Do Dogs Learn Tricks Due To Instinct?

I took care of a neighbors dog and cat last week, I just visted the house and fed them and let the dog out. Anyway I was playing with them, and their dog (a collie but it has other things in it too) was real easy to teach tricks to. It only took me a few hours and I had the dog rolling over, shaking hands, barking on command and I even taught him to catch the dog treat after I balanced it on his nose (or snout or muzzle or whatever you call it).

The cat on the other hand just wanted to play. It would attack my hand and play hockey with balls of wadded up paper.

So my question is this, is there something instinctive to a dog (or wolf or coyote) that makes it easier to learn to do tricks. I am sure a cat could be taught to do that if you devote the time. But the dog seemed to be willing to paint the house, practically anything to get that doggie food treat. While the cat could care less.

So I figured there must be something instinctive about the behavior of learning tricks that dogs have but cats don’t. Like I said I’m sure a cat could learn it eventually if you were willing to put in enough time to teach it.

The cat would probably never learn.

The reason why dogs learn tricks is because dogs are social animals. In the natural state wolf hunting strategies can get incredibly complex, with some members lying in ambush, some members driving the prey, some acting as decoys and so forth. Each wolf has to learn those strategies, which vary form pack to pack and are not genetically fixed. They have to learn to co-operate with other pack members to make kills and they have to learn different strategies for different prey species and different terrain, seasons and so forth.

All of that has made dogs very good at learning from watching others and observing their reactions. If a wolf pup does the wrong thing it gets socially ostracised or even physically attacked and it learns not to do it. When it does the right thing it is rewarded with social approval and a higher place in the pack hierarchy and more food. What humans have largely done is step in to fill the role of the pack, especially the pack leader.

So dogs don’t have an instinct for tricks as such. However they do have an instinctive desire to learn appropriate behaviour and a desire for human approval. That makes it incredibly easy to teach a dog tricks, as you just discovered.

In contrast cats are loners. They have no real social structure and don’t co-operate in hunts. As such cats have never evolved any need for the approval of others. Young cats will learn hunting behaviours from watching their mothers and that make s it possible to teach very young cats some things, but once a cat becomes an adult it has no intention of pleasing humans and no real concept that it can get more food from other individuals for good behaviour.

That makes cats damn near impossible to train. They can be taught to some degree through “aversion”, which means giving them a whack when they do the wrong thing but even that is limited and they only learn not to do the wrong thing when you can see them. With no desire to please they only fear the pain, not the social ramifications. With no inbuilt concept that others can reward for good behaviour a cat can’t readily be trained by rewards. Pavlovian conditioning can cause a cat to repeat some instinctive behaviours to get rewards but you can never introduce entirely novel behaviours into cats as you can with dogs.

Note also that most dogs aren’t really working to get the doggy treat. Some dogs are food focussed but most are not. The food represents social approval from you, it’s not a reward in its own right. Most dogs are just as willing or more willing to learn for a couple of minutes of patting and “Who’s a good dog” as they are for food.

I have to contest this to a limited degree. While it’s true that domestic cats are not pack animals per se, they do exhibit a degree of socialization when cohabiting a structure and will sometimes participate in cooperative hunting; I’ve witnessed several times semi-feral barn cats hunting rodents in a way that is rudimentarialy cooperative, i.e. one chases out a rat or vole and the other catches it. Cats are not cursorial hunters, however, and don’t cooperate in hunting as canids so over long distances and as a standard social exchange.

One significant thing about the domestic dog is it’s adaptation to being, well, domesticated. It is probably one of the earliest animals to become “completely” domesticated, i.e. living in a state of constant cohabitation with humans, and is highly adapted to that role. This includes evolutionary “regression” to neotenous form to appeal asthetically to humans, its inborn affection and protection for people with whom it identifies as pack members, and of course its willingness and capability to learn “tricks”, i.e. tasks and skills demanded by a more dominant member. Humans and canids have hunted side by side well into prehistory, and dogs served many roles, including work animals, guards, and occasionally food.

The domestic “house” cat is also co-evolved with humans, but in a much different role; while dogs worked in cooperation with people, cats were used for their innate hunting instinct and abilities to protect grain and otherwise rid habitation and storage of vermin. As such, there was little real demand that the cat learn anything or cooperate with people; essentially, it just does what it will do more or less on instinct. Cats have also evolved toward neoteny, but less so than dogs (while there is a clear distinction between a grey wolf and most breeds of domestic dog, a housecat looks much like just a smaller version of a tiger) and readily revert to feral, nonsocial behavior if improperly socialized.

So, in short, cats, even though (somewhat) domesticated, have no need to learn skills or tricks; it’s not a part of the evolutionary demands upon them. Which isn’t to say that they don’t or can’t. A friend of mine has a cat who has this need trick of seeing that a door is open and trying to go through the doorway. Unfortunately, about half the time he ends up on the wrong side of the hinges and finds a wall in his way, upon encountering which he gives it a disgusted look and then walks away. He’s a very special kitty…


Thanks for the answers they made sense.

It was just a bit odd, because both the animals obviously missed the owner, I just came over to the house in the morning and after work, so they wanted company but the cat just wanted to play on it’s terms of course. It wanted to wrestle around and attack my and and chase yarn and paper.

The dog also wanted to play but it was like he’d do ANYTHING to get that doggie treat :slight_smile:

The cat was like, well the treat is nice but if I don’t get it so what?

I do realize certain cats like lions and cheetahs hunt together. So thanks again that really makes sense

You might say that pack behavior is instinctive, and that one motivation for learning is to please the pack, so the learning is instinctive.

Cats do socialize and have structure to their society, but it’s just much less complicated. It’s not a powerful motivation, and there aren’t many other big motivators.

I have about a dozen cats and about half of them come when called by name. Maybe dogs understand the concept of a name, but I suppose each cat has just learned to come when he hears that particular sound. So, Fred thinks his names are Fred and crinkle-crinkle and whirr-whirr-whirr, and Agnes thinks her names are Agnes and crinkle-crinkle and whirr-whirr-whirr, and the somewhat slower Beatrice thinks her names are just crinkle crinkle and whirr-whirr-whirr. It’s not like when I call Agnes, Fred looks at Agnes. Anybody ever seen dogs do that?

Dogs are the same, in my experience. They respond to the tone of voice, rather than the actual word. I call my dogs by nicknames, and they still respond.

I used to play a trick on my guests, and tell them that my dogs were tri-lingual. I could give them commands in German, French and Spanish and they would obey. If a guest knew another language, I would ask for the words, “Sit” or “down” in that language and astonish everyone with my dog’s Babblefish abilities.

But my dog really didn’t know German or French or Latin. She was responding to the tone of the word, not the word itself. Listen to yourself when you give the commands: “Sit” is usually said in a sharp tone. “Down” is usually said with the word stretched out a bith and in a lower tone of voice. “Come” is usually given in a sort of “happy” tone of voice. As long as you deliver the commands in the same tone, you could say “Ham” and your dog would sit.

For this reason, I always suggest that people train their dogs using hand signals in addition to the verbal commands. Dogs understand body language much better than verbal language. They learn much faster if you use a hand signal, rather than learning to sort out the different tones.

I taught one of my dogs hand signals for all the common commands. She was a very smart dog and learned it in about 10 minutes. (Flat hand for “sit,” raised hand for “stay,” beckoning finger for “come,” finger drawn across neck for “stop that!”) It was very useful, but only if the dog was looking at me at the time.

Unfortunately I couldn’t do that for her best tricks. They were: Point finger at dog. Say either “bang!” or “dance!” If “bang” she would play dead. If “dance” she would go up on her hind legs and jump around a bit. She would also say “Woof” if you asked her, “What does Sandy say?” (Sandy being Little Orphan Annie’s dog. My husband taught her this trick as I had no idea who Sandy was.)

I have never been able to teach a cat one single trick. They already know everything they need to know.

I wonder if cats do learn but we give up to easily. For instance I had no trouble teaching my cat NOT to scratch the furniture. If it tried to claw it, I squirted it with a squirt gun, physically picked the cat up and brought her to the srcatching post. After three time she never used the furniture again. Always the post, though interestingly enough she will use a tree outside.

I also easily taught the cat, who always wants to go out as soon as it gets dark, that when I flick the porch light on and off three times, she comes running. I just left her out for the night and after two times she learned.

So she seems capable of learning, but not tricks. I wonder if I sat her down and forced her to shake a paw for 24 hours would she get the message.

I did learn the cat doesn’t respond to her name so much as the voice, my wife uses a high squeeky tone and the cat comes regardless of what the word is, of course that could be because the squeek irritates her.

These folks think that they can train cats.

I’ll slightly nitpick your slight nitpick, which I otherwise generally agree with, and say that I don’t think there is much evidence of physical neoteny of cats at all. The likely wild ancestor/closest relative of the housecat, looks like, well, a housecat:

These two are the same cat, a domestically raised animal which might as well be any other brown mackerel tabby from a shelter:

I think there is room to argue that domestic cats show some behavioral neoteny. But as you note ferals revert quickly, so it is arguable how much of that is genetic vs. environmental/socialization. Also interestingly enough African Wild Cats raised from very young do seem to tame down reasonably, though then again it could be feral domestics and wild cats have been interbreeding long enough that nascent domesticated behavioral traits have entered the wild population. But you could claim the same potential interbreeding for the European Wild Cat, which quite demonstrably does not tame well.

  • Tamerlane

This is somewhat related to dog tricks and I wonder if anyone ever experienced this, or even if it really happened.

When I’m playing with my dog in the house I toss the ball and she retrieves the ball. The room isn’t huge and I either wait for her to get across the room and she catches the ball or I toss the ball and she runs after it.

I’m probably not explaining this well but when she’s chasing the ball she sometimes waits for the ball to bounce off the wall and it seems like she can tell almost by the way the ball hits the wall where to stand to catch it when it bounces back toward her.

As it’s hitting the wall she seems to know whether the ball is going to bounce to the left or right, or how big the angle is going to be.

Does that make sense? Could a dog actually do that?

Dogs can do that quite easily. Cats are even better, though they generally don’t care enough to try. Cats are quite capable of catching a ball that has bounced off two walls in a corner while they are themselves performing a leap from the furniture, all the while allowing for any spin imparted to the ball. While I’ve never seen any other animal (aside from highly skilled squash players) that could match that degree of complexity, dogs are more than capable of calculating trajectories sufficiently to catch balls that have bounced just once.

The sort of physics required to predict the path of moving objects through velocities, angles of reflection and so forth is hardwired into the brains of predatory mammals, and probably all mammals. We need it to be able to catch small furry animals when they jump into the air and we need it to be able to leap onto the backs of large furry animals and rip their throats out. We get better at these sorts of calculations with experience, but just any person can hit a squash ball the first time they pick up a racket any dog can calculate the trajectory of a ball.

Blake, thank you for the great reply.

When i was a teen, we had a very smart dalmation/boarder collie cross. I taught it a string of command tricks, which she seemed to enjoy doing (it made her the centre of attention, and got lots of praise, treats, etc).

One day I was joking around and put her through the standard “Sit! Lay Down! Roll Over!” commands, and then on a whim, said “TAP DANCE!”.

Now she “knew” this was a new command, and I had not trained her in it. She would get so excited that she would nervously stand there, quivering with excitement, lifting and dropping her paws (she actually looked like she was trying to tapdance). I Immeadiately praised her, petted her, and gave a lot of reward stimulus. She quickly learned that “TAP DANCE!” was a command to do the nervous foot lifting/dropping fidgeting…

Guests and family members were amazed and amused by this strange trick. Elsa (the dog) has long since departed this world, but I remember her tapdancing and other antics fondly…


Your housecat has shorter legs and body in proportion than most big cats, and more importantly the African Wild Cat from which it is descended. Domestic cats also generally have smaller, thinner claws in proportion to size. Many have long, soft fur which is reminicient of kittens but not of any mature wild cat. Breed cats, especially Persians and the like, show pronounced neotenic features, but since this is a result of enforced selection for specific phenotypical features it really isn’t germaine to this…er, hijack. In any case, neoteny in cats is more subtle owing to the fact that a) cats have been “domesticated” for less time than canines (roughly 5000 years whereas co-habitation with wolves is believed to have begun 60-70k years ago) and that their adopted niche requires less in the way of adaptation than dogs.

Eric79 speculates on the trainability of cats, suggesting that persistence may be the key. It is important, however, to seperate operant conditioning from true skill training. Cats will adopt avoidant behaviors in response to a negative stimuli, but rarely if ever will the voluntarily accept training in the form of instruction and reinforcement. (They can make plans and adopt behaviors that bring them rewards, but in ever case I’ve seen they do so on their own initative and not at someone else’s behest.) Dogs, on the other hand, may be encouraged to pay attention by using treats but ultimately training appeals to their desire to conform to the demands of an alpha. These are fundamentally different behaviors.

You could say that cats “just don’t care” about learning tricks; it’s not that they don’t care about you (as an owner) personally, it’s just not their metier. They make you happy by chasing string and are productive by killing rodents. Dogs, however, are evolved to please you and do their bidding, alieviating them from the need to hunt by or for themselves.


Thing is, when you “teach” a dog tricks, you’re almost never teaching him anything he doesn’t already know how to do. I mean, a dog knows how to roll over. He knows how to sit. He knows how to extend his paw. YOU don’t teach him any of those things- he can do all of them instinctively. Wild dogs and all their relatives do all those things in the forest, without any training from people.

When you train a dog, what you’re really trying to do is get him to repeat those behaviors on cue. And since most domesticated dogs crave the rewards (whether tangible or emotional) that humans can give them, they’re usually quite eager to what what we want them to do, once they learn to understand the cues.

That’s interesting and not one I’ve heard before. I don’t consider the big cat/domestic cat pair really analgous to wolf/dog, but the AWC/domestic cat certainly is. The claw one seems curious ( one wonders why there would have been pressure to breed or select in that direction ) and I’m sure that many lankier breeds and individual domestics overlap with wild phenotypes and more closely than domestic dog breeds would with a wolf. Still, interesting and just because you have overlap doesn’t mean the phenomena isn’t real ( assuming the variance holds up pretty well statistically ). Do you have a cite handy by the way? Not a accusatory question - I’d just like to read more on the topic :).

Oh, it’s germaine. Afterall dogs were almost certainly selected for certain juvenile traits, both aesthetically and behaviorally. I was thinking that the extreme pushed in face of modern Persians goes well beyond anything you’d see in a kitten and seemed on first thought more likely a preserved random mutation than actual neoteny. But I was forgetting more traditional Persians.

That may actually have to be pushed back some, based on recent findings on Cyprus. The evidence was published in Science in 2004, I think. Here’s a National Geographic blurb on it:

  • Tamerlane

I’ll dig something up for you, but not tonight. :wink: I’ve had experience with bobcats, and their claws are definitely thicker and heavier in proportion. Whether that’s true between African Wild Cats and the domestic cat I’m not sure. Since the domestic cat can often succesfully hybridize with wild cats (and in fact, the domestic cat is a subspecies of Felis silvestris, so technically the African Wild and other cats are intraspecies hybrids, generally breeding with viable offspring) it’s difficult to fully differentiate between the vast variety of domestic cats and wild cats. There are also claims of interspecies and even intergenus hybridization, though the degree of viability is highly variable and the presumed parentage is often questionable. In general, though, the domestic cat demonstrates some degree of juvenile features not found on adult wild cats.

But features selected specifically for breed standard are an enforced neoteny; what I mean is you could just as well breed for longer tails or five toes or somesuch, and that says nothing about how or why the species has naturally migrated to a more juvenile appearance. Presumably wolves who lived around people became more and more immature-looking because they were preferred (less threatening, less prone to aggression, et cetera), and not due to specific enforced breeding practices. Physical neoteny may actually be, at least in some cases, a side effect of reducing native aggression (or enhancing some other characteristic, like fat retention) in the species and have no direct effect upon selection.


That’s not really true.

At best it is a fairly banal observation insofar as it is true and must be true of every species on Earth. There are a limited range of behaviours that dogs are physiologically capable of, just as is the case with humans. And most human “tricks” are simply natural skills that we reinforce. Humans and their relatives do mathematics, paint, make tools and so forth out in the forest. As a result humans doing advanced calculus or building rockets aren’t doing things they don’t already know how to do. Such an observation might be true if we stretch the definitions in use, but really it tells us nothing except that adaptable species like humans and dogs i9n the wild will do any thing they physically can do. As such it’s impossible to find anything that they are physically capable of that isn’t simply an extension of natural behaviour.

If we don’t stretch the definitions to a tortuous extent then clearly dogs can readily be taught to perform a massive range of tricks that no canid has ever performed in the wild. Dogs can jump through burning hoops, ride skateboards, dive to retrieved submerged items, open doors, guide the blind and pull vehicles. None of those behaviours has ever been observed in wolves. We taught dogs to do all those things. They are not things dogs already knew how to do. In that respect dogs are no different to people. They are capable of learning a massive array of tricks which is largely limited only by whether they are physcially capable of performing the actions.

One of my cats has this ability as well as a few others. Shortly after I rescued her she started to pick up bits of wire, especially the plastic coated stuff used to tie cables together. I would fashion them into a loop and she would first play hockey with it and then get me to play fetch with her.

She seems to prefer the hoops to bounce off a few items before she catches them. She also has an almost perfect ability to catch in mid air.

I regularly find small piles of bits of plastic or tie cables that she’s gathered ready to be made into hoops. If she wants to play she’ll first come to my favourite sofa to find me. If I’m not there she’ll find me and drop the hoop into my lap, nudging my elbow until I give up and play.

She brings the hoops back and drops them into an outstretched hand until she’s had enough at which point she drops the hoop about a foot away and then slumps down.

Oh, and she’ll alternate delivering them to me or my GF to make sure we both get involved.