“Why can’t you train a cat to do tricks?”
Actually, you can train a cat. Training a cat is doable, but it is significantly different from training a dog. It is also more difficult, due to some of the differences between dogs and cats.
What are some of those differences?
First off, dogs are pack animals. They are used to living and hunting in a group. A pack has an “alpha” or leader, so dogs instinctively seek guidance from a leader. A dog will typically view their owner as their alpha and thus try to please them. They will happily learn commands and tricks from them.
Cats, by contrast, are usually solitary hunters. While they may have friendly relations with other cats, they hunt by themselves. Cats also have sharp, retractile claws that enable them to catch prey and defend themselves without help. They thus tend to be more independent than dogs, and they are far less eager to please.
Dogs are also more persistent and have more stamina. A dog or a pack of dogs will track their prey for miles, if necessary, and run it down. Cats are ambush predators that attack in short bursts. In addition, while dogs can hunt big game, small cats, like the domestic cat, hunt small game that provides far less nutrition. A cat is thus not going to spend a lot of energy pursuing a mouse, particularly if there is an easier target nearby.
In other words, cats need instant gratification, while dogs are more willing to work hard to learn a given trick. That means anybody training a cat has to make it worth the cat’s while.
Are dogs smarter than cats?
There’s actually a lot of debate about this; some studies suggest they are, while some suggest the opposite is true.
There are three possible ways to measure an animal’s likely intelligence: brain rate in relation to an animal’s size, encephalization quotient, and the number of cortical neurons in the cerebral cortex. The encephalization quotient is the ratio between the size of an animal’s brain and how large it should be. Dogs get higher marks than cats in the first two criteria, but cats have nearly twice as many cortical neurons as dogs do: 300 million to 160 million.
How long have dogs been domesticated?
Dogs definitely have one large advantage over cats: They’ve been with humans a lot longer. While cats may have been first domesticated about 9500 years ago, man’s best friend is believed to have been around for 20,000 to 40,000 years. Archaeologists have even found physical traits that could be linked to breed variations in dogs that were buried roughly 17,000 years ago!
That long association has enabled dogs to learn to read human emotions. The science journal “Learning & Behavior” published a study in which researchers tested dogs’ reactions to different facial expressions. They found that the dogs reacted more strongly to faces showing strong emotion than to those with neutral expressions. Dogs can also tell the difference between happy expressions and angry expressions.
The scientists also played recordings of people talking during some tests, and the dogs spent more time looking at the pictures whose expressions matched the tone of the recording. That suggests that dogs how a person experiencing a given emotion sounds, and the researchers concluded that dogs can recognize human emotions.
A dog’s ability to read human emotions would help it learn how to best please its master. The dog would also be able to tell when it had succeeded or failed. An ability to read humans paired with a desire to please them makes dogs extremely trainable.
Which dog breeds are the best at learning tricks?
While dogs learn tricks more readily than cats do, not all dogs are created equal. Some breeds are more trainable than others.
The AKC describes some of the traits that affect a dog’s trainability, and intelligence is only one such trait. Distractability is another trait. Scent hounds like the Bloodhound, for example, are apt to get distracted by interesting smells. They are thus often harder to train than other dogs.
A dog’s heritage will also affect its trainability. Some breeds were developed to work independently, while others were developed to work in partnership with a human. The latter tend to be more trainable. Generally speaking, the most trainable dogs are in the Working Group, Sporting Group, and Herding Group. Examples of dog breeds from these groups include Border Collies, German Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers. Other dog breeds noted for their trainability include the Poodle, the Papillion, and the Miniature Schnauzer.