Why is it so difficult to train a cat to COME or SIT
- a behavior which dogs learn with ease? Your dog learns this in 5 minutes but it
could take you 5 weeks or more to do the same with your cat. Nevertheless, cats learn to
use a litter tray with almost no training, but for a small dog to do the same takes more
persistence than most owners can invest.
The reason for such differences is that what's important to dogs is not the same as it is
for cats. For a start, dogs are group animals and cats are not.
Dogs are social, gregarious creatures and are most content in a pack situation.
For pet dogs, the most important pack members are usually their owners and
owners who provide proper leadership for their dogs are usually viewed as pack
leaders. This is the reason why dogs left alone during their owners' working
hours commonly develop separation anxieties even to the extent that, when
several dogs share the same household, one can still develop a severe
separation anxiety in its owner's absence that is not solved by the presence of
its canine buddies.
What's important, though, is that a dog's attachment is to its group and much
less to its territory. For example, a dog taken to his or her owner's work place to
be with its owners will be just as happy as when it is at home. By comparison, a
cat taken to its owner's workplace is usually very fearful and anxious.
Why does this difference exist? Cats are not, generally, gregarious and do not
develop strong pack structures where leadership is an important function. Wild
or feral cats are mostly solitary creatures, hunting alone. While they will form
groups, this is more a sharing of a common territory than the establishment of a
cohesive pack. Cats are extremely territorial and, when fights over territory
occur, the result is that the loser learns to avoid that successor but not to leave
the territory. Leaving the territory only occurs if aggressive encounters continue.
So a cat's attachment is to its territory, not to its group. How often have you
heard the turmoils of a cat owner attempting to establish his or her cat in a new
home which is in the same neighbourhood as the old home? Commonly, the cat
will return to the old home repeatedly.
So, dogs learn from observing and interacting with other pack members to which
they are bonded. For wild dogs, such as wolves, the interactions generate a
cohesive pack that hunts together successfully. Similarly, dogs learn by
interacting with, and being close to, their owners. Thus, when reward-based
therapies are utilized by owners for behaviors that group the pack, such as
COME (closer) and SIT (close to me), the dogs respond readily. It's part of
their innate behavioral coding. For cats, that's just not important.
Wolf cubs also learn what behaviours to avoid by the growls and snaps received
from higher-ranking pack members, so punishment can be effective as a training
tool, but rarely will punishment drive a wolf cub away from the pack. The lure of
group dynamics is just too strong. For this reason, a dog continually punished
by its owners shows appeasement behaviors where the dog is effectively
saying don't hit me again. Sadly, most people assume this is a guilt response and the
There is another difference between cats and dogs. Cats live in a
three-dimensional world because they can jump and climb, whereas dogs exist
more in two dimensions. So the concept of flight or fight becomes important.
Cats climb to hunt and to escape. Dogs can't do this well so hunting mostly
requires a pack to be effective. For the same reason, dogs use assertive forms
of aggression (fight) because flight is more difficult. By comparison, cats tend to
develop flight responses to harmful stimuli because they are agile enough to
What does all this mean?
1. To establish the correct pack environment at home, an owner should
provide his or her dog with proper leadership.
2. Cats are more attached to their territory than their group, so provision of a
secure and comfortable territory is more important to them. Food provided
3. Dogs learn readily when leaders do things that enhance attachment
(such as the COME command).
4. Dogs will learn from punishment but it confuses them.
5. Cats don't learn from punishment - they avoid the source, for example
6. Achieving behaviour change with cats is often a compromise. Find out
what the cat wants, provide it first and then try to progressively change
the established behaviour to fit your needs.
The difference between cats and dogs was summarized well by a caller to a
local radio station when he said, "My dog looks at all the things I provide for her
& says, "You must be God. My cat looks at all the things I provide for him
says, I must be God."
Published with permission of www.pethealth.com.au
and Dr. Cam Day, Animal Behavior Veterinarian. Dr. Cam Day BVSc BSc MACVSc is a
veterinary surgeon, an animal behaviour consultant and media presenter. In 1995 he
qualified as a Member of the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists in the discipline
of Animal Behaviour and is one of only 15 veterinarians with this qualification in
Australia. He works full time in animal behavior management in Queensland, consulting with
dog, cat and bird owners on a daily basis, as well as appearing on air as Brisbane's radio
Pet Vet, and writing for various magazines.
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