Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?

tan dog with black muzzle and smaller black dog stare at the camera expectantly
Stares of expectation from Clara and Zani. Note Clara’s tail wag.

The other day I was sitting in my bedroom with Clara and Zani and the doorbell rang. And there was dead silence.

This pierced my heart. If you follow the blog, you know that I lost my dear dog Summer suddenly in August. She was wonderful beyond compare. She also barked reactively at delivery trucks, the mail carrier, any stranger on the porch, and the doorbell. So for me, this silence was one of those dozens of daily moments where my heart ached. There was a hole where my dog used to be.

But I was also in the here and now. I couldn’t help noticing that when the doorbell rang, something else did happen.  Clara and Zani’s heads both swiveled in my direction and they both fixed me with their gaze. Why?

Classically Conditioning Another Dog Barking

A sable dog with a purple collar with her cheeks puckered, about to bark. I classically conditioned another dog to respond positively to this.
Summer about to bark.

Here’s a hint. Those who have followed the blog for a really long time may remember something else. I classically conditioned Clara to have a positive emotional response to Summer barking.

I’ve always been proud of this bit of training. It worked out with no downside. I didn’t want Clara to “catch” Summer’s reactive barking, so I gave Clara her favorite treat whenever Summer barked. I was very consistent, and it worked, even to the point that Clara drooled when Summer barked. That showed the actual respondent behavior: the body preparing for food. Then she ran to me for her treat. You can read about the details in the following posts. But please come back, because the plot thickens.

  • The Barking Recall
  • Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking

Higher-Order Conditioning

OK, back to the two dogs staring at me in the silence after the doorbell rang.

Higher order conditioning: A form of classical conditioning in which a conditioned stimulus CS1 is first paired with an unconditioned stimulus, in the usual way, until CS1 elicits a conditioned response, then a new conditioned stimulus CS2 is paired with CS1, without the unconditioned stimulus, until CS2 elicits the original conditioned response.–Oxford Reference

So in plain English, you condition a response to a previously neutral stimulus. Then you use that stimulus, in turn, to condition another previously neutral stimulus. Pavlov and his buddies did some of this, using lights and sounds as first and second stimuli. For instance, they conditioned a light turning on to predict food. Then they used a buzzer to predict the light. They used his ghoulish apparatus to collect saliva from the dogs. They found that the buzzer came to make the dogs drool even when there was no food at the end of the sequence (until the association broke down).

This is called second-order conditioning. The umbrella term is higher-order conditioning since there can be more than two “layers.” Exactly how many can pile up is determined by many factors and still being studied.

Higher-order conditioning also happens with fear-inducing stimuli, by the way. Does it ever! We are more used to it, I think. My friend Debbie Jacobs of Fearful Dogs puts it this way:

[Thinking about higher-order conditioning] could get us aware of why our dogs might not want to go certain places or be around certain things, even if those themselves were not the source of fear or distress. I use the example of hearing screeching tires or smelling burning rubber after being in an accident and the adrenalin dump they can produce, even though it was the windshield that your head made contact with that was the source of injury.

Another example is what happens when we go to a scary movie. Do we sit there, calm and relaxed, until the monster jumps out and scares the crap out of us? Most of us don’t. Any director worth his salt has been loading in conditioned stimuli that have been previously associated with scary stuff happening. The squeaking hinge, the power going off, birds suddenly going silent, even certain types of camera work. We aren’t born being afraid of those things. But our very physiologies have learned what they mean in the movie theater. And predictable precursors of scary or painful things can initiate physical fear responses in our dogs as well.

My Example at Home

So what happened over the years at my house with barking and doorbells?

metal doorbell on bricks. Doorbells can easily become classically conditioned or have higher-order conditioningFor Clara: The food conditioned Summer’s bark. In turn, I believe Summer’s bark conditioned the doorbell. Doorbell -> Barking -> Preparation for food. And when the barking fell out of the picture, we witnessed second-order conditioning. Doorbell -> Preparation for food.

I mention in the previous posts that Clara actually drooled and smacked her lips at the sound of Summer barking. The other day, when the doorbell rang, I didn’t see any drooling. But I got the perked-up reorientation that often signifies a conditioned response.

I can’t prove that I got higher-order conditioning with Clara. But I’ll note that there is a lot of research that indicates that if two stimuli are perceived by the same sense, it’s easier to get higher order conditioning [1]Barry Schwartz, E. A. Wasserman, and S. J. Robbins. (2002). 5th ed.  Psychology Of Learning And Behavior.  p. 63  Barking and the ring of a doorbell are both auditory stimuli. The research indicates that they would be easier to pair than, say, barking and a light turning on or barking and a smell.

For Zani: I also got a reorientation and a stare from Zani, but I am going to argue that the process for her was different. I did not classically condition Zani to Summer’s barking. She lived with Summer for two years before Clara came along. Over those years, she heard plenty of barking that was not paired with food. I started systematically pairing Summer’s barking with food for Clara as soon as Clara arrived. When doing that, I didn’t do the same for Zani, not systematically anyway. But Zani is keen to notice opportunities for food. She showed up in these situations, so I gave her a treat. So through observation and perhaps some social learning, Zani learned that when Summer barked, she could run to me and get food. So I believe Zani’s response was primarily operant. Summer’s barking was a cue that running or reorienting to me would be reinforced.

These two types of responses are intertwined. Cues gain an element of classical conditioning. Respondent behaviors such as the body preparing for food are quickly followed by operant behaviors to get to the food. So I won’t argue that Clara’s response was 100% higher-order classical conditioning, nor that Zani’s was 100% operant. But I think those are the main processes that happened.

The Next Puzzle To Solve

Whenever I leave the house, I put the dogs in their respective parts of the house first. Zani in the den. Summer, when she was still with me, in the front room. Clara in the bedroom. Then I would give them each a cookie that I got out of a particular bag in a particular cabinet. You can see Clara’s response in this video. 

a tan dog with black muzzle drooling
Clara’s digestive system is expecting a goodie

In the video, she was in the kitchen watching me. You can see that she didn’t respond when I opened the cabinet and got out something else. She sure did when I reached for the cookies on the correct shelf, though.

Nowadays, she doesn’t see any of this because she is waiting back in the bedroom. She listens intently to the auditory evidence of the progress toward her cookie. By the time I arrive back in the bedroom to give her the cookie, she is doing some serious drooling. I have been trying to stealth video her to see when the drooling starts. My “deliver the cookie” behavior chain is something like: open the cabinet, open the package of cookies, break apart a cookie, put away the cookies, toss Zani’s cookie onto the daybed in the den and tell her to go get it, shut the kitchen door, walk down the hall, and give Clara her cookie. By the time I get there, she sometimes has serious strings of drool hanging down. The question: how far back in my process did the drooling start? Her cookie is a sure thing by the time I walk down the hall with it. How much earlier does her body “believe” it’s coming? Do we have higher order conditioning in this case as well? Or does she start drooling when I open the package in the other room and keep on drooling through my other activities?

I’ll keep trying to figure it out and let you know! Do you see examples of higher order conditioning–either appetitive or aversive–with your dogs?

Related Posts

• The Barking Recall
• Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking
• 16 Behavioral Cues That I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real)

Doorbell photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Text and all other photos copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson


1 Barry Schwartz, E. A. Wasserman, and S. J. Robbins. (2002). 5th ed.  Psychology Of Learning And Behavior.  p. 63

16 thoughts on “Higher-Order Conditioning: Did it Happen To My Dog?

  1. Wow. I am knocked out on the progress you and your dogs have made. Not to bark when another dog is barking is equivalent to a college degree in canine school (or some other rarified place like heaven).

    All kidding aside, I love what you planned to do and carried through with your dogs. 😀

    1. Thank you! I am the queen of unintended consequences, so lots of my bright ideas….aren’t. But starting early with Clara and the barking really did work out. Thanks for the kind words!

  2. Thanks for this interesting blog. Summer is certainly conspicuous by her absence 😔 Hope your heart is handling it. Are the reponses of dogs who suffer separation anxiety to a string of leaving cues before the actual leave higher order conditioning?

    1. Thanks, I’m doing OK. My guess is that there is higher order conditioning going on there, but not necessarily in a second, third, fourth, fifth way, since people don’t always do things in the same order. And the conditioning does get weaker, the farther it gets from the unconditioned stimulus. I didn’t mention that in the post, but it’s kind of what one would intuit. I think I would have to ask what the unconditioned stimulus is for a dog with SA. Can we call “being alone” a stimulus? I guess in the sense that it can be an environmental change, from “someone here” to “they left.” But how do we look at the duration aspect? But those little lesser signs that one is leaving–earlier precursors–those sound like good candidates for higher-order conditioning. I’m thinking out loud and would welcome some clearer thinking on this. Way too good a question, Sonya!

  3. I don’t know about higher order conditioning but I did teach my newer dog (4.5 years in now) that when older resident dog (11.5 years in) barked at the fence, new dog would be fed something. now I have a dog that comes to find me as soon as his sister starts to react at the fence (that’s before the barking even starts).

  4. Thank you so much for this. I’m so sorry for your loss. We lost a dog to the same cancer, although we had more time to deal with it, and it is devastating.

    To your question, we give our dogs (one border collie and one australian shepherd) one piece of popcorn whenever we have some from our giant bag of Popcornopolis from Costco. They quickly learned the word for popcorn when my husband or I would ask the other if we wanted some “popcorn”. If we were alone, and went for the bag, they learned that was a predictor. Now, it’s gone beyond that. Even if one of us is alone getting popcorn, they know by which cupboard we go to for a bowl (our popcorn bowls are stored in a different location than our cereal bowls) and come running in expectation. Is that what you mean?

    I love all your posts but this one is super fascinating. Again, I am so sorry for the pain that comes along with these reminders.

    1. That’s cool! That’s like Clara and the package having to be from the top shelf to be a predictor of my leaving. Your example is what I’m talking about, however, without seeing whether your dogs are drooling at the earlier predictors, we don’t know if the **physiological response** has become higher order or not. I have seen people use the term higher order to indicate the “stack of predictors” without that, too though. Thanks for the story. Smart pups!

  5. Yes, in the fearful version, I have a problem with my spaniel. It is hard to disentangle which came in which order, but a combation of a painful persistent UTI and noisy builders (and she was already noise sensitive before the UTI problem) means that she is now scared of going for walks, especially walking in the direction where the noisy builders used to be.

    1. Oh man, that’s a tough one! It’s a really good example of how fear can spread. But I’m so sorry she picked that up.

  6. Actually a positive version too, I think – I was training new dog not to bark at the chickens, and old dog started rushing over, give one half hearted woof, and then sit down and wait expectantly for a treat. When Lucy had learned not to bark, he stopped doing it. Or is that an example of learning by copying?

    1. Interesting! I do know that the presence of food can start reinforcing behaviors fast. But there could have been an element of social learning there. That’s a fascinating one!

  7. This is a great explanation of what’s been happening with my dog. He loves to ride to the post office with me, and would get excited when he saw me go to the front door carrying boxes. Then, he started getting excited when he saw me leave my packing room with the boxes. Now, just the sound of the shipping tape gets him excited. Soon, he will be able to check my website for orders so he knows whether we’re going for a ride that day. (kidding!?). They are such keen observers of us, it’s amazing to me.

    1. That’s a wonderful stack of predictors! My dog Clara seems especially good at “working backward.” She is the one who first got me noticing this stuff.

  8. Whoa, what a behavior breakdown on the psychological level! I didn’t expect to read so deeply researched blog but I am glad that I did.

    This is very interesting and now I am getting ideas I can try out with my pets! It is truly amazing how the mind influences the body and how things are remembered.

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