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

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 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.

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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

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.