The Value In A “Reward”

We often hear in dog training circles the expression “high value reward” as in find what your dog loves best, be it food, toy, type of praise, and then begin from there. But this immediately begs the question, how is the value of any given reward tabulated in a dogs’ mind? and which we certainly would think would be the fundamental question for a system of learning that sees itself as being based on a reinforcement theory of behavior. And yet reinforcement theory doesn’t seem to have anything to say on the matter. We observe that some dogs will kill for treats, some will run through flames for a toy, others seem to work for a belly rub above all else, whereas some dogs tune out all delectable goodies or fluffy bite objects the instant a squirrel’s tail flickers in its peripheral vision. In the current models these range of responses are basically seen as a hodgepodge of value assignation arrived at through happenstance or by some mysterious random process, as in “every dog is different.” But an energy interpretation of behavior and learning reveals an overarching template and a universal process by which such differentiation is arrived at. This is not a random process and the only reason every dog is unique is (paradoxically as it may first appear to be) by virtue of the universality of this process among dogs.
A reward attains its value to reinforce any given action by virtue of how much INTENSITY the dog is able to express and/or how much RESISTANCE the dog is able to overcome in the pursuit of said object. So a dog may love to chase a ball in one context because it is able to express a lot of intensity given the resistance inherent in that particular situation (for example when by itself with its owner in the backyard), but then in another context when the resistance is far higher (for example in a new place with a stranger) it doesn’t even prick an ear when the ball is thrown. Therefore, if an owner increases the amount of intensity a dog can express in overcoming a high degree of resistance, the object of its pursuit will become the highest value reward for that dog no-matter-what. There’s no need to have different rewards for different dogs once they attain “critical mass.”
Let me add the following example from nature. Around the den, each wolf manifests a particular set of personality traits replete with a registry of likes and dislikes seemingly specific to its own unique “value system.” So it would appear that each member of the pack values one item more or less than another, especially relative to other members in regards to these various objects or even places. And yet, when the hunt is on, each member of the group wants the moose with the same degree of intensity. Thus in the final analysis, they all have the same value system so that what we first might presume is a unique individuality given their respective registry of likes and dislikes, can more logically be interpreted to be but a symptom or derivative of a universal working dynamic.

Published October 27, 2010 by Kevin Behan
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11 responses to “The Value In A “Reward””

  1. Heather says:

    So there is a resistance/intensity balance that is projected onto an object, which can vary in different situations? Happy is very hungry, but more cautious/shy than it would appear, so he won’t take treats right away in new situations. His reward of choice is off leash hiking in quiet/private places. He is not a good jogger, his motto might be wherever you want to go, as long as it’s slow.

  2. kbehan says:

    Good question. So there is a hunger/balance ratio that can vary according to the resistance the dog is perceiving in any given context. If the hunger is higher than the balance, the dog perceives the object as a value of grounding. The more the hunger is involved, the more the object can absorb and conduct the intensity of the dog’s stored energy and this changes the dog’s perception of resistance. In other words, the resistance the dog perceives is now arousing and stimulating rather than making it feel vulnerable and inhibited. So if what we possess can induce this state in a dog, that thereby becomes the highest possible value reward for the dog and he will align himself with possessor of said object, no-matter-what. The bond between dog and owner has attained “critical mass.”

  3. Christine says:

    Yes, I like that…”critical mass”. I had such a rewarding experience with Duncan the other day, and it was merely happenstance! I was able to encourage him to speak on command, first time EVER, and he managed 3 in a row and then he was done. All for a good rub-a-dub! I love that boy.♥ On it’s heels have come a number of personal epiphanies for me…don’t you just love a clear channel?
    I know I’ve said it before but it bears repeating…Thank You Kevin for putting yourself out there.

  4. Heather says:

    Does this then mean that regardless of the different personalities/expressions of the wolves (e.g., submissive, dominant, active, quiet, etc.), they are feeling exactly the same (a state of wanting the moose)?

  5. Alwynne says:

    I’m jealous, Christine–I am getting nowhere with speak on command. Cholula looks at me and licks her lips and does a “down dog” in response to my efforts but nothing I do seems to trigger a bark in her. I went away for work for a few days (husband and family took care of her in our house so minimal disruption for her) but afterwards I’ve been having more trouble getting her excited about the bite toy too – but today I finally tried growling myself and found she got quite excited and willing to grab the bite toy again. Kevin, I think you have said that if a dog starts growling, it’s a sign that the stress of the moment is too strong, but I don’t know what you think of a person growling in order to get the dog to come after the toy…

  6. kbehan says:

    Right, each one is a ratio of balance to hunger, and when the moose starts to break down under the group’s combined CHARGE, the balance ratio shifts toward the hunger end of the spectrum within each member of the group, and now, instead of experiencing resistance as vulnerability which segregates the group according to a level of inhibition, they now increasingly begin to experience resistance as a state of arousal of the sexual/sensual dimension, so unresolved emotion held deep within the battery is starting to move into DRIVE due to this arousal dynamic, and this now means that each member has a different deflection angle so that as a group they will encircle the moose rather than coming at it head on. So DRIVE is a group energy. This for example is why we can get a dog to a peak state of excitement, say in a working police dog, and yet they become responsive to direction of their handler because they are aroused by the resistance of the criminal (or helper in a Schutzhund trial) rather than inhibited or overloaded. If you watch a lion being over stimulated by a lion tamer, then all it can do is explode into uncontrollable aggression, it’s not amenable to inputs. But a dog with strong fighting drive is converting resistance into a stronger force of attraction toward the object of desire, and then it is simultaneously open to being deflected onto a cooperative manner of expressing said Drive because of the innate and accompanying urge to deflect its energy in accord with the overarching group mood. In fact the tendency to cooperate is so strong that many dogs in the sports arena become known as “sleeve happy” and then they prove useless for police work. They end up wanting to cooperate with the helper because they are giving him “credit” for their joyous state of biting. In response to this problem, many police officers are now turning to Malinois because they have that terrier like capacity to self charge and stay missile-locked, the deflection tendency isn’t as pronounced in them which is why they aren’t conducive to the tending style of herding as profiled on Ellen Nickelberg’s site and which is the genetic template for a good GSD. Some may further argue that genetics is a full explanation of the spectrum from soft to hard, but I don’t believe this can accord a full explanation. Every dog has the same code, and every temperament with a “t” orients to a specific point on the circle so to speak as it’s preferred manner of orientation or “polarity.” What sets the GSD of the tending orientation apart from other breeds is that the energy can continue to elaborate into more and more complex manners of orientation and thus can channel more DRIVE, more energy becoming information. In other words, the Group Mood can get it beyond its genetic limitations. It’s like being able to add additional “way-points” (emotional midpoints) in a GPS navigational device beyond the final destination the system is missile-locked on. In other words, the GSD is able to remain vulnerable longer, open to new loci for its Drive, which is why on one level it can be harder to train them for police work, and yet their DRIVE is capable (in my highly biased opinion) of more complex expressions over a period of development.

  7. kbehan says:

    Just to add another point to it. When the group is synchronized and at peak intensity so that the deepest layer of the battery is triggered and flowing into Drive, then each individual is referencing its heart via the subliminal beam of attention. In this modality, Rage moves through the body WITHOUT TRIGGERING INSTINCTS. In other words, the group mood doesn’t collapse into the genetically rooted fixed action patterns but stays flexible to changing conditions within mission parameters. The dog remains flexible to inputs and is able to discriminate. This is why a dog with strong fighting drive can not only take input from its handler, but can be violently enraged toward a violent felon, and indifferent to a child having a temper tantrum. What I discovered is that the more puppy-like the dog in its fighting drive, i.e. aroused via hunger/sexual, paradoxically as it may first appear, the more it could focus on its heart and make very fine distinctions even under duress. I once over worked a very hard dog in muzzle work on a very hot day. When a dog is exerting in this way, it is not breathing in enough oxygen relative to its energetic output. As the dog began to pass out from the heat, the last thing it did before collapsing was deliver a kill shot to my neck. In other words, it had always been discriminating between training, subduing a criminal on the job by biting the arm or the back as trained, and delivering a kill shot when all else is failing. It was the most remarkable act of discrimination I’d ever experienced. BTW, when rage moves through the heart, and which is the faculty as source of ultimate discrimination under the most trying of circumstances, we call it Courage, i.e. rage-of-the-heart.

  8. christine randolph says:

    very interesting… what is the benefit in working a dog until it collapses from heat stress ?

  9. kbehan says:

    No benefit, it was a training accident. I simply overdid it on a very hot day even though we were only working for a brief time. I mention it because it was a fortuitous window into the power of discrimination a dog can enjoy when its fighting drive gets a full expression. For example, Muhammed Ali could hit someone viciously in a prize fight, and yet was completely social in social contexts. The fighting drive is actually the drive to make contact, with resistance to such sublimated into the hunger circuitry so that the drive to make contact is increasingly amplified the more the object of attraction resists the dog’s efforts. The dog becomes aroused rather than inhibited, it is regressed to early infancy rather than dealing with its survival reflexes. Eventually at a peak state of intensity that kicks in the dog’s prey-making repertoire and it bites the bad guy in an appropriate context. And since the dog’s fighting drive is fully exercised in its life and training, the prey making expression is finely tuned to a specific set of circumstances, so finely tuned that it stays within departmental regulations (bite arm or back, or hold at bay and not bite) depending on what the criminal does and yet then we discover that the dog also has this strike to the death impulse at its disposal when the lights are going out. So the very act of encouraging and developing its fight drive, renders the dog more social because he’s more able to discriminate where the most intense expression of its bite is supposed to go. In other words, it is capable of the most adaptive response to whatever situation it finds itself in. Once when patrolling at the town fair, a kid broke away from his father, ran up to the same dog and swatted it in its face with his baseball cap. The dog reached down and grabbed the cap now on the ground and according to his handler looked at the kid as if to say “Good game, can I play?” like he wanted the kid to chase him now that he had the cap. The good nature of dogs never fails to amaze me.

  10. Heather says:

    I like watching the “cops” shows where the dogs bite the criminals, there is something primal about it.

  11. christine randolph says:

    had not seen the show where the dog bites the criminal ! hilarious !!!!

    i am always soooo careful, always hose down my dogs even when they only have to do a 1 minute agility course when it is hot.

    I am very heat sensitive, so I probably feel heat stressed before the dogs do so I just gauge their state from how I feel, in other words, I also hose MYSELF down at the same time haha…

    I think also dogs have very individual levels of being heat stressed so it is not always easy to tell. apparently one indicator is that their gums go white.

    I learnt that at that scooterjoring clinic in Oregon a few weeks ago…
    it is important for mushers to check for this because it can also easily happen in the winter with a sled dog team

    sorry about the training accident and sorry about assuming that this was done on purpose, i am mostly a bit dense as you all know

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