ratio strain

You are here

  • Home
  • / ► Glossaries
  • / ► ABA Glossary

This glossary is provided at no cost as a philanthropic contribution to the field of ABA. A primary goal is letting students see the various ways that authors have defined the terms.

History: The glossary content was assembled by Dr. Darrel E. Bostow in the mid 1980’s from current and out of print ABA texts (see list below). The original search engine presented the definition sources, including author names and texts. Later, an assistant migrated the glossary to the current platform. Recently, it was discovered that during the migration some of the source information was accidentally deleted. We apologize for this error. In addition, the glossary has not been updated for many years and lacks new terminology. The task of updating such a large glossary is monumental. However, if any reviewer wants source information added to a specific definition please provide the details. Likewise, if any reviewer wants any specific items removed, please notify us and the request will be honored. You are here Home / ► Glossaries / ► ABA Glossary This glossary is provided at no cost as a philanthropic contribution to the field of ABA. A

Dog Training Workshop

This page on Depression is part of the Auxiliary section of the Beginner’s Course
of the D.S. Dog Training Workshop, and an element of the Dog Science Network

Comprehensive Behavioral Conditioning for Dogs

Understanding Depression in Dogs and Humans
Page Two of a two-page article

Go back to page one of this article
Go to the index for this article

Ratio Strain

When a person is on a continuous schedule of reinforcement, we say they are on a 1 – 1 ratio of response to reinforcement. By which we mean that they only have to respond once before they receive a reward for having made that response. In comparison, if our subject had to make two responses before he could draw a reinforcer, then, we’d say that he was scheduled on a 2 -1 ratio.

Now, imagine that we were dispensing reinforcement to someone on a continuous basis, and that we were this person’s only source of reinforcement. But imagine that, then, we began to thin-out the pay-offs so that over a period of many months, our subject gradually began to receive less and less reinforcement for making the same number of responses. We would find that as the level of reinforcement gradually decreased, our subject would become steadily less and less satisfied with the situation and he would also, over time, become less active in general than he had been previously. In other words, he would do fewer things during the course of his day than he did when his general level of reinforcement was higher.

If we just kept thinning the reinforcement out over the months so that our subject had to make more and more responses in exchange for less and less in the way of rewarding reinforcers, the ratio of response to reinforcement would eventually deteriorate to the point to where the poor guy would just throw up his hands – his paws, or whatever – in frustration.

At some point it will occur to him that maybe it’s not worth the effort, and he’ll start to wonder why he even keeps trying. That is called the point of ratio strain.

Ratio strain is the point of too much energy expended in exchange for too little in return. It is the point of If things don’t get better, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.


When reinforcement falls below a certain level, people and dogs just stop responding. However, that should come as no surprise. Remember, reinforcement produces the energy that makes behavior happen. Therefore, when no reinforcement is forthcoming, lethargy soon follows. What you get, then, is an inactive organism that just tends to mope around.

When someone falls into a low energy, dysfunctional funk as a result of a thin schedule of reinforcement, that is by definition, depression.

Be they dog or human, that’s what’s happening when you are dealing with a depressed subject. They are operating under a schedule of reinforcement that is so thin that there are just not enough rewarding stimuli in their environment to keep them active and functioning effectively, not to mention happily.

Notice that when you feel deeply depressed you experience a sense of being out of gas, as though your inner reserve of spiritual energy has been depleted. You may have a sense that you need to somehow dredge up the strength to go on from within, the way a starving body must feed off its own muscle to survive. As opposed to being able to draw nourishment from external sources.

It really is very much a parallel situation when you are depressed. If you cannot draw reinforcement from an external source, then, you must deplete your own internal reserves if you are to push forward at all. However, since a person can only do so much of that, when external sources of reinforcement dry up, people and dogs tend to stop responding as they settle into a much less active state.

You’ll notice that depression tends to occur at times of great loss, when we are separated from loved ones. That makes perfect sense if you take into account the fact that those closest to us reinforce us for everything we do in countless ways. Therefore, when we lose a loved one, we also lose an enormous source of reinforcement and an astounding number of reinforcers. And after all, those reinforcers generate the energy that fuels the responses that keep us happy and active.

Depression May Not Primarily Be a Psychological Problem

Although it sometimes leads to suicide and can, therefore, be extremely serious, truth be told, depression that is caused solely by a derth of reinforcing stimuli in the environment is not truly a psychological problem in the sense that it can conceivably be remedied with a non-psychological fix. For example, a person who is depressed secondary to ratio strain could be miraculously transformed if they suddenly got a high paying job where financial rewards began to flow freely and they were, at the same time, surrounded by co-workers who put them on a continuous schedule of reinforcement by dispensing praise and other social reinforcers for every effort they put forth in the workplace.

In that sense, many people who are depressed due to ratio strain may actually be suffering much more from a situational problem rooted in environmental factors than from a true psychological disorder in the sense that one usually thinks of such things.

Depression in Canines

Dogs do, indeed, become depressed, and the danger of an animal being stricken with that malady or incapacitated by ration strain is well recognized among those who work with service dogs of all kinds. For that reason, police officers who work with drug-sniffing dogs make it a point to plant contraband for the animals to find from time to time, to ensure that they won’t go too long without finding something for which they can be rewarded, because if they do, the ratio may grow so thin they that they will simply stop working.

For a highly trained search and rescue dog, the reinforcing payoff comes when a victim is found alive. No survivors means no payoffs. Accordingly, it is said that after days of working their way through the rubble of the World Trade Center without finding anyone alive, the dogs who searched in vain for survivors grew visibly depressed.

German Shepherds understand ratio strain. They don’t need anyone to explain that to them.

Most people don’t recognize depression in their own family dogs. Rather, when they see the symptoms they simply chalk it up to the dog being mellow or lazy. Especially if a given dog is depressed pretty much all the time, it starts to seem like the depressive mannerisms displayed by the animal merely characterize the way he just naturally is.

You are most likely to observe depressive symptoms in your family dog if he is unexpectedly separated from the family members who usually meet his needs and, thereby, fuel his usual activities at their customary level. For example, if just you and the dog are left behind while his other usual human sources of reinforcement are away on vacation, you may well see the dog begin to mope around in a depressed manner. In fact, I once kept steady company with a Dachshund who late in life became known as the moper for that very reason.

This page from the Dog Science Network’s dog training workshop in socialization and obedience work, explains how a low ratio of response to reinforcement can lead to depression in both dogs and people