Can a domestic cat be trained as well as a dog? Because, I've tried to train
mine without much success... Vicky, Maracaibo,
It depends... Certainly we can train some cats as easily as dogs to do
certain things, for example, fetch. Some cat breeds (Bengals,
Siamese and Burmese) naturally carry objects (like kittens) in their mouths, so
they're easy to train.
But I know of no breed of cat that leads the blind. Or herds sheep.
We have trained and bred dogs for useful work and as companions, so both dogs
and humans have adapted to each other. Cats — not so
Dogs are willing to do many more tasks than cats. Furthermore, we've
dogs to help us, which makes them easier to train. Lately,
animal behaviorists have studied dogs and cats to decipher differences.
Some answers emerge.
DOMESTICATION OF DOGS
Video courtesy of TheLostDuck. Used with permission.
Otis clearly wants to fetch the stick his owner (Lost Duck) has thrown into
a mountain lake. He looks longingly at the stick floating in who-knows-how-deep
water. The boxer understands his job is to bring back the stick. But, he's
afraid of water. Otis makes valiant attempts but fear drives him back until...
He carefully looks at the distant floating stick, looks back at his owner for
encouragement, then trots out, realizes he need not swim, trots into deeper
water, seizes the stick and trots back to deposit the trophy at Lost Duck's
Dogs and cats both learn to fetch usually in a few days. Some dogs manage the
trick in ten to fifteen minutes. But cats and dogs fetch for different reasons
and need different training approaches.
Duma couldn't resist the thrill of the hunt, the savagely fast run and the fun
of playing with DH. Whereas poor Otis wanted to accommodate his owner but water
spelled trouble. Although Otis didn't have much fun, he persisted until he got
the job done.
Recent Swedish and Chinese studies suggest humans domesticated dogs about
16,000 years ago in southeastern Asia south of Yangtze River. By
"domesticated", I mean the DNA of dogs has changed
to adapt to
Savolainen andZhang Yaping
with others of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm,
Sweden and the Yunnan University in Kunming, China analyzed genes in the
food-to-energy conversion part of animal cells (the mitochondria) of dogs to
determine their origin. The researchers studied the genes of about 1,500 dogs
from across the Old World.
They found that dogs descended from 51 female wolf
founders — and discovered clues about ancient human activity.
"Theplace and time [of canine domestication]," writes Zhang et al in the September 2009
Molecular Biology and Evolution Journal, "coincide approximately with the
origin of riceagriculture, suggesting that the dogs may have
originated amongsedentary hunter-gatherers or early farmers."
Otis, the boxer, for instance, comes from a line of hunting dogs used for
centuries in Germany in the pursuit of bear, boar and deer. A boxer's job
is to seize the prey in its massive jaws and hold it until the hunters arrive to
kill the animal.
Over the years, humans selected the best dogs for hunting and those dogs
prospered under human care. Thus, a breed with genes programmed for
DOMESTICATION OF CATS
Video courtesy of DHaneyArt. Used with permission.
The 4-month old Bengal cat, Duma, coaxes his owner (DH) into a game of
fetch. Duma learned to fetch, like most cats, in a few days.
The scene starts with Duma mauling a bracelet-sized rubber green ring on
carpeted stairs. He pounces, tackles, wrestles, and, eventually loses
interest. Duma walks over and looks at DH.
"All right," DH says as he rises to his feet. Barefoot, he strides over
to Duma and picks up the ring. Teasing the leaping Duma,
DH hurls the ring the length of the hardwood-floored room to the hall at the
end. Paws slipping for purchase, Duma, nevertheless, runs so fast he
almost instantaneously disappears down the room and appears at the distant hall, his dark brown spots and stripes
blurring with speed. Pity the prey trying to escape this hunter!
Bengal cats (a cross between a domestic cat and a small Asian leopard
cat) are not far from the wild. The International Cat Association only
considers a Bengal cat as being 'domesticated' if it is at least four
generations removed from the Asian leopard cat.
Duma trots back and drops the green ring beside DH.
The two repeat the toss, the sprint, the graceful tail-wave pick-up
many times. Finally, DH focuses the camera on Duma sitting under a bridge formed by
DH's legs; his paw rests lightly on the 'dead' green ring.
In 2007, researchers examined the mitochondrial genes of about 980 domestic cats
and five subspecies of wildcats from three continents to determine when and
where humans domesticated cats.
The studies showed human association with cats began much more recently than
dogs, probably about "9000 years ago as the earliest farmers of the Fertile
Crescent [approximately where modern-day Iraq is] domesticated grains and cereals as well
as livestock animals," writes molecular biologist
Carlos A. Driscoll
of Oxford University in Science
Cats helped early farmers by killing rodent pests infesting stored grains. You might think people domesticated cats because
cats kept the rodent population down.
It's more likely, however, "we didn't bring cats into our homes, they
brought themselves in," Driscoll says. Cats like to chase mice (or,
perhaps like Duma, flying green rings); it's instinctive behavior. We
never trained cats to hunt rodents. But we did provide a profitable place
to hunt: many mice and few predators. So cats domesticated themselves
merely by evolving a tolerance for people. "And —
adapted to their new niche."
Thus, humans have had twice as long to train and communicate with dogs
(16,000 years) as cats (9,000 years), so dogs train easier. Moreover, cats started
associating with humans doing what they wanted
to do — hunt and kill rodents. Whereas, dogs emerged from wolf family
packs that hunted together. Dogs have been strongly selected for "an
innate ability to learn complicated tasks", such as shepherding, retrieving and
guarding, which often require communication with humans, Driscoll says. In contrast, domestic cats do not "intuit the
intentions of others" (either human or feline) to the extent that dogs do and
that hinders a cat's ability to follow directions.
But cats can communicate with humans just as effectively as dogs, in some situations.
If a human points to food, cats can find the food as easily as dogs,
for example. In 2005, animal behaviorist Ádám Miklósi
and colleagues at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest,
Hungary studied 24 cats and 21 dogs to see how well the two species could use
human cues to find food.
Each cat trotted into a bare room containing two pots — one to the left of
the animal and one to the right. The human tester kneeled on the floor in
front of the cat and pointed to the pot with the food in it. The cat
immediately walked to the correct pot and started eating.
The same thing happened with each dog. No problem.
Miklósi found no significant difference between how
the cat and dog groups responded as the humans pointed to the
pot containing food.
So next the experimenters hid the food under a stool and tied the food to the
stool so the animal could not pull the food out to eat it. The animal's owner stood nearby but did not help. The
experimenters did not help either. Instead they watched what the cat or
dog did in the presence of his or her owner. They found no significant
difference in the time a cat or a dog spent sitting or standing next to hidden food or gazing at
it without trying to get the food.
But they did notice that cats spent significantly longer times poking at the
food, trying to solve the problem, and dogs started looking at their owners for
help sooner than cats did and gazed at their owners for longer durations.
Also, dogs looked at the inaccessible food and then at the owner and back at the
food more frequently than cats did. It was as if the dog was saying, "The
food's there, pal, but I can't get it; help me." Whereas, the cat,
used to hunting by itself in the wild, tried to solve the problem not expecting
help from the
This is not to say cats don't bond with humans. They do. Bengal
cats (like Duma), for example, often "follow their human companions around from
room to room," says certified cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger of the
Cat Coach, LLC.
the dog eye-contact is a reason people find dogs easier to train than cats.
On the other hand, cats rarely look at people for help in solving a problem.
"Although both species show evidence of flexible learning, in general dogs
seem to be much easier to train," Miklósi says.
Because training animals involves many communicative signals
(gazing, verbalization, etc.) and relies on a similar type of "feedback", dogs have a
"natural advantage" by using frequent
eye contacts, Miklósi says.
Otis, the boxer, finally went after the stick in deep water after a backward
gaze to his owner. He knew then, he was on the right track.
Information from Carlos A. Driscoll
Cats are the only domesticated animal that are social when they changed
genetically to tolerate people (i.e., became domesticated) but lived as
solitary creatures before they were domesticated and were wild
Domesticated cats are not as social as lions. Furthermore only
females are social at all, and that in a lion's-pride hunting sense.
Male domesticated cats are essentially lone agents.
Domestic cats fit in a niche somewhere between badgers (which live
together but interact randomly) and lions or wolves (which hunt
Tomb paintings, dating to 3,600 years ago in Egypt show clearly
-domesticated house cats.
At least 97 percent of the nearly one billion living domestic cats are
random bred (they pick their own mates). Can these animals even qualify
as being domesticated (dependence on humans for food, shelter and control of
Although the place and time of wolf domestication may have been in
Southeast Asia about 16,000 years ago, recent studies indicate another place
and time for small-dog evolution.
A genetic analysis (Gray et al) traces the appearance of small body size
to mutations in Middle Eastern wolves that took place about 12,000 years ago.
Small stature reduced energy demand, which may have triggered the
evolution towards shrinking size in wolves.
The smaller proto-dog wolves survived perhaps by eating garbage discarded
by humans in the Fertile Crescent and needed human protection from their wild,
bigger wolf cousins.
Humans benefited by acquiring barker guard dogs and little terriers, quick
to find and able to dig out small creatures.
Yes, cats can be trained as well as dogs. Most people don't put forth the effort.
I taught my kitten to fetch in 25
minutes. He also understands certain words and phrases (other cat's names, where's the
ball, no, no-bite, no-scratch). He is also house
broken and outside-territory trained. Joyce, Sheboygan,
Almost all types of cats, including domestic cats and their ancestors,
are not pack animals so have not the incentive to do what other individuals
want them to. It makes no difference to a wild cat's survival whether or not
it co-operates, whereas a wild dog will die without help from its pack
mates. So, while cats are as intelligent as dogs and just as capable of
learning anything a dog can learn, they are much harder to train as they
have little incentive to learn it. Training a cat takes much more patience,
skill and inventiveness. Floray G., Taunton, England
Ripley, our gray tabby, developed many dog-like traits. He met us at the
door when we returned home and appeared happy to see us. He always came when
called and loved to play fetch. I assume this happened because my husband
wanted a dog - but our granddaughter brought home a kitten. My husband
treated the kitten as he would a dog and Ripley responded appropriately - my
husband was happy. Jean, Mesa, Arizona, USA
Dogs, like other large members of the family Canidae (wolf, hunting dog,
etc.) evolved to form strong, individual social bonds within the group, and
they follow directions from a higher status member of the
group. Such a bond can be transferred to a human, hence the apparent
willingness of dogs to be trained. Cats, like most members of the family Felidae (lions are an exception) are solitary animals, so don't have this
inbuilt adaptation that humans can exploit. Note that all animals
that humans train to do complex tasks (horses, elephants, dolphins) have
this type of social structure ---- not just living in groups but forming
strong, individual bonds with other members. Christine Janis,
Providence, Rhode Island, USA
My answer is inspired by the TV program "Dog Whisperer." Various breeds
of dogs have an instinct to "work at" some kind of "job," such as
herding, digging, tracking. It seems like training dogs represents giving
them a job to do, which is something they want. I think the only "job" for
cats is hunting for food, and they are less interested in having any other job. I wonder
if dogs have been domesticated over a longer time than cats. VanDog,
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Cats can be trained to do many things as well as dogs, and sometimes
they learn faster--as long as what you are teaching is what the cat wants to
know! For example I have trained both cats and dogs to use a bell to
go outside. My last cat got it after only 3 demonstrations and 5 minutes.
Most dogs have needed a day or 2. My friend told me her indoor cat learned
it just from watching her try to teach the dog! 20th century fox,
I have noticed mine respond very well to commands. Either they have
trained me or I trained them. But we kinda understand each other.
Celso, La Blanca, Texas, USA
Here's your next question:
Since humans domesticated dogs, causing actual genetic changes in the
canines, has there been a reciprocal genetic change in humans making us more
compatible with dogs? In other words, have dogs domesticated humans as humans domesticated them?
Lanney, Sandia Park, New Mexico
Deadline is 1 May. We will publish the best answers on 10 May.
April Holladay lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her column, WonderQuest,
appears every second Monday of the month on WonderQuest.com. To read April's
past columns, please visit her website. If you have a question for April, visit this
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