My husband has recently started a new job telecommuting. We're trying to figure out how to teach the cats to leave him alone while he's working, but Hunter thinks any attention from "his human" is good attention.

The worst behavior is that he'll sit on the desk between my husband and his keyboard. We set up a small shelf (for additional height) next to the husband's monitor (within petting distance) and sometimes Hunter will sleep on it, but not consistently.

If my husband kept a small canister of treats/kibble and put them on the shelf to encourage Hunter to go to the shelf when he is working, would that work as a training aid, or would he just get in the way to encourage my husband to feed him?

2 Answers 2


The essential problem here is that you are trying to use positive reinforcement to train a negative behavior. Just as you can't train a cat to do something by punishing them, you cannot train a cat to not do something by rewarding them.

How to Train Your Cat to Repeatedly Jump Onto the Desk

If you give positive reinforcement (giving a treat) to train a negative behavior (not jumping on the desk), the cat will instead learn the corresponding positive behavior (jumping onto the desk), not the negative behavior.

If you give your cat a treat every time it jumps on the desk, so it will leave the desk to eat the treat, it will learn that it should jump onto the desk in order to get a treat.

Imagine the following example:

A child's parents do not want the child to play with matches, so every time his parents discover him holding a box of matches, they give him a piece of candy and take the matches away, placing them on a shelf. Of course, the child will continue take the matches off the shelf every time he wants a piece of candy. In fact, he may not even recognize this as wrong - to him, this is just how he signals to his parents that he wants a piece of candy.

This exactly parallels how the cat will react to being rewarded for leaving the desk.

However, a little thought should reveal a better option:

How to Physically Prevent Your Cat From Jumping Onto the Desk

This is probably the easiest way to get the cat to stop jumping on the desk. If the office has a door, close it. If not, install one, and use it. If you do not have a separate office area you can use undistracted, you are cheating your employer, and need to deal with that first.

Imagine the following example:

A child's parents do not want the child to play with matches, so every time his parents discover him holding a box of matches, they take the matches away and place them inside a cabinet locked with a child-proof mechanism. Since the child is not physically capable of getting the matches, he will not have them.

This is, again, probably the easiest way to do this in the short-term. However, your cat may take to hiding in the office, scratching at the door, or otherwise attempting to defeat the physical measures preventing it from entering the office and jumping on the desk.

For a long term solution, you may need to actually train the cat to not jump on the desk:

How to Train Your Cat to Not Jump Onto the Desk in the First Place

If you want to train the cat to not do something, you have to use negative reinforcement. One very effective form of negative reinforcement for cats is using a spray bottle filled with water. Each time the cat jumps on the desk, spray it with the bottle.

Imagine the following example:

A child's parents do not want the child to play with matches, so every time his parents discover him holding a box of matches, they give him a spank and take the matches away, placing them on a shelf. While the child may be physically capable of taking the matches, he now has a definite disincentive to do so, and so does not attempt to get them.

This may not be easy for someone to whom any negative reinforcement appears unjustified and cruel, and they may be unable to effectively do this. But in the long run, this is probably the most effective way. There are a number of arguments against using any negative reinforcement at all with cats, some of which are presented in this article which @Zaralynda kindly pointed out. While in the cases they examine negative reinforcement would indeed be ineffective, used appropriately it can lead to the desired results.

In particular, it is important that you are not punishing the cat for engaging in a behavior for which there is not another alternative. You aren't going to stop eating food just because someone pokes you with a sharp stick every time they see you doing it - you will just hide it from them, or something. Similarly, you can't train a cat to not scratch furniture or climb drapes unless they have a scratching post or tree to scratch instead.

It is also important that this not be done too heavily. In order to effectively use negative reinforcement to train the cat, you can only use it for one behavior at a time. Doing more than one increases the risk that the cat will associate the punishment with the trainer, rather than the behavior, at which point you will no longer be able to train the cat at all.

In my case, I used this method to train my cats to not jump on the kitchen counters. The problem here is not the jumping, but having sanitary food preparation surfaces, so they are free to jump on tables, desks, bookshelves, beds, railings, fences, trees, and anything else they could possibly want to jump on. It also helped that there were a large number of members of the household participating, so the punishment was never associated with any one trainer, only with the behavior.

As a result of our training efforts, my two cats stopped jumping on the counters before the week was over, and have not done it since, even 3 years later, but are otherwise exactly the way they were.

  • 1
    much better explaination of why treats won't work, but punishment isn't effective w/cats either catbehaviorassociates.com/the-squirt-bottle-controversy
    – Zaralynda
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 16:56
  • @Zaralynda My experiences with my cats indicates otherwise. I used this to train my two cats to stay off the kitchen counters, and it worked extremely well, as 3 years later they still don't ever jump on the counters. So of course I must empirically disagree with the idea that punishment is never effective with cats. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 0:55
  • @AJMansfield killing them would have achieved the same goal, that doesn't mean it's an effective method.
    – Cedric H.
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 14:59
  • @CedricH. Actually, killing an animal is an extremely effective method of preventing it from doing something you don't wish it to. That is what pesticide does. That is why we kill rabid animals. That is why police shoot criminals. Clearly, those methods are actually extremely effective. The only problem with killing the cat in this case is that it conflicts with other goals, which include things like ethical treatment, continuing to have a pet, and avoiding potential legal penalties. My methods were extremely effective at accomplishing my goals. Your goals may be different, so YMMV. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 15:37
  • I let you with your personnal results. However I really dont feel confortable with your first sentence: as a generalization it really opens to door to punishment and negative methods which then justify punishing dogs or cats in many situations (barking, jumping, pulling on leash, inapropriate behavior at the vet, etc) all of that is routinely trained with positive methods only
    – Cedric H.
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 20:47

It doesn't sound like that will work. If the treats are always available on the shelf, the cat may go eat some treats then go lay on the desk.

If you put the treats out when you go into the room with the desk, the cat may wait on the shelf until fed, then move elsewhere as it suits him.

Training (conditioning) your cat to stay on the shelf rather than the desk would be rather involved.

My cat does the same thing and likes to knock over beverages on the desk as well. The most practical solution is to just move your cat.

You may have to move him multiple times each session, but eventually he will learn that there are places he is not supposed to be.

This won't stop him from jumping up every now and then for some attention. Just give him his attention and set him on the floor.

Also if you have moved him a couple times and he keeps returning and you then 'give in' and let the cat sit by the keyboard, he will very quickly learn he will get his way if he persists.

Just keep gently putting the cat on the floor when he is somewhere you don't want him and he should learn.

  • we've been moving him for several years and he hasn't caught on yet. it hasn't been an issue until now, when my husband started teleworking.
    – Zaralynda
    Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 0:49

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