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Value Ratios: Helping Problematic Behaviors Around High-Value Resources

Updated: Jun 8


 By:  Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc

 

 

What does your dog perceive as being so extremely valuable that nothing else compares? 


steak

Have you tried offering chicken, cheese, or something special to try to lure them away, all without success? Do they guard the item, or is it simply impossible to get their attention away from it?


Is it a ball or toy? Meat, other food, or bully sticks?  Friendly dogs or people?  Something else?


 

Thankfully, it typically is very possible to change all of this!


 

Value Ratios are something discussed in finance and business when analyzing an asset’s market value versus the actual earnings it provides. Ultimately, it characterizes the actual real value of the asset and compares this to others in the competitive market.  This concept can easily be applied to any behavioral decision/choice, including with companion animals. 

 

What is the perceived market value of a resource versus the actual real payout?  What is the perceived market value of other opportunities in the immediate vicinity versus their actual real payout? 

 

value ratios

An animal’s emotions and behaviors around a resource will be heavily affected if they perceive (or acquire) a disproportionate amount of value from that certain resource in comparison to other available resources.  Humans generally control the situations in which we place our pets, so we are in an excellent position to shape those emotions and guide them to offering desirable behaviors.  However, changing the perception of value disparities is key!!!

 

It is crucial to influence and shape what dogs view as “valuable”


How do we do this?

 

•        Effectively lower the value of perceived “high value” resources

•        Create high, frequent-occurring value elsewhere

•        Temporarily restrict access to the resource via management to prevent unwanted “payout” from the resource we wish to lower in value (Note: still make sure physical/social/mental needs are met)

•        Reward INDIFFERENCE to the high value resource to alter the value ratio, no specific behaviors required

 

Intense emotions around a resource manifest in a wide range of behaviors, depending on the animal.  The behaviors can involve overly excited behavior, hyper-fixation, and the inabilities to calm down or follow the owner’s cues/commands.  They can also include reactivity and/or intensely frustrated efforts to get to the resource, such as lunging, whining, barking, or jumping at it.  Alternatively, there may also be attempts to prevent others from accessing the resource or to maintain possession (resource guarding). 


Two Kooikerhondje dogs sharing a stick

I started applying the concept and term “value ratios” years ago as part of my Kooikerhondjes’ socialization.  For me, socialization is NOT "exposure alone" because exposure alone does not equate to positive calm emotions; it does not shape appropriate values in resources; and it definitely does not teach appropriate behaviors. Instead, I like to influence and shape these perceived values from the moment they come into my home and continue this throughout adolescence, all while using these exercises to teach boundaries and navigating resources in social situations.  As they grow out of puppyhood, adult environmental perceptions and associated behaviors begin to take shape that reflect the specific roles their breed/ancestors were bred to perform.  Resource guarding has a genetic basis in certain breeds, but it is often something that can be prevented.  It is important to look at the dog you acquired and look at what behaviors are likely to develop.  Socialization via exposure can help significantly with this, but it will not fulfill their learning needs without creating appropriate levels of value or offering behavioral guidance. 


I wanted their emotions with particular resources to be positive and calm, to develop plentiful feelings around resources, and to teach good behavioral choices around resources that will be offered whether or not I was present.  I want to be able to have high value resources around and not have to micro-manage them.  They do not wish to be controlled, nor do I wish to control their every movement!  I want to be able to leave food on the table, a candy dish in the room, a box of tissues on the end table, bully sticks and beef cheeks available on the floor for their choice and enjoyment without worrying about what will happen.  I also don’t want baby-gates throughout my house to shrink their already small world even further.  I also want to take them in public and not have them whining and pulling to every person and every dog.  It is good that they enjoy people and dogs, but different behaviors are appropriate in different places. 



Dog looking at a cat through the gate

Management alone may prevent dogs from engaging with resources when they are not supposed to do so, but there is no actual behavioral “learning” happening.  Unfortunately, many people think that using preventive measures will prevent resource guarding.  Feeding dogs in separate crates, preventing access to the kitchen with a baby gate, crating dogs when visitors come to the home, keeping toys and bully sticks inaccessible and under tight control.  Obviously, there are times when management is essential for safety, but it also is easily overused as a substitute for training -- which it is not. Barriers create feelings of scarcity around these resources, as well as frustration and high arousal emotions.  Using frequent management inevitably raises the value of those resources…sometimes drastically.  Once the barrier is removed, they will likely choose to engage with the resource that is now accessible.  Given the strong emotions inadvertently created, they will also likely engage very inappropriately – such as lunging or jumping at visitors, trying to be the first dog to snatch the bully stick, taking the other dog’s food after eating their own, and other strong, undesirable behaviors.  They are learning that you have to be quick to get the resource because access is rare and fleeting.  Maybe in the mind of the dog these resources have even become something worth fighting for?  Management is a great tool to use while shaping emotions and teaching behaviors, but management without training fails to create value in NOT getting to the resources. 


Management without training leaves dogs without the knowledge to handle complex situations that they may face.  Teaching good behaviors is also an excellent choice, but they will not actually choose to do those behaviors when in the moment where they have choice if they do not perceive sufficient value in doing so.  Is a treat for doing “leave it” really worth giving up something of such high value? 



Value disparities MUST be addressed for success. 


 

All of this is possible if we level out the value ratios by addressing value disparities.  I like to present high value resources and reward indifference.  For me, indifference is any behavior other than approaching/interacting with that resource.  They can be standing around doing nothing and they will be rewarded…with high frequency!  We are not rewarding behaviors performed.  This has initially confused professional trainers when I have presented this concept, as they look for the animal to more or less do a “leave it” by acknowledging and then turning away from the resource before they reward.  If they are required to engage with the resource first by looking at it, then we will end up with a dog who starts approaching the resource so he can be told to “leave it” and get a treat.  This encourages unwanted interaction and misplaces the value.  This is why I do not do this. 


Instead, we reward and create value in NOT engaging with the resource at all.  Everything else in the environment develops value to where they may not really desire the resource as much anymore.  The high value resource could be food, a friendly dog, a high value toy like a tennis ball, or a friendly person.  I typically start with something of lower value – usually low-value food on a table or chair at eye-level – and then progress to harder items once values are successfully altered, or alternatively, putting the resource on the floor in a more tempting location.  With each resource, I eventually begin moving around the room, moving further away from it (giving them lots of choice), or even leaving the room as they start to see less and less “value” in even engaging with it.  I continue coming back and rewarding any/all disengagement or disinterest from it. 

 

While it is great that they like food, they should not think that all food within their physical reach is available to them -- whether it be food that is dropped on the floor, food left on the counters, or plates left sitting on the table.  While I hope they like playing with their tennis ball, they should also not become obsessive to where they quickly snatch it up whenever you approach it for fear that you will take it away.  Will they give it up when you ask?  I want them to be able to be around friendly people and dogs without having intense emotions that result in them lunging toward everyone to say “hello”.  I want all my dogs to be able to have special chew items and not be stealing them from each other, especially if one dog finishes their bully stick first.  There must be value in NOT getting to the rewarding thing, even if it is physically possible to do so.  Boundaries are essential to know how to effectively navigate the world in which one lives. 


Boundaries are best taught through both practiced behaviors and instilled value. 

 

dog with raised lip

If perceived value remains extremely high compared to everything else, then do not be surprised when they see an opportunity and quickly take it!  They will lunge and jump at the visitor relentlessly; they will steal the food; they will steal the chew item or guard the toy.  Fortunately, once these exercises are applied to one or two different resources, a calmer dog begins to emerge around higher value resources.  Begin this training first with lower value resources so it will be easier to eventually apply the same training framework to a high value resource.  Where fixation may have historically occurred with a high value resource, they will quickly recognize the “game” and know that other value is going to appear away from the resource.  Soon, the highly valuable resource is a bit lower in comparable value.  This is especially helpful with extremely high value resources where they have no interest in any other food or toys you could possibly offer.  Maybe they have repeatedly guarded these items from you or others with success.  This concept has been extremely helpful in severe resource guarding cases where owners reported that nothing had been previously successful to draw the dog away from the resource.  Eventually, the comparable value of the resource actually decreases and calmer emotions and behaviors emerge around the resource.


 

Rewarding indifference can be game-changing.  


 

Do not wait for problem behaviors to develop and then attempt damage control.  Once problem behaviors have already developed, most people are asking how to “stop” a certain behavior.  That is the wrong approach if one is looking for long-term solutions.  Inevitably, unwanted behaviors suppressed by punishment will eventually resurface because strong and disproportionate emotions about the resource remain; feelings of scarcity remain; and the animal still lacks knowledge of other effective ways to handle social situations with resource.  We can often turn these problems around if they have already developed, but I prefer prevention by integrating value ratios into thoughtful socialization practices.  This is likely why I have not had much resource guarding issues with my Kooikerhondjes (a breed known for resource guarding behavior) – even while living with three of them at one time.

 

Evaluating and Influencing Value Ratios is critical to addressing the deep emotions that fuel problematic behavior around resources.




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Eileen Koval and her dogs

Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.


 

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