Understanding Your Dog's Orienting Reflex

Updated on September 25, 2018
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

What was that?
What was that? | Source

What's an Orienting Response?

Both dogs and humans are subject to a simple, innate phenomenon known as "orienting response" also known as "orienting reflex." This response is reflexive, meaning it's involuntary. If you are sitting on your couch watching television and your door suddenly opens, your head will automatically turn that way as you respond to the stimulus. You don't really think about turning your head that way, it just happens.

This phenomenon was first discussed by Russian physiologist Ivan Sechenov in 1863 in his book "Reflexes of the Brain". The term was coined by Ivan Pavlov who called it simply the "what is it?" reflex. In order to qualify as an orienting response, the novel stimuli must not be intense or sudden enough to cause another reaction known as "the startle reflex" which is meant to facilitate escape from a life threatening situation.

So a "what is it" reflex should be more an opportunity to “take information in” so to be processed further and should not be confused with an "OMG! what was that?!" startle reflex where you, yes, literally startle.

In dogs, you can see an orienting response in several scenarios. Here are a few examples of an orienting response in response to different stimuli affecting his senses:

  • Your dog pricks his ears and turns his head upon hearing a noise
  • Your dog looks in the direction of a person walking by
  • Your dog turns around upon feeling a leaf fall on his back
  • Your dog sniffs the air when a smell captures his attention

Generally, you are seeing an orienting response when your dog adjusts his senses (pricking his ears, turning his head, dilating his pupils) in order to fix his attention on the stimulus. There may also be accompanying acts to ensure the sense are focused. The dog may therefore, close his mouth and stop panting in order to focus better, hold his breath or he may adjust his body in a certain way.

Interestingly, if the stimulus occurs over and over, the dogs stop responding to it, and the orienting response no longer appears towards that particular stimulus. This is known as "habituation" , basically the senses habituate and no longer respond to a trigger, a phenomenon not to be confused with the more systematic process known as desensitization. In other words the dog's senses relax.

For instance, the first day you adopt a dog, he may turn his head repeatedly (orienting response) towards the noise of the dishwasher. However, day after day he may respond less and less up to the point where he will just fall asleep and ignore, as if his senses went numb.

This is mostly a survival process, it would be too tiring and stressful if the body would respond over and over to triggers that are not a threat. Yet, wait for that noise to change, become more intense one day, and you'll see the orienting response come back to pay a visit.

Great reads for science junkies!

Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 2: Etiology and Assessment of Behavior Problems (Volume 2)
Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Vol. 2: Etiology and Assessment of Behavior Problems (Volume 2)

This is one of my favorite books. It is quite costly, but it sure was a good investment because it's full of important information although a bit technical. I suggest it to all those who are eager to learn more about dogs and dog trainers.

 

Using an Orienting Response for Training and Behavior Modification

The best thing about the orienting response is that it can be used to your advantage both in training and behavior modification. I like to train a conditioned orienting response to smacking noises, because they are salient to a dog and grab their attention so you can re-direct the dog to more appropriate behavior. I call it COR© training and use it for many, many circumstances. The best about it, is that because the conditioning reflex towards the stimuli is rewarded, it's quite resistant to habituation. I have used it for years with my dogs, and they yet have gotten tired of it or stopped responding! Here is how I do it:

  • Make a smacking noise with your mouth
  • When your dog turns his head towards you, praise and..
  • immediately reward with a tasty treat
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat
  • After some time, the moment you make the smacking noise, your dog will turn his head in hopes for a treat.

I then use this sound on walks to grab my dog's attention if something distracting is coming up or if I need my dog's immediate attention. I have noticed this sound works much better than using a name. Yet, I have also noticed that if you make the sound too often without giving a treat, the orienting response to the sound weakens, so it needs frequent reinforcement with treats in order to keep it salient enough.

Clicker training also creates a similar conditioned orienting response. When you clicker train, the dog will continuously turn his head and move towards you for the treat that follows the click. But with COR, you don't need to carry a clicker and it's not used to mark wanted behaviors; rather, I use it mostly to classically countercondition a dog to scary stimuli and then I move to operant counter-conditioning with the auto-watch once the dog is responding nicely.


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      5 years ago from USA

      Thanks for stopping by, an AYM. I have tried different noises, but the smacking one for some reason seems to work the best.

    • profile image

      An AYM 

      6 years ago

      Neat stuff - I liked it!

      I found it funny too that I also use a smacking noise with my mouth but in regards to a command for one of my cats. It's a little cue we use when playing with the laser pointer, if he loses sight of it I make the sound and he knows where to look to find it.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      6 years ago from USA

      Good luck Giblingirl, thanks for stopping by!

    • GiblinGirl profile image

      GiblinGirl 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Really interesting. I'll have to pay more attention to these responses in my dog and see if I can use them to my advantage as well.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, pethelpful.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://pethelpful.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)