Thank you to Debbie Jacobs and Randi Rossman who made suggestions about this. All conclusions and any errors are my own.
Have you heard the term “opposition reflex” used in dog training? It’s used pretty often. But recently I got to wondering whether the opposition reflex was really a reflex. (Quick answer: “No.” Shortest blog post I’ve ever written.)
Would you like to hear the story anyway?
First, some context. I gathered the following quotes about the “opposition reflex” from a selection of dog training articles.
- The dog’s opposition reflex [is the] instinctive reaction to push against a push.
- Dogs have a natural resistance to pressure called the opposition reflex.
- If dogs are pulled in one direction, they will automatically pull in the other direction.
- The opposition reflex is your dog’s natural instinct to resist pressure.
Wow. Instinctive! Natural! Automatic! But then I started looking for the term “opposition reflex” in lists of actual reflexes. I looked in biology, physiology, and learning theory textbooks. I looked in scholarly articles.
Virtually all mentions of the so-called “opposition reflex” are in lay articles about dog and horse training. So where did this term come from and why do we use it? It’s not in the textbooks.
We have Pavlov to thank for part of the confusion about the opposition reflex. Interesting, since he was a physiologist. Pavlov came up with the term “freedom reflex” for the escape behaviors of a dog who strongly resisted the harness he used in his laboratory. He generalized it to all organisms. (It turns out that Pavlov liked to call all sorts of things reflexes. That is a whole other discussion.)
Most scholars agree that Pavlov grossly over-generalized from the actions of the dog, and was mistaken in calling what was essentially resistance to coercion as a reflex. As one of his critics states:
There is of course no reflex of freedom, although it is easy to see resistance to coercion in animals and humans. Herding cats is nearly impossible, and it is equally hard to keep male dogs from sniffing females in heat. Wild horses resist taming, and most animals cannot be domesticated at all. Human beings fiercely resist unwanted control. But struggling against coercion is not a reflex — it is nothing like a simple atom of behaviour. –Baars, Bernard. “IP Pavlov and the freedom reflex.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 10, no. 11 (2003): 19-40.
But decades after Pavlov, trainers grabbed onto the concept of the freedom or opposition reflex. Mentions start to appear in the mid-1990s in training literature, first applied to horses, then to dogs, as far as I could tell. Some authors connected the two terms, as in this article: “Opposition Reflex in Horses.” It’s pretty clear that what many people refer to now as the opposition reflex is a direct descendent of Pavlov’s freedom reflex. The problem? It never was a reflex and it’s still not a reflex.
What Is a Reflex?
Reflexes are involuntary, discrete, and consistent behaviors. As Baars mentions in the quote above, they can be thought of as “atoms of behavior.”
A reflex is an automatic response to nerve stimulation. –Alters, Sandra. Biology: understanding life. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2000.
Some examples of reflexes in dogs are:
- the scratch reflex (dog’s leg kicks when you scratch them on certain parts of the body);
- the palpebral reflex (dog blinks when the skin below the corner of the eye is tapped);
- the pupillary light reflex (the pupil of the dog’s eye contracts when a bright light is shined on it);
- the withdrawal reflex (dog pulls foot away when toe is pinched);
- and many more, including at least 10 other reflexes having to do with stimulation and response of parts of dogs’ legs.
These are immediate, involuntary responses.
Pavlov’s so-called freedom reflex consists of much more varied behavior, sometimes chains of behaviors, which comprise methods of escape or regaining balance. These behaviors vary to the extreme by species and individuals. A large, gentle animal might just walk away if you tried to restrain it without any special equipment. But anyone who has ever tried to handle feral kittens knows that their methods of trying to escape are typically painful and actually dangerous (because of the possibility of infection from scratches and bites) to humans.
What are typical situations in which an animal might exhibit these compensatory or escape behaviors?
- The animal is trying to get to something and is being restrained
- The animal is trying to get away from something and is being restrained
- The opposite can also occur: the animal is being forced to move and is resisting, as when a trainer tries to force a sit by pushing the dog’s butt down.
- The animal has been knocked off balance and is trying to regain equilibrium.
(I’m omitting situations where the animal has been trained to create or maintain pressure, such as a roping horse who can hold a cowboy’s line taut, or all sorts of animals that pull sleds or carts.)
Do you see the pattern here? In all cases, the animal is resisting force, confinement, or physical discomfort. When we use the phrase “opposition reflex,” we are often neatly sidestepping the fact that we are trying to get the animal to do something it doesn’t want to do. It’s a shortcut, a label that unfortunately encourages us to leave out our agency in the matter.
When Is This Discussed in Dog Training?
The so-called opposition reflex is generally brought up in discussions about leash walking, molding behaviors, and play.
Countless writers highlight a dog’s supposed opposition reflex when discussing why a dog won’t yield to leash pressure, but instead, might pull the other way. Reducing the reasons a dog might not yield to leash pressure, or will take action to create it, to an “opposition reflex” is simply applying a label. It gives us no insight into the situation. Many writers grab onto the phrase without considering the many sources and reasons for this behavior:
- First and foremost, many dogs naturally travel much faster than we do. They want to get moving. This creates a taut leash as our slowness holds them back.
- They are trying to get to something interesting, and we are passively or actively slowing them down. Again, this creates a taut leash.
- We are trying to get them away from something interesting, and they want to stay there. This time, we are actively creating the taut leash.
- They are frightened and trying to get away from us, the leash, or something else they perceive as threatening.
Positive reinforcement-based trainers try to avoid these situations anyway. We don’t want to drag our dogs around. To me, it seems much more helpful to understand that the dog is wanting to go at a different speed or to a different location than to reduce it to “opposition reflex.” The “opposition” part can make them sound downright contrary, instead of being creatures with their own agency and interests. On the other hand, the “reflex” part obscures that their behavior may be a visible indication of what they want or intend. Reflex sounds like they pull because they can’t help it, not because they are motivated by something.
Training by Molding Behaviors
The second place you read about the “opposition reflex” is in discussions of molding as a training technique. This is not a method that positive reinforcement-based trainers use, but it bears mentioning because people who do use it bring up the opposition reflex. It’s found in the old “push the dog’s butt down to teach him to sit” method. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ve probably experienced what people call the opposition reflex. It is an instant resistance by the dog to being pushed. It’s very common. It’s resistance to being thrown off balance and/or coerced. But again, labeling it “opposition” can even make it sound like this resistance is naughty or defiant.
Play and Restrained Recalls
A final situation in which people discuss the opposition reflex is in activities that involve drive and enthusiasm. For instance, some agility trainers use what are called “restrained recalls.” A partner restrains the dog while the handler calls her. The dog’s struggle to escape can result in a faster recall when she is released.
Note that the latter situation matches my description #1 above: the dog is trying to get to something and is being restrained. If you have a play history with your dog, this can be fun for the dog. But it’s pretty obvious it’s not a reflex–they are trying to get to something.
Here’s an example where I am restraining my dog in a training/play situation. Check out 0:26 in the video.
Link to the video for email subscribers.
I contend that Summer’s pushing against my hands as I pull her backward is not a reflex. We’re seeing a dog who wants to run forward and get to the garden hose.
Oxford Reference defines the term thigmotaxis as “Movement towards or away from a solid object in response to tactile stimulation.” Several readers suggested this as an explanation for the opposition reflex.
The classic example of positive thigmotaxis is rodents’ tendencies to walk staying in touch with walls and other vertical surfaces. Negative thigmotaxis is a movement to avoid certain stimuli, and is seen in fish and unicellular organisms.
The idea that the “opposition reflex” is some kind of thigmotaxis appears to come from the work of Steven R. Lindsay. In Volume 1 of his Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, he suggests that the opposition reflex is an example of thigmotaxis. But in Volume 3, he rescinds his recommendation of the term thigmotaxis for response to leash pressure and returns to using the term opposition reflex. It’s pretty clear that his original citing of thigmotaxis was an educated opinion, not based on experimental literature. And he changed his mind.
Positive thigmotaxis (turning **toward** touch or pressure) is seen in neonate puppies in the behavior of rooting for a nipple. Other than that, I haven’t seen it listed as present in dogs.
What’s the Problem With the Phrase?
I think we should question our use of the phrase “opposition reflex” because:
- It’s a label—it can stand for dozens of different behaviors.
- The behaviors it is used to describe are generally not reflexes.
- It discourages us from analyzing and asking why the behavior is being performed. (E.g., the leashed dog simply wants to go faster.)
- It discourages us from looking at our role in setting the stage for the behavior.
- It discourages us from determining the consequences that are driving the behavior.
- It sounds automatic, nonvolitional.
- It also sounds negative. Opposition sounds like defiance.
- It promotes confusion about respondent and operant behaviors.
I don’t think the term is going away anytime soon. But I hope we can get better at actually observing and describing behavior and understanding its causes and consequences. If we did that, this term would be left behind.
Have you heard the phrase in more contexts that I have listed? Have you ever seen a true reflex mentioned when discussing the opposition reflex?
Wow, opposition in the trenches. (I’m going to avoid the obvious joke there.)
To anyone who wants to claim that the opposition reflex in dogs is a true reflex/respondent behavior/thigmotaxis, the burden of proof is on you. I have already tried and failed. You may succeed, then I’ll retract appropriate statements and amend my post. To provide evidence you will need to do the following:
- Cite a source listing the “opposition reflex” as a true reflex from a canine anatomy/physiology, neurology, or another veterinary textbook.
- Show that near 100% of neurologically healthy dogs demonstrate it in the same way.
- Show the body part that can receive the stimulus and nerve group involved.
- Show that the same physiological response is consistent.
- Show that it can’t be punished or reinforced (though it could be attached to a new stimulus).
As I mentioned, I have already tried and failed to find these things. Please let me know if you find them.
Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Vishneveckiy
Text copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson
82 thoughts on “Opposition Reflex: What Is It Really?”
Thanks for another great post! A question: how do we know that it’s an actual reflex, when a dog pulls away a pinched paw? I confess that I would have guessed that that one is another example of what you write about here. But research shows it’s like a knee jerk in us?
Really great question. How do we tell the difference between the toe pinch reflex and a dog who is saying “I don’t want you to touch my foot?” I’ll look up my source later today, but I think that it is a very specific type and placement of pinch that triggers the reflex. Here is a veterinarian’s description of the use of that reflex. I’ll get back to you with more. Making Sense of the Neuro Exam.
Thanks for the link, and for digging more. You are an even better digger than my Coonhound. 🙂
Great post and good food for thought!
I have one dog that I’ve dubbed Captain Opposition Reflex. If you put him on leash, he walks straight to the end of it to strain and push into his collar. After a lot of LLW training, he can now walk on a loose leash and he benefits from a front clip harness but he used to strain on walks as well. Off leash, he is a total slug. He trots slowly, stops to sniff often, and frequently lags behind the rest of the gang. He got into mushing at four-ish years old. Again, he’s a total slowpoke but once he’s hooked to the bike or sled, he pushes into the harness and will drag the bike or sled away given the chance. He has never shown any fear or concern about the bike or sled.
He has always seemed like an oddball to me. With the other dogs, it’s very obvious when they want to go faster, check out something interesting, or move away from something scary. Tyler just seems to want to push back against pressure.
I bet it just may feel good to some animals. Goodness knows that some dogs who pull on cue really seem to love it. Thanks for the comment!
Great post and examination of this now ubiquitous phrase. Admittedly, we humans do like to label things – guilty of it myself. And, perhaps we do need a term to more succinctly describe these phenomena in a class setting, for example. Throughout your post, I was thinking, “OK, so let’s think up an alternative term.” If you were going to, what might it be? 🙂
That’s the hard part, isn’t it! One person suggested “pushmepullyou.” We need something sticky and descriptive, since “opposition reflex” obviously is.
You’ll get a kick out of this – I actually said that in class one day when describing the seesawing that happens when people walk puppies – pushmepullyou…I agree, sticky and descriptive. No doubt I will lie awake pondering…
Let us know if you come up with more! I doubt if this is a term that will die. But at least we can operationalize what we are talking about to people.
Love this idea! pushmepullyou
First, I agree with you that “opposition reflex” is not a physical reflex like some others you’ve mentioned. However, for an easy discussion reference let’s try Wikipedia on instinct, and the section on “Reflexes and instinct”. That references the “reflex arc” which relates to nerve stimulations, but they then include “primitive reflexes” which have a different neural path, and these are also commonly also spoken of as instinctive behaviors.
But from there it gets fuzzy. We know there are other instinctive behaviors, where the intensity often varies greatly with the individual. In looking at about a dozen Cattle Dogs, I found (only) two who were difficult for many people to leash walk, as they seemed to have an “instinctive” pull against resistance. By jiggling a slack leash I could walk them fine, but anybody who allowed the leash to remain taut had difficulty. Sure, some of the other dogs might pull a bit, but all were easily trainable and these two were not, yet behaving just fine if you took this into account.
So, is that simply an “instinctive behavior”, “instinctive reflex”, “imprinted behavior” (possibly) or just “something they like to do”? And you can’t limit it to only pulling, as there are other similar behaviors.
Whatever you say here, I’ll just laugh and agree with you…
Gerry, good points.
Not disputing at all but I had always thought that the term had some background in task. That certain dogs such as spaniels and terriers are more prone to ‘pulling against’ as a result of their working behaviour, to release them from situations where they may get tangled. I confess I believed that theory as it made sense.
Hey Charlotte, I bet breed comes into it in terms of likelihood of certain behaviors. Good point!
Yes rather than questioning your argument against the term ‘opposition reflex’ I guess I was pondering if the behaviour has any link to breed trait. Which is a different concept entirely isnt it. Although if its an behaviour brought out by breeding for certain characteristics doe that make it more instinctive and there fore closer to a reflex in the common sense even if not in the scientific sense? Idont know I probably shouldn’t ponder in public! Lol!
I try to make this a safe place to ponder in public! Probably the words that Gerry used previously in a comment are closer to what you are trying to get at than reflex. I’m also having a pleasant conversation with people on FaceBook about what they call the “balance reflex.” It’s made me realize that for humans, not falling down is a survival behavior. We have an odd, tall, two-legged physique. I know what people mean when they talk about the balance reflex, but I think that one is a strongly learned set of behaviors that we start learning in childhood. Although there could be some kind of reflexive behavior in the inner ear. Will have to look that up!
A list of senses I read recently included balance, eg, hearing, touch, intuition… Beyond the 5 I learned in school. I suspect pain was on it.
Thanks Augusta, I’d be interested in that list. I have seen additional senses listed for sure, and nociception (pain sensing) was on the list. Said to have its own sensor system, but I haven’t looked it up in the literature. Proprioception is relevant to our discussion, too. I haven’t seen intuition listed. Thanks for the comment.
I used the list in a staff meeting to explore creativity and innovation. Must have been reading something about that topic.
As always Eileen you have triggered some excellent thinking and pondering in us humans – thank you!! Your article raises so many great points and I think it has been too easy for us as dog trainers to “pigeon hole” a dog that pulls on leash (for example) as one that is exhibiting “opposition reflex” rather than evaluate the specific situation. Breed (some dogs want to get to or get away from things more keenly than others), instinct (a hungry dog will possibly pull more persistently towards food on the ground than a dog that has just had a big meal) and learned behaviours (a dog that has been reinforced for pulling is more likely to pull than one that has not been reinforced for pulling) are factors that affect a dogs “want” to pull, push, lean, resist ect. Your article has been a welcomed reminder/refresher for me to keep questioning/researching everything I practise as I strive to become a better positive reinforcement dog trainer! Thanks for all your great articles Eileen!
Thank you, Kathleen! That was exactly where I was going with the article!
Thank you for this, Eileen, I enjoyed reading it. How about ‘the opposition response’ (rather than ‘reflex’)?
Here’s one thing that’s been puzzling (and often worrying) me along the years. Lead walking along a small road and a car approaching, my ‘reflex’ (I mean ‘reaction’ and just realise how language can introduce these errors) is to pull the dog closer to me, and in response the dog immediately leans towards the road or the ditch, depending which side he was on. Even though it was walking along the road, so the intention wasn’t to go into or away from the road in the first place… It’s true that in normal circumstances when I want him to walk closer, I just tap my leg, although somehow I don’t think he’d react the same if I just slightly pulled the lead towards me when there’s no road situation. Unless it’s a reaction to me ‘acting strange’?
I’ve had this with different dogs. My friend says she’s had it too with hers. Not sure I’m managing to describe it properly. If you know what I mean, what do you think?
Astrid, I think I know the kind of thing you are talking about. I have experienced it, but perhaps not as consistently as you. One thing I’m wondering is how close the dog is to begin with when you pull him in? Two different terriers I have known would consistently collapse their back legs when I would put my hands around their chest to pick them up. I think it was an evasive maneuver but it had that quality of instant response we are talking about. I like “opposition response” pretty well as a generic term, to recognize that it might come in many different forms.
Yeah, I like that opposition response as a generic term.
On pulling, yes, I would also lean the other way if you pulled me, whatever you might read into that. In training my dog I tried to often use natural reactions instead of artificial ones (e.g. tap leg) for abrupt situations, as those are what you use without giving it thought. So if I jiggle the leash then give a brief tug, every dog comes over, and it’s the same body language I automatically use when a car approaches. In some cases, I had to wait and see what I did before training the dog.
On the above comment on breed behaviors, I’d certainly agree, provided we keep it as an tendency which is not always expressed to the same degree even within a breed.
In my experience, dogs have a tendency to push back against pressure (even my hand gently pressed against a shoulder) rather than moving away from such pressure, as a cat or pet rabbit would. If someone walked up to me and placed their hand on my shoulder, I might turn toward them or shrink away, but I can’t think of any situation in which I would lean in to the hand and press against it, but that’s what my dogs will do. It’s not, in my experience, a trained behavior, but “natural”. I understand from your definition that this is not a true reflex, but it is something. I remember reading about “Fixed Action Response” (FAR), like a goose rolling an errant egg back into her nest with her beak using a specific movement, continuing the movement even if the egg is removed. But that doesn’t seem to fit, either, does it?
Yeah, they call those “modal action patterns” now. I suppose an ethologist could tell us if these different types of responses qualify as MAPs. I agree that these things are…a thing. Or an array of similar things. But I have no idea what to call them. I am learning so much from this discussion!
This makes perfect sense, now you’ve explained it. I doubt very much I would be able to keep my lower leg still if my knee was hit by a doctor’s hammer, no matter how many £10 notes were offered. On the other hand, a dog will give in to leash pressure with correct LLW training.
Sue Ailsby calls it Freedom Reflex and by coincidence her Fenzi course on Training levels is on week 2 of LLW, “The dog moves away from collar pressure”. Great course BTW. Filling in gaps in basics.
Pushmepullyou gets my vote.
Thanks for another excellent post.
Haha. You should read Edwin Twitmyer’s account of his study of the patellar reflex. (His discoveries about respondent behaviors actually predate Pavlov’s, but were not given much regard.) His subjects were psych students and some did indeed try to suppress the response. They didn’t succeed!
Yes, leave it to Sue to call it by the more proper name. The Training Levels are great!
Nice article, Eileen. I have to confess to using the term myself, usually when describing why we don’t push down on dog butts to teach “sit.” Don’t think I’ve been guilty of connecting it to leash behavior, but it makes perfect sense to make sure we really consider why a dog might suddenly plop down and not want to follow us on leash. Might just be that scary trash can down the block.
Sorry I missed your comment earlier, Gallivan! I think we are all talking about a common behavior and I do understand how easy it is to see it as reflexive. I never questioned it until I used to play agility with a little rat terrier named Kaci. She has a lot of drive and pizazz. But one time I tried doing the restraint thing to build up some startline excitement (as I do in the video with Summer) and she just melted back into my arms. It was the funniest experience! I’m glad you found some value in the article.
The correct term is “Thigmotaxis” — Lindsay refers to it in is Vol. 1 of “Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training.” He later refers to it as an “oppositional reflex”. You will find articles referencing ‘thigmotaxis’ in Google Scholar.
I suspect ‘opposition reflex’ came into use as people got sick of needing to explain the term ‘thigmotaxis’ every time the wanted to talk about it.
I suspect that it probably is a true reflex as it would be an instinctive behaviour evolved to resist being pushed over.
I’m aware of thigmotaxis and the reference in Lindsay’s book. I believe in this discussion it is a red herring.
I have researched it. The only “reflex” in canines that I have found involving thigmotaxis is positive thigmotaxis in neonate puppies, who will turn their faces towards touch. This may or may not remain in Lindsay’s example of dogs leaning into their owners, but it is not a particularly common behavior.
I have not seen negative thigmotaxis listed in canine anatomy and physiology books as a reflex in dogs (if you have, please correct me). As you know, Steven Lindsay mentions it, but he seems to be using a rather informal definition of the word reflex.
It is not mentioned in Dr. Karen Overall’s book on Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats (2013 edition).
As I mentioned in the addendum to the blog, to show that opposition reflex (or negative thigmotaxis) is a thing in dogs, you would first need to cite an canine anatomy, physiology, or neurology textbook that lists it in the lists of canine reflexes. It would have to show that:
1) near 100% of neurologically healthy dogs demonstrate it in the same way
2) that the same nerve or nerve group is always involved
3) that the same muscle/tendon response is always involved
4) that it can’t be punished or reinforced, though it could be attached to a new stimulus
5) that it fits other characteristics of respondent behavior.
Response to leash pressure is clearly an operant behavior since it can be modified. Resistance to pressure is a pretty common behavior, true. Perhaps a modal action pattern in some; certainly not a reflex.
If you research it for “pups,” you will get a lot of hits for mouse and rat pups though.
On thigmotaxis and red herrings, I agree with you. And, other than a balance reflex that doesn’t apply here, I don’t see resisting a pull as necessarily related to any evolved instinct, any more than other common physical responses.
But you then class resistance to leash pressure as clearly an operant behavior as it can be modified, and I really don’t understand that, which might be taken to imply that purely instinctive behaviors cannot be so modified. Instead, I’d say that since operant conditioning can usually modify the dog’s response to leash pressure, it is more likely that the dog’s pressure response is not a reflex action taken without concious control
I’ve been toying with researching and writing about opposition reflex for weeks, so thanks for saving me hours of work! This is great stuff, and, I think, very useful.
Anecdotally, any “opposition reflex” stuff I do with Nala is 100% trained behavior/conditioned response. Her instinctive reflex to being pressed on is to quit–to go completely still, or try to leave. She’s a really soft dog! So I deliberately conditioned first light touches, then gradually stronger pushes, and finally prolonged restraint, to be associated with an exciting reward like thrown food, prey-hand play, a tossed toy, a Zen bowl, or chasing me.
On the other hand, I think we’ve all seen the way that dogs who pull continually on leash tend to go out of their minds with arousal, and to be farther and farther gone the longer it persists. There definitely seems to be some link, for at least some dogs, with restraint, the pressure of a collar or harness against their bodies, and arousal boiling up and over until the dog is basically unresponsive–I always think of a dog I used to see in our old neighborhood, pulling continuously against his prong collar, stress panting, dragging his owner, and going even more nuts with excitement whenever he saw something he liked. Nala, too, seems to get more and more frantic and aroused and disconnected when she pulls on leash–but is that because she’s only pulling because she’s scared? Or is the pulling contributing to her anxiety? I doubt I’ll ever know, and it hardly matters, since the solution is to continue working on reducing her worries about traffic in more places, and to not subject her to it outside of carefully managed training scenarios. On the other hand, anything that might affect arousal is an important thing for any trainer to keep in mind, right?
And personally, I am happy to call it “opposition response.” Definitely niftier than stickier than what I usually say, which is “using restraint to build arousal.” Yuck, so clunky!
It’s almost eerie how often we are thinking about the same stuff! I’m so glad you mentioned Nala’s response to pressure. There goes the opposition “reflex” out the window! I actually have a small example too. My little terrier friend Kaci and I used to do agility before I got Zani. Kaci does **not** respond with arousal and excitement to restraint. The first time I tried to ramp her up by gently pulling her backwards, with my hands around her chest, she yielded completely, and I almost fell over!
Yes, it is a réflex in son caseses: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Righting_reflex. Un some others not. I would like to discuss this better but my english is not very good.
Excellent! I have been discussing vestibular responses with some others who are looking into this. From what I have read so far, the respondent (reflex) part of the righting response is actually going on in the vestibular system, but then our muscles “learn” how to deal with the information it gives us. I’m just speculating here, but it seems that since there is infinite variety in those responses, that the muscular part would be operant.
But let’s go back to when “opposition reflex” is used for dogs. Leash pulling: not likely a “righting” response. Pushing the dog’s butt down: as long as we push straight down, not a “righting” response. And restrained recalls: not a “righting” response.
Since an important part of my argument hinges on the definition of “reflex,” I’ll be looking into that part more. But in the meantime, I consider this a really great learning point that is partly related to what I wrote. It doesn’t apply to the 90% of the examples in the dog training community, but in the ones where it does, now we have a better term we can use. Thank you very much for posting.
I’m working from memory as I no longer own my old textbooks so I can’t be as detailed as I would like. (I have a degree in Physical Therapy). What I recall about reflexes (which has been touched on in the previous discussion) is that they are processed differently in the nervous system to allow an organism to respond quickly to protect itself. So if an animal touches something hot, the sensory info triggers a response to pull the limb away. This all happens at the spinal cord and is faster than if the info had to go to the brain and be processed as harmful and then a message be sent from the brain to the muscles to pull away. Similarly, when a tendon (in the knee, for example) is tapped on it causes a rapid muscle contraction in response to the quick stretch on the tendon. These quick responses to stretch can protect the animal from injury to the muscle or from falling. If I recall correctly, the righting reflex is a bit different but also serves to keep the animal from falling over. So if you push or pull on a dog you can trigger the reflex system that will activate the muscles needed to prevent them from losing their balance, but it is very quick. Then the brain has time to receive the info and decide what to do from there. So when a dog prevents itself from falling in response to suddenly hitting the end of the leash or being jerked on the leash, reflexes are operating briefly (talking microseconds). After that it would be a more cognitive decision to either maintain pressure against the applied pressure or to move away from it. Sort of like the difference between an involuntary blink in response to a puff of air on the eyes vs keeping the eyes shut in a windstorm.
Bottom line: what Eileen says is correct.
I like your points about the righting reflexes coming into play briefly. It’s so hard to keep in mind that these respondent behaviors are flickering in the background all the time. And great example at the end. Thank you so much for your comment. I want to know the whole story about this!
I have long believed that this is simply an issue of the body automatically attempting to stay in balance when pulled or pushed out of balance by someone/something. The fact that when people use continuous pressure on the leash, the dog continues to either pull ahead against the leash or balk backwards has to do with the continuous pressure the handler puts on the leash (which may be partly related to Newton’s Laws in action in physiology). I demonstrate this to my students in classes by having a person hold a leash firmly as I put pressure on the leash and then release it several times in a row. After only a few repetitions, the person develops an automatic response to the slightest pressure on the leash by instantly bracing. Even with only very slight pressure you can watch the person readjust balance from head to toe. To me it has always been a completely unconscious and not intentional response to disruption of balance which has been further conditioned so that the dog’s body unconsciously learns to cope with the anticipated pressure at the instant of an indication that the pressure will begin. Remember that balance is a basic survival mechanism and is automatically at the ready at all times when the body is not impaired by controlled substances. You can’t consciously think how not to fall when you trip. One of the traps of contemporary study of dog behavior is the desire to consider so much of behavior intentional and cognitive when it is basic physiology.
Absolutely agree, especially with your points about balance being a survival mechanism. It is one that I think we humans feel especially acutely, being tall and on two legs. <
> I do think it’s especially crucial to us, but thinking about it, being pulled off balance is a very bad thing for about any species. It’s a precursor to being a victim of a predator or inter-species aggressor, as well as the harm from any kind of fall.
I just personally don’t want to reduce the discussion to balance. If I am walking along with my dog and she hits the end of the leash, as Jill Marple mentioned, there will be some moments of balance involved, including some reflexive vestibular responses, then muscle movements. But when we talk about the problems of loose leash walking, we are generally talking about chronic pulling. We can often see the stimulus the dog is trying to get to, or we know from experience that our particular dog’s pace is naturally much faster than ours. I think in that case, we can’t account for pulling as a balance response, or even as thigmotaxis. I know you didn’t reduce it to that. I just want to keep the problems of the terminology in the forefront. Thanks for good additions to the discussion.
Yes, but once the initial readjustment of balance to hitting the end of the leash is achieved with at least an equal and opposite force (back to Newton), then any further changes will only come from training so that the dog will understand where you want him/her and how to get there. Hitting the end of the leash is a natural impulse of a dog who is attracted to approach a stimulus or get somewhere faster. The problem of chronic pulling is a human problem because once the dog is pulling, it is difficult for the handler to choose an effective response depending upon the level of the dog’s attentiveness, prior trainign and level of physical sensitivity. From the dog’s point of view, it becomes as automatic as continuing to Christmas shop when your shoes are uncomfortable. It goes to the back of your mind while your attention is focused on the display of goods you are hunting is in front of you. What I’m saying is that the initial pulling can be accounted for by balance and continued pulling continues to allow the dog to remain in balance as long as there is pressure on the leash from the handler in the rear. It may be uncomfortable but it isn’t going to change because the dog is not “thinking” about it. The dog would have to “think” about it in order to consciously decide to stop pulling and restore balance by maintaining a loose leash. They are unlikely to do this without having been carefully taught to maintain a loose leash in other contexts. The usual recommendation of stopping in place on the part of the handler only works for dogs who are either pre-trained to do it (in which case it would be just as easy or easier to teach them not to pull to begin with) or dogs who are very physically sensitive. The bruts I enjoy working with are neither physically nor emotionally senstive and therefore require lots of training up front to walk in a good position without pulling. I usually teach dogs to heel before I ever teach loose leash walking because it gives the dog a familiar place to orient to that always receives positive reinforcement and it doesn’t place the dog out in front where it is likely to act like the decision maker regarding how to deal with stimuli out in front instead of looking to the handler for guidance. So teaching heel first with lots of R+ is generally easier for me and more structured for the client to develop good handling skills. I also do a lot of stationary work on teaching the dog to maintain a loose leash while i am stationary. I do this by laterally disturbing their balance ever so slightly every time they put pressure on the leash. It is indeed a form of punishment but it is only aversive in the sense of annoyance much the same as the child in the back seat repeatedly saying, “are we there yet?” The dogs don’t resent it but they learn to avoid it. It must be done laterally and can be accomplished just by tiny pressure or even wiggling the little finger on the leash the way to do a half halt on the reins with a horse but without maintaining tension typically used with horses. I tell my clients that I am annoying their dog into becoming attentive to taking responsibility for a loose leash. Like all techniques, it doesn’t work with all dogs but with most and is never a problem in terms of fallout unless it is very badly done repeatedly by a handler with a bad attitude.
Chris, thanks for the in-depth description of your LLW method. I like that you mentioned that hitting the leash initially can be a result of desire for a nearby stimulus. One of the things I am trying to bring back into the discussion is the reasons dogs might be putting pressure on the leash other than opposition or balance or whatever. And I sure agree that pulling can easily become a habit. We reinforce it when we relieve the pressure and follow them along. Then they do it some more. As simple as A,B,C.
I’m not a pro trainer but my best success has been training the heck out walking at my side before ever introducing the leash and all the possible resulting effects. And at the beginning–the dog is wandering off all the time, which is the same behavior that would cause leash pressure if there were one. I shape them into staying at my side. Thinking out loud here, but I think one effect of concentrating on labels for behaviors, as some people do, can be a result of the old, “they **should** do what we want.” If the average person thinks that a dog should naturally want to walk with us all the time, it would be easy to fall into labels for the types of things that happen when they do not.
Thanks for the discussion.
Eileen I also wanted to say that I have seen your blog once before and like it very much. We need lots of good thinkers in our field.
Thanks, Chris! So kind of you to say that!
Eileen, to respond to your discussion of why dogs continue to pull, my take on it folllows. First, it just dawned on me that some people may be interpreting the term “opposition” reflex in the sense of the dog consciously wanting to oppose. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The whole thing is a conditioning process that starts with a balance adjustment and is maintained by the way the handler deals with it by putting steady pressure on the leash so that they don’t get pulled over. Once the dog has become conditioned to the leash being pulled tight, it reacts each and every time, for as long as the leash stimulus continues, to apply the pressure in the opposite direction from the leash force pulling it and in that way continues to maintain the balance steady. In the end, most handlers whose dogs pull also learn to anticipate it, so they ready themselves to pull back as soon as they start to walk. Some even tighten the leash before they start to walk. So the dog learns that this is the way to walk. Not the best way but the only thing they’ve learned about walking. The people have the pulling in muscle memory by the time they go to a trainer and it is habitual and conditioned in them too. The bad habit has to be dealt with in both species.
So here’s a problem that I think happens when people mistakenly think pulling is the result of some sort of reflex. It makes it seem like the dog doesn’t have control over whether he is pulling or not. If that were true then there wouldn’t be much point to training llw (it would give us an excuse to not do all that work). Like it or not, we need to accept that the dog does have control but for various reasons may be highly motivated to pull. Pulling is a training and behavior issue. It might be really challenging for us humans to deal with, and we can make it worse if we choose bad strategies for dealing with it. If we understand why the dog is pulling we can develop an appropriate strategy for teaching them to walk without pulling.
I agree with Chris Redenbach’s comments.
All living organisms have evolved in accordance with the law of gravity. So if you put physical pressure on a dog, either with the leash or something as simple as helping him up into the back of an SUV, you’re essentially throwing him off balance. And his response is simply a matter of trying to re-establish his physical equilibrium.
I think there’s also a form of emotional equiibrium. When it’s a wonderful day and everything is going well, we almost feel like we’re walking on air. When we’re troubled by conflict, we not only feel off-balance emotionally, we also feel as if our feet aren’t firmly planted on the ground.
You can also see this in a dog’s body language. When a dog is happy and untroubled, his head and shoulders are held high, there’s a spring in his step. When he’s scared, battling emotional scars, he hunkers down or cowers, almost as if he’s being pushed down or pushed over by the presence of someone who may not mean him any harm. This is why whenever I’m working with a fearful dog, I usually lie flat on the ground and let the dog sniff me and get used to taking food from my outstretched hand while I’m in a supine position.
This is a kind of emotional physics.
Whether the subject in question is a reflex or not, I don’t know. It certainly bears some resemblance to a reflex. But either way, it’s more about emotional physics than deliberate intent
Anyway, that’s how I see it.
Thanks for your thoughts. I will agree with anybody who is talking about a momentary resetting of equilibrium and calling that a reflex. That is something I have gained from this discussion and I appreciate it. (I did mention it briefly in the post but hadn’t explored it in depth.) But regaining balance is not the behavior that is usually labeled with “opposition reflex.” The behaviors that are so labeled are pulling or resisting. For me, it is much more useful method to describe those behaviors, address what they achieve for the dog, and try to fairly and humanely substitute other behaviors through training. Because one thing I think everybody here has agreed with so far is that pulling on leash can be modified/changed/eliminated through various training methods. That would not be true of reflex in the current physiological sense.
I would suggest “pressure response” as a potential term.
Nice one! Thanks!
I have been doing a lot of Googling re this definition of Reflex, since it disagrees so much with what I have learned and taught (matriculation Biology) over the years,
I think you have been talking about simple reflex arcs (mono-synaptic reflexes) rather than reflexes as a whole — those that involve the brain stem and cerebellum.
Somatic Motor Systems. Motor Units are the basic element of motor control in the somatic division A motor unit consists of a single spinal or cranial.
Other sites have discussed how there is a continuum from simple reflexes, through the more complex reflexes to automatic responses and innate (intrinsic) behaviour patterns. Many of these innate responses (apparently) involves several reflexes.
Which all boils down to a defence for calling unconsciously moving against (or into) pressure a ‘reflexive behaviour’.
If that worries you (since there are probably many actual reflexes involved) then call it and innate, instinctive behaviour or an automatic response to pressure.
I say this advisedly as anybody who has know dogs knows that we never need to teach a dog to pull on lead, but we spend much time teaching dogs to NOT pull on lead.
Evelyn, thanks for the good info. I’m still researching reflexes as well, and am learning about tonic reflexes which overlap some with the material you provided. You make a good case for widening the definition of “reflex” to include more responses. What I still am not seeing is any source material documenting a significant role played by reflexes in situations in which the term “opposition reflex” is used with dogs. For instance, I agree that regaining balance is going to involve a reflex (or more than one). But people are not usually talking about that moment in time when they talk about an opposition reflex. They apply the term to the operant behaviors that follow (and follow, and follow). For instance when the dog is pulling on the leash like a train, even if she is clearly trying to get to an identifiable stimulus and being slowed down by the human. Et cetera–I’ve already talked about those examples.
I started this search assuming I would find a solid, scientific definition of the term and that it would match these responses that we have all noticed at times. I haven’t found it, and if you have, you haven’t provided it yet either, though I do appreciate what you are contributing to the discussion. Because of the info you have provided I’m putting in a couple of edits at the end of my post where I suggest what a person would need to provide to show that the “opposition reflex” is a reflex (or group thereof).
The closest to a scholarly source we have is Lindsay’s books, in which he uses a very wide definition of reflex but doesn’t cite sources in the case at hand. And calling it thigmotaxis is pretty much a dead end. Lindsay uses the term in Volume 1, and then rescinds his recommendation of its use for leash pulling in Volume 3. He never cites a source for it. You are a biologist–you know the species/situations in which thigmotaxis is commonly found. Insects, larvae, microfauna, rodents. Neonates of many species. The term dates back before 1900. So why did people suddenly start using it to describe dogs and horses pulling against restraint in the late 20th century, and there is nothing in the scientific literature about that application or discovery?
The usage of this term does worry me. In addition to the many problems I cited in the piece, I just don’t see what is gained by using it. FWIW, I think some other terms that have been mentioned are pretty good. But I personally would not include the words innate or instinctive. Mayyybe “automatic.” It is a COMMON response but no one has shown it to be a universal one. “Common response to pressure” or even “resistance to pressure” is something I might use in a casual way to apply at times. But I would not want to imply anything that would overshadow the observation and analysis of what is driving the individual animal’s behavior. And that’s what common use of the term “opposition reflex” can do.
Excellent Blog! I must say I am very guilty of using the “oppositional reflex” to describe pulling/pushing. However, I describe it when owners apply force (pull back) on the leash, push the dog in to a sit, restrain a dog, etc. I state that it is a natural behavior for an animal to push/pull against force…never as a dog being “bad”, just a dog naturally reacting to force. Regardless, I am wrong. I have heard that term so much, by so many, and lacking a better definition, chose to use this. We, as trainers, need to really think about the terms we use. Thank you!
Thanks, Sue! I know that people like you who are out there teaching don’t just leave it at that. If you are seeking to modify the behavior, you go into the nuts and bolts of it. But I’m glad that what I’ve communicated about the down side of this term resonates for you. Thanks for that!
Newton’s Third Law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction…
I know some vets use this technique to their advantage. In order to get pets to voluntarily walk out of their crates rather than be pulled out, they give a small push – and then the cat walks out.
The third law of motion is about forces and not behavior. My motionless paperweight on my desk can also be analyzed with use of Newton’s second law. The sum of the forces is equal to mass times acceleration, in that case zero. If I push the paperweight along the surface, then we have a new equation that involves my pushing plus stiction and friction. The sum of the forces is still equal to the mass times acceleration but it is non-zero when the object is accelerating. And the object doesn’t push back equally. There are a lot of misconceptions about Newton’s third law, and I’m just cautioning it does not predict behavior. If someone pushes you, Newton’s laws are in effect whether you fall forward or push back.
That’s an interesting technique to get animals out of crates. But I bet the animals’ response varies. One would definitely be risking a bite with some cats, and a retreat and shutdown with others.
There are two parts to this sequence. The first is that reflexes can be conditioned and this type of scenario is the perfect setup for it. The dog initially is only reacting to the pressure of the leash. And true, he rights himself. But rare is the owner who responds rapidly enough to work to keep the leash loose. Dog pulls again and has the same reflex. I can condition a human to pull in only a few attempts of pulling on the leash. Then the human too develops a conditioned response and pulls really hard even if only slight pressure is applied to the other end of the leash. And so it goes like a ritualized dance until each partner has the choreography in muscle memory so that both of them apply pressure as soon as the walk begins. And you can easily watch this happening. Then Newton’s law do come into effect because we are made of matter. But even more than this, there is no intentionality to this. it is all just habit. We can then intervene and decide to do training or we can do the training before this whole leash pulling thing gets going. The training is what can cause both or either party to actually use some cognitive capabilities to override the conditioned reflex. That doesn’t remove the reflex, but it does make the dog and hopefully the owner consciously attempt to do it differently. In Piagetian terms, they both accomodate to include the new routine into the schema of leash walking.
Some instances where conditioning the pulling reflex works well is in carting, sled pulling, and protection training as well as other activities where restraint of a dog highly aroused and wanting to launch towards the object of their desire has its determination built up so that it does it with even more gusto when released. And in many cases, if no one is restraining the dog until the desire to lauch is intense enough, they will stop paying attention to the stimulus. This is often how leash reactivity starts.
I understand the behaviors you are describing, and have seen them become habits. I understand that you have a training method that intervenes in these habits. The problem is that no one yet has shown them to be “reflexes,” even using the expanded definitions that E.J. Haskins has described.
Respondent behaviors can get conditioned, i.e., attached to other stimuli. But just because we see a behavior happening after another doesn’t mean we are seeing stimulus/response. We could as well be seeing an antecedent that has come to cue a behavior. Pulling has consequences and dogs learn them quickly! And you can modify the pulling by manipulating consequences, whether through appetitive or aversive stimuli.
Newton’s laws do not necessitate a certain behavior on my part. I have a choice of behaviors. Rather, we can compute the equations that describe my interaction with the leash, the dog, the earth, even the wind, using Newton’s laws.
I am honing my understanding of some things through this conversation, and I appreciate your argument and manner of presenting it, but at some point we need to agree to disagree about the reflex thing.
Perhaps these links will be of interest. I apologize if I have become boorish with this. Just trying to clarify.
I think I don’t really understand what you are trying to resolve so I will bow out now. I’ve enjoyed the discussion.
Not boorish! It’s very pleasant to discuss with someone who is trying to get to the truth of the matter, even if we don’t agree on everything. Will check out the links a bit later.
I looked up my trust old “Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes” by Ivan P. Pavlov. Remember tat Pavlov was a physiologist,
He has a lot to say of Reflexes, but since you can now get this book free through the Internet I won’t try to type any of it up. On pp. 52-53 he defines reflexes.
Thanks for this link. I have consulted that, as well as this site:
I think it’s more reasonable to adopt a contemporary definition of the term, though, rather than one that is about 100 years old. To me, your later references are more helpful. They break down reflexes by type and characteristics.
If anyone else is still reading along, this lecture by Pavlov has his references to the “freedom reflex” as well as some others, such as the “investigatory reflex” and the “reflex of self-defence” (sic). These fit with Pavlov’s very wide definition of reflex. Since his time, many of these actions have been identified as **involving** reflex, as many of our behaviors do, but also seen as primarily choice-driven operant behaviors (also modal action patterns, which are kind of a hybrid).
Thanks for the resource.
Thanks for this resource. I’ve consulted this in addition to some other online original sources for Pavlov, including this one.
But I do think it is more reasonable to use a definition (or definitions) of reflex that is not almost 100 years old, by one of the very very first people to begin identifying them. I find your more recent sources more relevant to the discussion.
If anyone else is still reading along, this lecture includes examples of Pavlov’s very wide definition of reflex. It includes references to the “freedom reflex,” the “investigatory reflex,” and the “reflex of self-defence” (sic).
Later research has broken down these general terms and the rest of our daily behavior into reflexes, choice driven operant behaviors, and modal action patterns.
To further muddy the waters, “reflexes” CAN be voluntarily suppressed.
This is interesting but I don’t see it as muddying any waters. The suppression and enhancement appear to involve quite different mechanisms from punishment and reinforcement (in the learning theory definitions). But cool nonetheless. I have a post in the works about Twitmyer, who accidentally conditioned the patellar reflex right around the time Pavlov conditioned the salivary response. One of Twitmyer’s student participants tried to suppress the reflex on the sly, but failed. He just hadn’t figured out the trick yet.
I just had dinner with Susan Friedman and we discussed this blog! Love it.
Wow, thanks! Her LLA class prompted so much of my thinking, including in this article. Consequences, consequences! Thanks for the comment.
I’m going to close comments for about a week while I work on some other things. I will open them again. Thanks for a great discussion so far.
Hi Eileen, thanks for this very interesting post. Good to meet you here, and I look forward to catching up with your other blog posts. It’s great to meet a like-minded truth seeker:)
Great to meet you too, and thanks for the kind words!
So I started reading this article with my arms crossed and my lips pursed, thinking “pshawww pshawww, can’t be right….” (I mean, I’ve been in this business for EIGHT WHOLE YEARS now 😀 LMBO) but then got to the part about how Summer “just melted back into my arms” and went “Oh snap…..”!! So, kudos for a very interesting read, and an article that has had me thinking about this for days now! 🙂
Cool! Believe me, I am still thinking about it too! Thanks for the comment; makes me feel good. It’s not about agreeing necessarily; it’s about exploring some new ideas.
Totally. Because I saw the title of the article and started reading and thought, “But… thigmotaxis!” Which I’m terribly proud I learned and remember from Terry Ryan’s Coaching People book in preparation for taking the CPDT, but she describes it as “a tonic reflex” that “involves the dog’s body trying to maintain equilibrium.” BUT, not if they sink back into the person holding them. Maybe instead of saying “opposition reflex,” we can call it “compulsion reflex” or something. “Compulsion revulsion”?! 😀
Heh! That’s a good one. I still **think** it’s not just one reflex though. There are so many different ways to regain equilibrium. They certainly involve these little push-pull muscle groups we have and probably something with the inner ear in some cases. I like “compulsion revulsion” a lot for that particular response!
I’m not crazy about “compulsion revulsion” because it uses emotionally inflammatory language that imprecisely appears to imply conscious intentionality about a purely physiological phenomena though it is a catchy sound byte.
The reason it looks like both a reflex and something cognitive is that the nerves in the spinal column can act without the brain and do so on a sort of coordinated reflexive seeming basis as they govern the body’s motor response to the forces acting upon it. So it is not a single reflex but series of super rapidly timed readjustments. This process, according to researchers, is, in a limited way, responsive to conditioning. That is what makes it seem cognitive. So it is the physiological, non-rational job of a marvelously designed body that has adapted to taking care of the survival business of staying in balance to get where you are going. The spinal neuronal mechanisms are incredibly complex to describe and the research in this area is difficult to relate to the level of cognitive and behavioral issues we are accustomed to discussing. But due to precisely this discussion, I was prompted to dig deeper and found that there is still much to learn about the spinal neurons and the way they act without “conferring” with the brain. However, one thing I did learn is that if visual or auditory senses are used as well as some other levels of tactical stimuli, then there must be brain involvement too. So sorting out exactly what the spinal neurons can do on their own is a challenge and poorly understood so even the scientists tend to avoid this issue when it comes to behavior. But I think we can say that the “opposition reflex” as it is called, has the characteristics of a reflex (or series of reflexes) as well as some response to conditioning, the exact functioning of which we haven’t the science to totally determine as yet.
Thanks for all this great information!
We’re officially on to something!! Thanks again for the great discussion! 🙂
Hey Eileen, thanks for a super great post AND for going to actual sources! Do you know where I can find a list of all the dog reflexes that are actual reflexes? Thanks!
There are so many! I’ll check back among my sources. I don’t think I found a comprehensive list, but some pretty extensive ones. I’ll get back to you!
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