The Gonz Show: Amy Sutherland

The BU prof became famous for using animal-training techniques on her husband. But can she tame John Gonzalez?


The Sutherland File

» Adjunct journalism professor at Boston University
» Penned a New York Times column about training her husband, which became the paper’s most e-mailed piece in 2006
» Wrote a follow-up book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, due out this month

Your new book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage, applies animal training techniques to humans. Which animals are most like the human male?
Well, the thing is, there are animals who are more like humans, obviously the primates—from monkeys to apes. When I was working on my previous book and hanging out with animal trainers, I noticed similarities between humans and all animals. Which was a real eye opener. All living things have very similar concerns—they want food, they want comfort, they want to feel safe. The trainers are always dealing with those base motivations. When you see trainers working with animals, you see the animals really thinking. Which is cool. But as far as the animals that are the most like the American male, I saw similarities with the big cats and with the camels.

Wait, I have to stop you on camels. Do you have males in your life who spit at you?
Luckily not. [Laughs.] I was thinking more of the bigger and confident animals.

How did your husband respond when he figured out what you were doing? Because, at one point, you compare training him to training a baboon.
Yeah. But I love baboons! That was an eye opener for me. When I started, two animals I didn’t like, baboons and hyenas, and I came away with a different idea. Especially baboons. They are so bright and agile. My husband, he knew a lot about training already. I don’t think it was very weird for him. He understood the idea. It was a fairly natural progression. There was a fair amount of spousal deafness going on. Though I told him, he wasn’t listening. There are men across America who every day surprised by information that their wives told them about six months ago.

I’m not married, but I’ll cop to that…So did you carry around little treats in your pockets?
No. It wasn’t as literal as that. That’s what people misunderstand. The treats in my pocket were learning to be more appreciative. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of trying to correct what you don’t like. That’s what the animal training world turns on its head. Instead of doing that, you look for what you like and encourage it.

I’m a little disappointed. He doesn’t he roll over on command now?
[Laughs.] That was never the point. The point was for us to get along better. Progressive training is used to teach animals tricks. Bu the main thing they do is open up a line of communication between the trainer and the animal. That’s the basic thing. And that’s what I was doing, I was opening a new line of communication, or getting it working more productively.

What about a leash? Do you have a leash for him?
[Laughs] No. I don’t think that would work on him.

Bummer. Some people find that stuff really hot. Not me, of course…some people. [laughs] Just some people. In quotations—“some people.” I’ve heard that.

What kinds of behaviors were you able to change? You said that he’s notorious for leaving his sweaty workout gear on the floor. Has he stopped that?
That didn’t stop altogether. But it improved dramatically. It’s not to the extent it was. We’d get in a standoff about it. I’d ask him to do something about it. He’d say he was going to. Then it would sit there. And it would just escalate. And I’d get nastier about it. But it never occurred to me that as I got nastier, it didn’t have any effect. There’s not as much of that now.

You teach, too, right? Do you try this on your students and throw mackerels at them when they answer questions properly?
I teach at BU. I try to think that way, to encourage what I want from them. At the same time, I try not to encourage what I don’t like. One thing I do is I have contests. It’s a chance for them to win a mackerel, so to speak. One thing trainers do, they make sure the animal gets a treat somehow. They do something so they get something out of it somehow. They’re not all getting the same grades, but they might win a contest and get a prize. Prizes can sometimes be better than grades.  

Did you ever feel bad or Machiavellian about applying these kinds of techniques to the man you’re married to or people in general?
No. People are trying to change each other’s behavior every day. We’ve been doing that since we stood up straight and started walking around on two legs. When you think exactly what you’re going to say to someone to try to get them to do something, that’s trying to manipulate behavior. It’s already going on all the time. What I’m doing, I’m doing the same thing, but I’m doing it more effectively and in a nicer way. It’s funny that people think yelling at someone is a more authentic expression. It’s more authentic to how you feel in the moment, but it’s still trying to change someone’s behavior, it’s not very pleasant, and it’s not very productive in a lot of cases.

I think the whole idea makes great sense, actually. I’m a complete dog. If you threw a ball across the room right now, I would totally chase it.  
[Laughs] To me, what I like about it is that we’re all connected. We’re not these freaks of nature. We actually are in the animal kingdom. Some people don’t like that, but I do.