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Understanding Your Dog's Orienting Reflex

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

What was that?

What was that?

What's an Orienting Response?

Both dogs and humans are subject to a simple, innate phenomenon known as "orienting response," also known as the "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 his 1863 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 of 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 see 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 senses are focused. The dog may 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 the dishwasher 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. But if that noise were to change, or become more intense one day, you'll see the orienting response come back.

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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 redirect the dog to more appropriate behavior. I call it COR© training and use it for many, many circumstances. The best thing 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 have yet to get tired of it or stopped responding! Here is how I do it:

  • Make a smacking noise with your mouth.
  • Praise and immediately reward your dog with a tasty treat when he turns his head towards you.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat.

After some time, the moment you make the smacking noise, your dog will turn his head in hopes of 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 counter-condition 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 Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 10, 2012:

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

An AYM on December 10, 2012:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 10, 2012:

Good luck Giblingirl, thanks for stopping by!

GiblinGirl from New Jersey on December 10, 2012:

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.