Both dogs and humans are subject to a simple, innate phenomenon known as the
*orienting response” or“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 much 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 it can be processed further, and should not be confused with an “OH MY GOD! 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 a dog’s senses:
Your dog pricks his ears and tums 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 fali on his back.
Your dog sniffs the air when a smełl 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 a stimulus. There may also be accompanying actions to ensure his senses are focused. For instance, in order to focus better, the dog may close his mouth and stop panting, hold his breath, or adjust his body in a certain way.
Interestingly, if the stimulus occurs over and over, the dog stops responding to it, and the orienting response no longer appears towards that particular stimulus. This is known as “habituation.” Basically, the senses get used to a trigger and no longer respond to it, a phenomenon not to be confused with the more systematic process known as desensitization. In other words, the dog’s senses relax.
For example, the first day you adopt a dog, he may tum his head repeatedly (orienting response) towards the sound 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 it, as if his senses went numb. This is mostly a survival process, it would be taa tiring and stressfuł ifthe body would respond over and over to tńggers that are not a threat. Yet, wait for that noise to change and become more intense one day, and you’ll see the orienting response come back to pay a visit.
Using the 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 (such as the one we learned about in the Look into MyEy galas), because they are salient to dogs and grab their attention so you can re-direct them to more appropriate behaviors. I call it CORO training and use it in 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 and your dog should respond to it every time. I have used it for years with my dogs, and they have never 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 him and immediately give him a tasty treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
After some time, the moment you make the smacking noise, your dog will turn his head to you in hopes of receiving 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 working well.
Clicker training also creates a similar conditioned orienting response. When you clicker train, the dog will continuously tum his head and move towards you for the treat that follows the dick. 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 classicallyego n a dog to scary stimuli, and then I move to differential reinforcement with the auto-watch (the dog automaöcally looks at me withOUt bei ›9 asked to do so) once the dog is responding nicety.
In other words, initially I use it the smacking noise to change the dog’s emotions towards a trigger (scary noise, treat!) but then I start raising criteria and expect the dog to use more and more his brain by expecting him to voluntarily make eye contact upon seeing the trigger (without the smacking sound), which is ultimately a behavior that is incompatible with reacting to the Tigger.
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