Downeast Dog News
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Book Review–What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers by Amy Sutherland

By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | Jan 01, 2020
Photo by: Debra Bell

In my December column, I encouraged you to give your pet the gifts of patience, knowledge, and an attitude that emphasizes frequently rewarding behavior we like rather than fixating on our pets when they do something we do not like.

About a week after I completed my column, Kate and I recorded a Woof Meow Show on the same topic. We discussed books I had recommended where people could acquire knowledge and help them understand the importance of patience and rewards. It was then that Kate reminded me of a book that we had both read that greatly influenced us, not only in the way we work with dogs but with the people in our lives. That book is What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers by Amy Sutherland. The book is not a dog training book but is a reflection on how writing a book about exotic animal trainers (Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers) dramatically changed the author's life for the better. The book eloquently presents the case for patience, knowledge, and a positive outlook.

In the book’s Introduction, Sutherland notes:

“I’m an altogether different person than I was three years ago. …My friends and family may not have noticed, but I am almost unrecognizable to myself at times. My outlook is more optimistic. I’m less judgmental. I have vastly more patience and self-control. I’m a better observer. I get along better with people, especially my husband. I have a peace of mind that comes from the world making so much more sense to me.”

Wow! To me, that is quite a life change and all from writing a book about animal trainers. The discussion Kate and I had about “Shamu” convinced me to reread the book and to give it a proper review.

In her book, Sutherland discusses how she applied what she learned about animal training to people in her life, such as her husband, mother, and friends. Below I have highlighted some of my favorite snippets from, hoping to entice you to borrow or buy a copy and read it in its entirety.

Based on her experiences while training her dog Dixie, Sutherland became increasingly interested in animal training and started researching a book on animal trainers and the Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training and Management Program. There she learned the following:

Training with force and coercion is unnecessary and counterproductive. – “Train every animal as if it’s a killer whale” meant to work with every animal as if you could neither forcibly move it nor dominate it.”

We are the human with the allegedly more powerful brain, so we need to take reasonability for our dog's success. – “It’s never the animal’s fault” is pretty much what it says: If an animal flounders in training, it’s the trainer’s fault.”

Both dog and human trainer must be one hundred percent engaged with one another while training. – “When they train, that is all they are doing. They aren’t answering the phone, looking for a yogurt in the fridge, or paying bills while checking to see if a dolphin correctly slapped the water with its pectoral flipper.”

Sutherland also learned that trainers must attend to their own behavior – “Students [Student Trainers] can’t lose their temper during a training session, ideally not even sigh, because that might undo all they have accomplished to that point…”

Most importantly, Sutherland learned to resist the human instinct to focus on the negative and instead to focus on the behavior wanted. – “Progressive animal trainers reward the behavior they want and, equally importantly, ignore the behavior they don’t.”

“Progressive trainers want nothing less than zest, spark, joie de vivre.”

“The trick is that ignoring unwanted behavior is only half the equation. The other half is noticing and rewarding what you want. The two go hand in hand.”

Every year I give each member of the Green Acres Kennel Shop team a book at Christmas time and often share the same title with the local veterinarians and their staff. This book was my gift choice for 2019.

If you are not a hermit living a solitary and isolated existence, but instead interact with other living things, I am confident that you will learn something from What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. While not a classic “how to train your dog” book, I have added it to my recommended reading list for anyone with a pet or who works in the pet care service industry. The foundation it provides for changing your behavior, as well as the behavior of your dog, parent, friends, children, mother, or anyone, is invaluable.

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Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( greenacreskennel.com ) in Bangor, ME, where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC), and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). Don is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) and is committed to PPG’s Guiding Principles and the Pain-Free, Force-Free, and Fear-Free training, management, and care of all pets. Don produces and co-hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show, that airs on Z62 Retro Radio WZON (AM620) and WKIT 103.3-HD3 and is streamed at http://www.wzonam.com/ every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at http://woofmeowshow.libsyn.com/, the Apple Podcast app, and at Don’s blog: www.words-woofs-meows.com. The opinions in this post are those of Don Hanson.