaurants, a mate who would be easier to love.

So, like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and set about improving him. By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse: he’d drive faster instead of slower; shave less frequently, not more; and leave his reeking bike garb on the bedroom floor longer than ever.

We went to a counselor to smooth the edges off our marriage. She didn’t understand what we were doing there and complimented us repeatedly on how well we communicated. I gave up. I guessed she was right — our union was better than most — and resigned myself to stretches of slow-boil resentment and occasional sarcasm.

Then something magical happened. For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers, I started commuting from Maine to California, where I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.

I listened, rapt, as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.

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.

Clicker training for dogs is based on the same principle, and was based on dolphin training. Negative consequences don’t work on dolphins, who can just swim away from you if you start yelling. But take away their bucket of fish, and they notice. With dogs, you use treats to motivate the dog and mark the behavior you want with the clicker, which makes a consistent reward. Click-treat. Works great. At least it worked great with my previous dog. Junebug was terrified of the sound of the clicker when I first got her and still isn’t over it.

The thing is, once you figure out how well the technique works on your dog, you start seeing everything in terms of clicking — getting the behavior you want through positive motivation. And, yes, it does work on people. I mean, how well does it work when people yell at you when you do something wrong? Do you feel motivated to do it right the next time? Or are you happier getting rewarded for the things you do right and just having the things you do wrong not get those rewards?

But as easy as it is to letting the click-treat mindset when you’re training a dog cross over into other areas of your life, it’s just distasteful to read an article like this, setting out in the New York Times the idea that men are just there to be shaped and women are manipulative.

But why do I expect better from Sunday Styles?

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14 comments for “How to Train a Man

  1. hanna joergel
    June 25, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    But as easy as it is to letting the click-treat mindset when you’re training a dog cross over into other areas of your life, it’s just distasteful to read an article like this, setting out in the New York Times the idea that men are just there to be shaped and women are manipulative.

    Oh yes, and add in that facing the problem head-on and telling the man exactly what behaviors you would prefer is called “nagging.”

    And once you’ve trained the dog and you don’t need it anymore, you realize how much hard work it is to use this strategy and give up trying to use it to “train” the people around you.

  2. June 25, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    it’s just distasteful to read an article like this, setting out in the New York Times the idea that men are just there to be shaped and women are manipulative


    I feel the same way everytime I read an article that assumes women are dying to get married and all men are trying like hell to avoid it. Especially since studies show that married men are happier than single men, but single women are happier than married women.

  3. June 25, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    And the punchline of the article is that her husband was training her, too. I guess that makes it okay.

    The problem – maybe – is treating one’s life partner like an upgradeable consumer product.

  4. jenofiniquity
    June 26, 2006 at 12:27 am

    The article is crass and disgustingly married-smug in tone, but I live with a habitual key-, cell phone-, sock- and wallet-loser, and the only possible reaction after living with this for awhile is to look at the person blankly as they storm around in a panic, attemping to enlist your help, and then continue on your way. But I never thought of it in terms of training; I just felt hostile that this was continually becoming my problem, and not responding is very pleasurable. Saying “please quit losing your stuff and then making it my problem” is not a winning strategy even though it should be.

  5. June 26, 2006 at 1:02 am

    My theory of women “changing” their men is based on the idea that women should marry the first man they can at 18 and be stuck with him until one of you croaks. Sure he’s not going to be perfect, or even good, but if you can change him to something you like, you’ll forced marriage will be bearable. Hurrah.

  6. fishbane
    June 26, 2006 at 1:21 am

    I used the same technique to get reliable blowjobs from my submissive. True fact. I don’t use the mechanism often, but it works.

    Wait, treating others like animals isn’t accepted here? What?

  7. June 26, 2006 at 2:35 am

    Wow. I can smell the reek of gender stereotypes wafting off of this article. That just pisses me off.

  8. June 26, 2006 at 7:18 am

    Why should treating someone with courtesy and respect be reduced to a “click-treat”? When you treat anyone with courtesy and respect, you’ll see a happier person.

    I treat The Count with courtesy and respect because I love him, not because I want him to act a certain way. I had a job where I and my colleague were constantly belittled and yelled at. We were so stressed out that it was no wonder our work suffered. In that kind of abusive environment, you’re going to see people not want to do their best. Why try to do your best when all you get are insults? In some ways, the article is right, but it’s insulting to treat people as if they are dogs or dolphins to be trained.

  9. June 26, 2006 at 7:26 am

    The gender stereotyping indulged in by the author is annoying, but the technique itself is basic operant conditioning. It’s how I trained my kids once they were verbal – do what I want and get a reward – (praise and/or an extra privilege like recreational computer time). Don’t do what Mummy/Daddy expects, no reward, and maybe withdrawal of standard privileges. All fully explained as happening – no silent withdrawals.

    When my husband occasionally falls into old passive/aggressive habits like loudly groaning when he doesn’t find the kitchen utensil he wants where he expects it, I ignore him. When he asks me where it is without whining, I help him find it (usually either in the sink or the dishwasher).

    This is controversial? Who wants to be a whining nag? Ignore/reward is so much less hassle, as well as more effective in obtaining preferred behaviours. Not that I’m perfect – I can still be provoked to yells, but when I’m not we’re all happier and what needs done gets done more quickly.

  10. zuzu
    June 26, 2006 at 9:54 am

    Yeah, I have no problem with the basic premise that positive reinforcement is a better way to motivate those around you, and produces a far more pleasant relationship, than nagging/whining/yelling/what have you. There was just something about the gender stereotyping and, as Jen said, “smug married” tone of this piece that made my skin crawl.

    The Style section is such a fertile ground for these kinds of throwback attitudes about relationships and marriage. It’s also the home of the “opt-out revolution” ginned-up-trend pieces.

  11. Kat
    June 26, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t

    This is the basic premise of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy, which is widely used with children with autism.

    Once I began using ABA therapy with my child with autism I naturally progressed to using it unintentionally with other relationships as well (I guess I got used to doing it and that was that). Its human nature to respond to praise. It really has just been a different approach to dealing with people that takes less emotional toll on me and gets a better response.

  12. Compcat
    June 26, 2006 at 5:03 pm

    In the book that brought this training technique to the mainstream called, “Don’t Shoot the Dog”, the author suggests that this learning technique can be used on all sorts of species, and includes an example of how one lady from her class erased some obnoxious behavior from her in-laws using it.

    It’s now used for teaching kids in gym classes, since it gives them the exact moment that they do the move right, it was tested on fighter pilots, all sorts of applications. I just wish that folks would quit pretending that they are using an “animal training” technique on people. It’s a behavoral modification technique that should be a basic skill set for everyone. It is also quite useful for managing the family dog or dolphin.

    I would think that getting a blank stare from someone that you are fond of when you talk about your foot hurting or something would be a negative reinforcer (punishment), which would encourage you to interact with that person less. If that’s what you want in your marriage, whatever. A blank stare is not a non-reaction in people, it makes you feel bad.

    zuzu, you do know that you can use another marker, if the clicker scares your dog? Like a flashlight, or even just a ballpoint pen. I just use the word “good”, since I constantly fumble the clicker. It’s not quite as precise, but my dogs seem to roll with it quite well.

  13. June 26, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    What the article ignores, and what operant conditioning is helpful in, is that nagging is a behavior that a wife is manipulated into.

    The basic stereotyped relationship is: He does or doesn’t do something harmful to the relationship or aggravating or whatever, she nags. He fails to respond. He justifies his failure to respond because, after all, she’s a nag. He has, simply by remaining passive and ignoring her, manipulated her into being a person it’s sensible to ignore. He can also enlist their friends onto his side; after all, she’s such a nag.

    This is, you may have guessed, the story of my marriage, and I am stunned to look back and know how two feminist, educated, liberal Pagans managed to Live The Stereotype.

    Operant conditioning removes the nag from the position of being the nag, and reduces her aggravation.

    One of two things will happen; his behavior will change or it won’t.

    (I am divorced. Guess which happend.)

  14. June 26, 2006 at 9:18 pm

    I have to admit, I found the story kind of appealing, for reasons Deborah explains. It seemed like an escape hatch, a way for a woman not to have to make the brutal choice between putting up with being relegated to either a servant or a nag. The uterine homing device bit seemed like an especially nice relief. My ex used to do that, walk around wondering where he left his keys until I dropped everything and searched and found them for him. Which just made me jumpy and angry but if I told him so, boom! Nag.

    It’s super appealing to believe that it was possible to break the cycle by instead just willfully pretending he wasn’t there until he gave up trying to nag me into doing everything for him. Maybe he would have learned to find his own damn keys, I think. But I honestly doubt it.

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