Detection of a sensory stimulus depends on its psychophysical saliency; the higher the saliency, the easier the detection. But it is not known whether sensory relay nuclei differ in their ability to detect low salient whisker stimuli. We found that reversible lesions of either the somatosensory thalamus or superior colliculus blocked detection of a low salience whisker conditioned stimulus (WCS) in an active avoidance task, without affecting detection of a high salience WCS. Thus, thalamic and tectal sensory relays work synergistically to detect low salient stimuli during avoidance behavior, but are redundant during detection of highly salient stimuli. We also recorded electrophysiological responses evoked by high and low salience stimuli in the superior colliculus and barrel cortex of freely behaving animals during active exploration, awake immobility, and sensory detection in the active avoidance task. Field potential (FP) responses evoked in barrel cortex and superior colliculus by high intensity stimuli are larger and adapt more to frequency than those evoked by low-intensity stimuli. FP responses are also more suppressed and adapt less during active exploration, and become further suppressed in barrel cortex during successful detection of either high or low salient stimuli in the active avoidance task. In addition, unit recordings revealed that firing rate increases in superior colliculus during active exploration and especially during successful detection of either high or low salient stimuli in the active avoidance task. We conclude that detection of low salient stimuli is achieved by a sparse neural code distributed through multiple sensory relays.