Understanding Your Dog's Orienting Reflex

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

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 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 sense 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.

My Favorite Dog Behavior and Training Book

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 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 yet have gotten 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 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 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.

© 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.

Reflexes Reactions and Conditioned Responses – Jari Peuhkurinen

This material is quite scientific in nature and direct application to self defense training might be lost to some of the readers, but it is my opinion that as an instructor one should always know the science and principles behind human behaviour under stress. Other thing is that I strongly believe that understanding helps to comprehend principles and concepts behind action faster and this directly affects how fast one is able to absorb new skills.

Selective Attention Vigilance

By using selective attention an individual is able to pick out the most important information for processing from all the information that is received by the senses. Selective attention is regulating memory information and information picked out by our senses and deciding what to bring to our consciousness. This is also called cocktail party -phenomenon, meaning that when you are surrounded by lot of people talking, you can still pick out the important words for you, for example if you hear your name mentioned.

Life would be surprisingly difficult without the selective attention. In a noisy train station it would be difficult to hear the announcement when you train is leaving, if we could not consciously guide our attention to the information we want to. Same goes for recognizing a friend in a crowd, if you could not pick out the information needed to recognize a friend and compare it to the memory information that you have about him or her, think about that for a second.

So we can guide our attention consciously, but if there is a stimulus that surprises us or stimulus that needs our attention, even when our conscious mind is not at that moment concentrating on it, it will be guided to our attention. This is called the Orienting Reflex or Orienting Response.

Reflex, Reaction and Response

Before going into details I need to define a couple of terms used in this article. I do not like Wikipedia definitions so much, but I will use them here to make a difference between these terms

A reaction (lat. reactio) refers to response to other event. In psychology reaction is a response to stimulus, in physiology it is a change that happens in body.

Reflex and reaction is often used concurrently and for the clarity of this article I will use the word reflex to describe responses to stimulus that is not activated by our conscious mind. In my mind reaction is somehow more conscious than reflex. Reactions can also be natural responses to different stimulus, but reactions can also be chemical and reactions can be also acted consciously. For example reacting to bad news received in phone. Reflex in its essence is something more unconscious, something we do not decide to do. Only important thing here is that you make the difference and are able to tell apart action that is conscious and unconscious.

The orienting reflex is an autonomic reflex, this means that it can not be controlled consciously. It guides our attention to stimulus that come to our conscious mind despite of all the other stimuli affecting our senses. The orienting reflex is very primal reflex and is part of the behaviour of most animals, this reflex has been programmed to our genes since very early in our evolution and its main function is to keep us alive. It literally grabs our attention, it is our inbuilt early warning device, the creak on the stairs in the night, the new smell that we do not know.

Think about situation where you are in middle of training and talking to students and suddenly a window or door closes loudly. Everyone’s attention shifts to direction of the noise and whilst the overall responses to the stimulus might differ a lot in a group everybody has a shift of attention at minimum. Some may merely glance in the direction of the sudden noise others may adopt a kind of startle response, where hands come up and head goes down and at once the direction of the stimulus, it is a spectrum but there will be a response.

If the door or window closes frequently, there will be familiarization to the stimulus and responses will not be that strong people will allow the noise to become background. In the end of the training it might be that there is no shift of attention at all. The stimulus that results in the orienting reflex is sudden and unexpected, if there is preparation and expectation the reflex is not so strong or it will not appear. If there is no preparation the reflex is strong, just try slapping your focus pads together unexpectedly during a training session.

Stimulation of the orienting reflex will abort any ongoing task. That is its function. It forces our attention to shift to possible threat and at the same time the amygdala will initiate the flight or fight response. All this happens in milliseconds and our human brain has not yet have time to process the information for us to even know what the stimulus is. Is it something that is threatening our safety and life or is it something harmless? Once the information from the stimulus is processed and it is recognized as not life threatening, one will experience the feeling of relief. We can feel it in our body as the stress hormones are standing down and preparations to fight or flight will cease.

From the point of view of self defense this is meaningful reflex to understand. This can not be unlearned, at least not completely, but getting used to unexpected stimulus during a confrontation will reduce the time for us to consciously understand what is happening, allowing us to recover faster and process our thoughts and actions more effectively.

The protective reflexes are closely related to the orienting reflex, while the orienting reflex shifts our attention in the direction of the stimulus and is more psychological in nature, the protective reflexes will protect us physically. We can separate out two distinct functions two parts of the physical response that protects us.

The first is the well known startle reflex that is a universal response to threat stimuli. It is most clearly seen when the direction or the source of the stimulus can not immediately be identified. This is a primary reflex, where shoulders go up and protect the neck whilst the head and chin go down and basically whole body tries to go to fetus position when standing. The hands come up to protect the head and when this happens our lizard brain has got the lead and human brain has not yet had time to process the information to realize what is going on. This is our primitive response of the oldest part of our brain, the amygdala automatically triggers the preparations for fight or flight.

The protective reflex is the physical movement of body and hands that follows the startle reflex. It happens when the direction of the threat is recognized. Recognition can happen through seeing the threat, hearing or feeling it.

The protective reflex is not so universal in its nature it as the startle response, it varies from person to person, from one situation to another. It can be strong or weak, it can lead to freezing or sudden action, the power of the stimuli can be an influencing factor, if a dog attacks you, would you react the same if it were a toy Poodle or a Rottweiler?

Usually the reflex promotes symmetrical movement where hands move the same line forward or backwards towards the head. However,this is not fixed it can be that only one hand is pushing forward, while other hand protects the head. The main thing is that it does not matter how much one has trained to develop a certain response to a threat the automatic protective reflex cannot be overridden by training, we may alter it but rarely will we eradicate it.

What we can train for is how fast we are able to start productive action after the protective reflex has occurred.

From training point of view it is important to understand that even when training helps us make use of these reflexes and training helps us to get used to different stimulus that normally produce strong uncontrollable reflexes, these responses cannot entirely be shut down. If and when the stimulus is strong, autonomic reflexes will reappear. Not all reflex responses can be transformed into something tactical. Sometimes it can be that reflex makes you take a step backwards. This has to be taken into account when training the action after protective reflex has occurred. What we need to think about is how fast can we get back into the game?

My answer, it depends. After we orientate towards the threat and the protective reflex occurs it then depends on many variables how fast we are able to make the conscious decision to go forward against the threat or retreat as fast as possible. How strong is the pressure created by the stimulus? How close to the reflex is our trained response? Training can make a difference but we need to know what is happening.

It is also a question of how early in moment we are able to pick out the stimulus. The earlier we pick out the incoming stimulus the more we have time to process the information, the less the pressure created by incoming stimuli will be.

The more simple, more symmetrical, more close to the original reflex our trained response is the more able and faster we are able to make it into something tactical. When training it is important to train conscious action after the stimulus has been created by a strong protective reflex. This training cannot be done by deciding that now I will make protective reflex, it has to produced naturally.

Reflexes can not be omitted in training by thinking that all it requires is more training to make them go away or manage them tactically. Reflexes need to be taken as something that are within us and will stay within us, no matter how much we train. We can use them to our advantage and we can experience them in training and practise getting into action faster after such reflexes appear. Exposure and experience will make these reflexes our friends.

Many times I have heard, and also trained myself, using the natural reaction of human being to defend against an attack. The principle is sound. Techniques and tools, based on the movement of natural reflexes is good. It can be moulded by training into something tactical and usable in real life situation. However, if you really think about the original, the ultimate purpose of these reflexes, it is something that is out of our hands. They are unconscious reflexes produced without our frontal cortext, our human brain, processing the information or selecting the logical response. Nobody decides to have an reflex, it is decided for us by the lizard brain, the amygdala.

Intention – Beginning – Movement – Hit

One needs to train for different stages of response to threat stimuli and how to react and respond to them.

  • Intention of an attack: This means simply that when attacker shows intention of attacking by closing distance the defender will go into action.
  • Beginning refers to beginning of the movement, where the pressure of the attack is weakest, the pre-contact cues.
  • Movement means training against the actual attack which is already on its way to target. This is the most common stage of practising against attacks. This is most likely stage of producing autonomous protective reflex.
  • Hit, refers to situation where defender has not been able to defend and the attacker hits its target. This is also important thing to practise. If consciousness is not lost, the defender needs to be able to get back into the game asap. An attack that hits will produce some form of reflex, may it be just psychological momentary freeze, before the defender is able to burst into action. This depends on the training and experiences.

Operant Conditioned Responses

Operant conditioning responses to certain stimuli is the method most commonly used when training animals. It is also method used when training self defense. The purpose of conditioning is to produce desired response to a stimulus that triggers it. In training, response is either rewarded with success when the defender is able to thwart the attack and evades being hit. Or it is punished by failing to produce desired response, what results in being hit. Positive experiences make the behaviour more likely to repeat, whereas negative experiences reduce the behaviour.

Operant conditioning is best produced by repetition. The desired response is repeated again and again in response to a certain stimulus, in different situations, so that it will become the most likely action taken when the stimulus is identified. We literally programme the brains response to the stimulus.

This brings us to the main point of operant conditioning. Conditioning can be universal in nature, for certain stimuli, for example being hit produces psychological and physical response of attacking with an offensive attitude to gain upper hand in a fight. Conditioning can also be more specific. A straight punch attackwill be conditioned to produce certain defensive response and circular punch will produce another response and a knife attack downwards a third response and so on. This is the most common way of training MA/SD, it is what we do.

The problem with this type of conditioning is the identification of the stimulus before an appropriate response can be triggered. If the conditioning is specific to the attack, then the need for identification and proper response selection from memory needs to happen before action takes place. This is where OODA -loop comes into play, if the stimulus is something general in nature, for example the identification of pre-attack indicators like in a monkey dance then the response is also something general in nature such as adopting a defensive stance. Here the trained response is easier to perform and more likely to succeed in real life. No need for specific identification and no need for selection from multiple attack specific responses.

However, if the conditioning is more specific, for example a defence against straight punch, the movement itself needs to go through the identification process before action can be taken. This brings the attacker already so much closer to hitting his target that active, forward moving response is really difficult to produce. Here the protective response is more likely to kick in not trained responses, because the lizard brain will take charge from the human brain once the threat (the punch) is seeing coming towards the face.

It is important to understand that no matter how well conditioned we are to respond to a particular stimulus, it is something that will not erase the protective reflex. If the stimulus is sudden and takes us by surprise the protective reflex will dominate. Too many times in conditioning training, these protective reflexes are seen as a mistakes, rather that opportunity to train productive action after the reflex. This is itself a major mistake, think about how you train!

Operant conditioning is is a great method of training and some form of conditioning always happens when training. It just depends on what we are training to condition ourselves to. Think about this and re-read the Intention – Beginning – Movement – Hit paragraph again.

Black, R. W.: Heart rate response to auditory stimuli of varying duration.Psychon. Sci.,1:171–172, 1964.

Dykman, R. A., and Gantt, W. H.: A case of experimental neurosis and recovery in relation to the orienting response.J. Psychol.,50:105–110, 1960.

Flynn, J. P.: Discussion: Papers by W. G. Reese, and W. H. Gantt.Physiol. rev. Suppl.,4:292–294, 1960.

Gantt, W. H.:Experimental basis for neurotic behavior. New York: Hoeber and Co., 1944.

Gantt, W. H., and Hoffman, W. C.: Conditioned cardio-respiratory changes accompanying conditioned food reflexes.Amer. J. Psychol. 129:360–361, 1940.

Gliedman, L. H., and Gantt, W. H.: Effects of reserpine and chlorpromazine on orienting behavior and retention of conditional reflexes.South. Med. J.,49:880–889, 1956.

Graham, Frances K., and Clifton, R. K.: Heart rate change as a component of the orienting response.Psychol. Bull.,65: 305–320, 1966.

Newton, J. E. O., and Gantt, W. H.: Curare reveals central rather than peripheral factor determining cardiac orienting reflex.Am. J. Physiol.,199, No. 6, pp. 978–980, 1960.

Newton, J. E. O.: Blood pressure and heart rate changes during conditioning in curarized dogs.Conditional Reflex, Vol. 2, in press, 1967.

Pavlov, I. P.:Lectures on conditioned reflexes. (Trans. and ed. by W. H. Gantt). New York, International Publishers, 1928.

Petelina, V. V.: The vegetative component of the orientation reaction of the vestibular, visual and auditory analyzers. In L. G. Voronin et al. (Eds.)The orienting reflex and exploratory behavior. Moscow, Academy Ped. Science, 1958. (pp. 158–164).

Robinson, Janice, and Gantt, W. H.: The orienting reflex (questioning reaction): Cardiac, respiratory, salivary, and motor components.Bull. Johns Hopkins Hosp.,80:231–253, 1947.

Sokolov, Y. E.:Perception and the conditioned reflex. Trans. by Stefan W. Waydenfeld. The Macmillan Co., New York (p. 119), 1963.

Stern, J. A., and Wood, T. J.: Changes in cardiac responses of the albino rat as a function of electro-convulsive seizures.J. comp. physiol. Psychol.,54:389–394, 1961.

When Animal Defenses Encounter a Human Predator: Part IV

Victims of rape and childhood sexual abuse frequently describe dissociation-like experiences which occurred during the assault. Typically, we assume that these are dissociative experiences. But are they? I don’t think we really know. To be blunt about it, we have little idea where our animal defenses leave off and our dissociative functioning begins.

Tonic Immobility During Rape

In my last post, I described the first empirical study of tonic immobility during rape. Galliano et al. (1993) reported that 37% of rape victims had experienced tonic immobility during the assault. Furthermore, tonic immobility during rape was not a blessing. Galliano and colleagues found that tonic immobility seemed to breed guilt and self-blame. As one member of our discussion community recently put it:

“I was an athlete 21 yrs old, strong, feisty, self-assured. my experience of tonic immobility during rape [generated] an identity crisis that had me feeling profoundly confused about who I was and ashamed that I did not fight back. it took me a long time to fully understand this response as a defense mechanism and let go of the guilt I felt about not fighting back.”

According to Tiffany Fusé, almost half of women who experience tonic immobility during rape find it to be terrifying. As the quotation above illustrates, the autonomous intrusion of tonic immobility not only takes away what little power that a rape victim still possesses, it may challenge her very identity:

“Animals and humans do not choose TI [tonic immobility] … TI is more akin to a hardwired response, a response that can be quite frightening itself.” (Marx, Forsyth, Gallup & Fusé, 2008, p. 80)

the TI experience itself might be so aversive and frightening that having such an experience promotes the onset of posttraumatic stress symptomatology.” (Marx et al., 2008, p. 84, emphasis added)

Uh oh — “promotes the onset of posttraumatic stress symptomatology?” That would go far beyond the old saw about ‘adding insult to injury.’ Marx and colleagues are saying that, in the case of sexual assault, tonic immobility adds injury to injury. Does it?

Does Tonic Immobility Generate Posttraumatic Complications?

In a word, “Yes.” Every study that has examined this issue reports the same finding: trauma survivors who experienced tonic immobility have more posttraumatic symptoms than do trauma survivors who did not experience tonic immobility. Let’s take a closer look at this finding.

The size of the correlations between tonic immobility and posttraumatic symptoms are consistently modest. With few exceptions, these correlations range from .21 to .37. This means that tonic immobility and posttraumatic symptoms share 4% to 14% of their variance. On the other hand, Fusé and colleagues (2007) factor analyzed their Tonic Immobility Scale and found two factors: (1) Tonic Immobility and (2) Fear. When Heidt, Marx, and Forsyth (2005) correlated the Tonic Immobility factor with a good measure of PTSD symptoms, they found a correlation of .49.

This begins to be rather impressive. Rape is known to be an especially potent generator of PTSD symptoms (e.g., Rothbaum, Foa, Riggs, Murdock & Walsh, 1992). Now, Marx and colleagues have shown that tonic immobility, all by itself, accounts for 24% of those symptoms! What is going on here?

Let’s take a look at “the internals.” What the heck are internals? Those of you who are major political junkies may know. On TV, when they present the latest poll results, they soon get around to “the internals” — the detailed numbers within the major result. For example, the poll may say that Obama’s positive rating is 48%. The most interesting stuff, however, lies in “the internals” — that is, Obama’s positive ratings among Democrats, Independents, Republicans, men, women, and so on. Similarly, the most interesting findings in these eight tonic immobility studies can be found in the internal details.

PTSD has three clusters of symptoms: (1) re-experiencing(e.g., flashbacks, intrusive memories), (2) avoidance/numbing (e.g., avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, loss of interest in daily life), and (3) hyperarousal (e.g., hypervigilance, jumpiness). The key internal result from the eight studies is that the relationship between tonic immobility and PTSD symptoms is mostly driven by tonic immobility’s effect on re-experiencing symptoms.

So, there is something about tonic immobility that can make a bad event (especially rape) more traumatic. There is something about tonic immobility that worsens flashbacks and intrusive memories. And by the way, some of these studies examined nonsexual traumas and found the same thing. Tonic immobility somehow makes trauma worse.

Bottom Line: Our gifts from evolution and Mother Nature are usually quite beneficial. Here, however, our phylogenetic inheritance (i.e., tonic immobility) may have some very unpleasant consequences.

And now, a Question:Is tonic immobility an aspect of peritraumatic dissociation?” Or not? If not, why not? This may be an annoying or useless question for some of you. For me, it’s really important. Remember: I’m the guy who is trying to sort out the boundary between animal defenses and dissociation. So, what do you think?

How Can I Walk a Dog With a High Prey Drive?

Walking a dog with a high prey drive can be very difficult when the dog is constantly lunging after squirrels, birds, or anything that moves! There are a few steps you can take so walks are more walk and less tug-of-war with the leash.

Reward Good Leash Manners

Every time you go on a walk, stuff your treat pouch with high-value rewards.

Throughout the walk, reward good leash manners whenever you see them.

Good leash manners include:

  • walking on a loose leash
  • making eye contact with you
  • returning after getting too far away
  • and similar desired behaviors

Reinforcing good leash behavior while your dog is calm is a great way to create a foundation of skills for him to fall back on when he’s too excited by prey to think straight.

Have a Pre-Walk Play Session

Letting your dog get some energy out prior to his walk can help decrease his prey drive, especially if you let him play in a way that mimics hunting.

Some fun ideas for pre-walk play include:

  • Chase
  • Fetch
  • Paying tug
  • Flirt poles

Pre-walk exercise may sound redundant, but it will often help your dog control his impulses better.

If you’ve never played with a flirt pole before, check out the video below to see how it’s done!

Work on Counter-Conditioning

Your dog has an instinctual response to prey that you can’t control, but you can influence the behavior he displays when he sees prey by using a technique called “Open Bar / Closed Bar.”

Implementing the Open Bar / Closed Bar technique is fairly simple:

  1. First thing’s first: Practice this technique in a secure area, like a backyard or fenced park, with your dog on leash — preferably with a well-fitted harness, since a lot of dog lunging with a flat collar can cause tracheal collapse.
  2. Walk around for a little while, until you encounter a bird, rabbit, or some other type of irresistible prey. Whenever your dog notices prey and does not lunge or go after the animal, start shoving his face full of high value treats. (If he refuses to take treats, try encouraging him to follow you a few steps backward to put more space between him and the prey).
  3. Continue feeding treats as long as your dog is not lunging and he can see the prey. Once the prey is out of eye shot again, stop feeding. (If the prey does not leave on its own, walk your dog to another area after five to ten seconds of rewarding so he can decompress.)

That’s it! Repeating this process on a daily basis during training walks will increase your dog’s self-restraint when he notices prey.

Also, keep in mind the following tips when using this technique:

  • Practice this exercise on short training walks to begin changing your dog’s response to prey on leash.
  • 10 feet away is usually a good starting distance for working on ignoring prey. If your dog struggles with 10 ft away, extend the distance until he can focus on you and ignore the critter.
  • Always work with an extremely high-value treat that your dog doesn’t get at any other time. Chicken breast, hot dogs, lunch meats and squeeze cheese are popular choices.
  • Understand that it’s harder for dogs to pay attention when there’s an arousal trigger nearby, so training sessions should be kept short and end on a positive note with a few tricks your dog knows reliably.

Additionally, it is important to understand your dog’s threshold for how close you can be to prey without him lunging.

Pay attention to how close you are to prey animals when your dog starts reacting on walks, as well as when he notices prey but does not react (no lunging, barking, snarling, etc. Soft whining and huffing and puffing are okay at this stage).

Noticing prey may make his body language more stiff and alert look for:

  • ears pointed up and forward
  • tail out or up
  • chest puffed up
  • minimal movement

Watch the video: Speech on: My pet-cat (June 2021).