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There are a couple of things that I try and prevent my cat from doing: jumping up on the kitchen counter and being mean to the dog (who is obedient and minds his own business). It's easy to catch him in the act when he tries to bully the dog around, but to catch him in the act of being up on the counter where he knows he is not allowed requires a bit of stealth.

When I do catch him exhibiting behavior, how can I effectively discipline him to discourage him from continuing the bad behavior?

10 Answers 10

46

Punishment rarely works because cats don't have a social structure that recognizes you as the dominant being in the home, they only understand that you're doing something to them that they don't want (squirting them with water, for example).

Therefore, it's much more effective to figure out why your cat is exhibiting the undesireable behavior and meet those needs in a way that is acceptable to both of you rather than punishing the cat for the undesireable behavior.

Usually, cats climb on countertops because they have instincts telling them to climb (better view, hiding from predators/prey, etc). To keep them from the kitchen countertops, you should install cat wall shelves and/or cat trees to give them that height advantage that they are looking for. Sometimes it's hard to find space for these things in the kitchen, but even devoting a corner to a set of shelves so they can watch you cook can be helpful!

(They also may be climbing on the countertops if you leave dirty dishes out that they can scrounge for food from, so housekeeping is important!).

I'm not familiar with dog/cat interactions, so it's difficult for me to give advice there. We do have a cat who's much younger than the other cats and often would harass them because he had a lot of energy and wanted to play. I started making SURE that I spent 30-60 minutes a day playing with him with wand toys to tire him out, and he is now much less bothersome to the older cats.

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    Just because the cat has alternatives for climbing it will not stop to go on the kitchen countertops. You have to make clear that you don't like it. Cats avoid negative things, too, and if you punish them (with squirt bottle, or simpler by putting it back to ground) they will understand. But I like the suggestion of providing alternatives. +1 – Haras Brummi Sep 21 '17 at 10:38
  • @HarasBrummi if the cat is on the cat tree (because it's a more desirable surface than the counters) then (by definition) it's not on the counters. You have you make it select the tree (or whatever alternative surface) – Zaralynda Sep 25 '17 at 14:22
  • That's right I am with you on this point Zaralynda. But what makes you so sure the cat would choose the tree? – toothless199 Oct 17 '17 at 21:04
  • @toothless199 you have to experiment with the tree (location, materials, lures, etc) until the cat chooses the tree – Zaralynda Oct 18 '17 at 16:29
29

I use the squirt bottle technique, a little squirt of water doesn't hurt them, but it discourages the behaviour. However, maybe it's just that my cats are especially intractable, but it's usually a short-term dissuasion in my experience. Just make sure that they don't see you squirt them, it may affect their reaction.

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    Yes, I squirt mine sometimes, too. They respond obediently to "No!", and they definitely know when they do something mischievous. If they jump up on the counter in another room, all I have to do is stand up out of my chair, and they jump down immediately. If they get really out of hand, I put them in their cage until they calm down, or use the laser to tire them out. – Geremia Sep 20 '14 at 5:03
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I find most cats are pretty easy to train to a sound. It could be a finger snap, the squirt of a spray bottle, a clap of the hands, etc.

The key is to be consistent about it, and only use the sound when they're actually being bad. In addition, try not to let them associate the sound with you, or they'll only be good when you're around.

Initial training is often done accompanied by an action the cat does not like. I usually use a spray bottle since our cats hate getting wet and its easier to hide the fact that I am responsible for the action. I find that a loud noise or a hiss will startle them and work as well, although it is harder to prevent them from associating the human-made sound with me.

I actually had the same problem as you where we had one cat that would always be jumping on the counter when we weren't in the room. As a solution, I lined the edge of the counter in empty pop bottles, and after scaring herself twice by knocking them all down, I haven't caught her up there again. I've heard people report the same sort of success with using tin foil or something sticky like double-sided tape on the counter, however that never worked for me (Tinfoil = Toy, and Sticky Stuff = Annoyance) :)

Zaralynda's answer does provide some good advice too about trying to find and fix the reason for the cat's behavioral problems, however since this question is specifically about how to discipline a cat, I figured I'd provide an answer that addresses that.

Cats can be just as trainable as dogs, although I find it harder to do since they are usually more independent and not as eager-to-please as dogs, and are sometimes smarter than dogs so can figure out what you're trying to do and choose to ignore you. :)

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    Yea. Clapping hands works well with our cat. He knows he is doing something wrong.. but it never stops him from doing it again. At least we can control the situation at the time, like if we eating and he get on the table top. We clap and he will jump off with ears tucked. But as soon as we leave the kitchen he is right back up there :) Cats :) – Piotr Kula Feb 27 '14 at 11:10
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    @ppumkin "he knows he is doing something wrong" that is a ridiculous idea. Ideas about right and wrong is merely a way prior conditioning manifests itself in a person or animal's mind. If no conditioning has occurred with respect to the behavior, no ideas about it being right or wrong can be present. – AJMansfield Apr 24 '14 at 23:23
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    Its not ridiculous. They have brains, they follow patterns, when a bigger cata attacks them, then run away, next time, obviously they have the choice to fight it, because of free will and their personality. We cannot put brain locks on them, thats ridiculous. My cat is nearly 1 year old now and he knows not to sit on my keyboard, or any tabletop, or eat form our plate, simply by clapping, to indicate he is doing wrong. Yea, cats are not as obedient as dogs, they're just more difficult to teach. I think almost any mammal can be trained to understand outlines of right and wrong. – Piotr Kula Apr 25 '14 at 8:11
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    They can certainly learn approved versus disapproved versus nobody-cares, though they may have trouble understanding general versus specific. Whether that is "Good and Bad" is somewhere between semantics and unanswerable. Also, remember that some misbehavior is just checking whether the rule they remember still applies, since they can't exactly ask. – keshlam Nov 30 '15 at 0:04
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Karen Pryor made clicker training popular with her book Don't shoot the dog. In it, after delving extensively in what it means to shape a behaviour with conditioned reinforcement, she lists 8 methods ("the only ones there are") to get rid of unwanted behaviour. The first four are more or less cruel (to yourself, in the case of #4), and the last four are more or less humane, but she states that every method has its place (except #2, punishment, which doesn't works—even when it seems to).

She also lists examples of every method for common situations, like dealing with messy roommates, barking dogs, irritable husbands, faulty tennis swings, aaaaand, cats jumping on the table, which I include next to her description of each method:

Method 1: “Shoot the animal.” This definitely works. You will never have to deal with that particular behavior in that particular subject again.

Cat gets on the kitchen table: Keep the cat outdoors or get rid of it.

Method 2: Punishment. Everybody’s favorite, in spite of the fact that it almost never really works.

Cat gets on the kitchen table: Strike it and/or chase it out of the kitchen.

Method 3: Negative reinforcement. Removing something unpleasant when a desired behavior occurs.

Cat gets on the kitchen table: Put cellophane tape, sticky side up, on the kitchen table.

Method 4: Extinction; letting the behavior go away by itself.

Cat gets on the kitchen table: Ignore the behavior. It will not go away, but you may succeed in extinguishing your own objections to cat hair in your food.

Method 5: Train an incompatible behavior. This method is especially useful for athletes and pet owners.)

Cat gets on the kitchen table: Train the cat to sit on a kitchen chair for petting and food reward. An eager or hungry cat may hit that chair so hard it slides halfway across the kitchen, but still the cat is where you want it, not on the table.

Method 6: Put the behavior on cue. (Then you never give the cue. This is the dolphin trainer’s most elegant method of getting rid of unwanted behavior.

Cat gets on the kitchen table: Train it to jump up on the table on cue and also to jump down on cue (this impresses guests). You can then shape the length of time it has to wait for the cue (all day, eventually).

Method 7: “Shape the absence”. Reinforce anything and everything that is not the undesired behavior. (A kindly way to turn disagreeable relatives into agreeable relatives.)

Cat gets on the kitchen table: Rewarding the cat for periods of staying off the table is practical only if you keep the kitchen door closed when you're not home so the cat can't indulge in the behavior by itself.

Method 8: Change the motivation. This is the fundamental and most kindly method of all.

Why do cats get on the table? (1) to look for food, so put the food away; (2) cats like to lounge in a high place where they can see what’s going on. Arrange a shelf or a pedestal higher than the tabletop, close enough so you can pet the cat, and offering a good view of the kitchen, and the cat may well prefer it.

As Karen says, almost everyone resorts to #2, Punishment, even though it's mostly useless, for cats or anyone else, humans included: with or without social structure, with or without ingrained fear (how effective is the war on drugs?).

The thing is, when the punishment is applied during the act, it can inadvertently work like #3, Negative reinforcement: if every time you do something you immediately get an annoying electrical shock, burn, water squirt or whatever, you'll quickly and forcibly relate the act with the punishment (Freud's association by simultaneity: neurons that fire together wire together) and you'll become a Clockwork Orange, reeling away from the act (and the punisher), though not as dramatically as in the movie. Much (most?) of our behaviour already works by association: you already know not to put your hand in the fire; just as well, it can be hard to walk over burning coals, even when you know they are (mostly) harmless.

Karen herself used the bottle squirt to stop a dog from scavenging in the trash, but in a more sophisticated way: she put a few drops of vanilla extract in the water, so as to make its smell identifiable (and more annoying to a sensitive nose), and fired it (with a duly noted cringe) at the dog, and also at the trash cans. After just a few "association shots", the dog stopped playing with the trash —and eating vanilla ice-cream.

So again, every method has its place (except punishment/disciplining), but if you value your humanity, if not your furry friends' well-being, you could start from bottom to top, even though the humane methods require more effort and creativity...

...or rather, precisely because of that. If you go through the effort of training your pet with positive reinforcement, you'll find out that it goes both ways, that it'll become more playful and creative, and even demanding of her needs, now that there's a clear way to communicate.

For example, I have not been consistent enough to control my dog's barking with #6, but she just loves me to try... and specially, likes to figure out new behaviours —you can see the light bulb shine in her eyes when she gets it. So, I'm delighted with the result, even if she still wakes me up at the middle of the night... (but we're making slow progress on that).

The process of behaviour shaping is too simple (you already use it, inadvertedly, when you clap, smile or scream "well done!"): you associate a word, noise or gesture to stand for "you're doing good!", and every time your trainee does good, you use the signal (event marker) and immediately stop the game to offer a reward (always, even if you used it by mistake!). This works for anyone, from fish to children.

Whistles and clickers are very practical because they are loud, clear and hard to use by mistake (unlike clapping or saying "good!"). You work in short sessions of around 20 reinforcements, or whatever your friend can get through without getting bored (try to end the sessions in a high note, specially a break-through, so she stays interested). First you associate the signal with the reward with two sessions of using it and giving a treat. Then you reinforce easy stuff, like looking towards your face, sitting or other tricks she already does, and build increasingly complex behaviour. Two things that are hard to do right: this is a game of warm and cold where you shape (reward) every step towards the desired behaviour. You must read the situation: sometimes she will learn to do something in a few steps; others you will have to reward every little improvement, or even backtrack; then again, other times you will fool yourself thinking something happened when it didn't — once I thought she had learned basic math, much alike that horse that could count... but only when his owner was around.

And this takes me to the second hard thing: if you're trying to communicate to someone that doesn't speak your language —any of them!— don't talk, with words, face or body, unless it's an established or developing signal. If you do, you'll just make things more confusing for her. So keep a poker face, and body, and use only purposeful signals (including encouragement and reward words). And I do mean poker: you have to watch for unconscious ticks as signals, or she will read and associate them, just like the genius horse, that knew when to stop counting by some minute signal that not even his owner was aware of doing.

Playing games like this, you both will get loads of fun and understanding, or even a therapeutic challenge in life, which can improve the mood of confined pets immensely.

Don't shoot the dog gives you a good idea of how and why reinforcing works, but even though it's peppered with examples, it's no step-by-step guide, so one of those could make it easier get started, if you wanted to try your hand at it.

(But naughty pet or not, Don't shoot is a great read to understand our behaviour at its most basic level —fav takeover from the book: no one should try their hand at parenting without first training a chicken).

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As @Zaralynda points out cats don't really understand punishment, but they do understand not getting what they want. So for example if you are playing with your cat and it bites you, you can stop playing immediately and leave. The cat will soon come to understand that biting results in a negative outcome, the end of play, and stop doing it.

This is trickier to arrange for things like jumping on counter tops. The cat is looking for a good vantage point so you could try to figure out what area it wants to observe and block its view somehow, or as @Zaralynda suggests just offer something better.

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Typically when it comes to disciplining cats, negative reinforcement doesn't work. It just confuses the cats and can make the behavior worse and instill fear in your cat. The best approach is using positive reinforcement, which cats respond to better.

Here is a good article detailing all about it: http://catsmeouch.com/how-to-discipline-a-cat/

In the case of your cat climbing on counter tops, you might want to look into getting some cat shelves and tress for your cat to play and climb on instead. This post may be helpful as well http://catsmeouch.com/how-to-keep-cats-away-from-certain-areas/

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    Do you have any affiliation with the catsmeouch site, or are you simply a reader who finds their advice helpful? Without that, it's hard to know if this is spam or not - could you please update your answer to provide the information. – Kate Paulk Apr 20 '16 at 12:54
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I think of my cat as if it were a two-year old. Most effective for me is to take the cat (scratching a chair, on counter, etc)and place it on the sofa. Of course, as soon as I move away he jumps off. I have to repeat this about 4 times when (I guess) he gives up and leave the chair or countertop alone.

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I can't give any pointers on disciplining other than tone. My five year old male cat responds to my tone when he's doing something that he's not supposed to. However, I do think it's important that your cat is aware of how he or she is fed. That food just doesn't magically show up in their dish. My cat associates me with his portioned out food every day. This may sound a little strict and he may not recognize me as the "alpha" cat, but he sure knows to not piss off the hand that feeds him. Anyway works for us and he is a healthy weight too. He gets special "treats" as rewards only also. Hope this helps.

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A bit of fear is a good motivator for better behavior, at least with our cat. He's very well behaved 99% of the time, but when he's done something wrong, a good flick on the side from a recoiled finger imparts a message that he was bad. And if he hisses at me, he knows another flick is on the way.

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If the animal doesn't fear you a little, it will walk all over you. It's a dominance game with them. Punishment works, and speaking sternly works (but I'm sure most of you would consider how I do it yelling) scruff the kitten, hold it up to your face, tell it no. Set it down. Let it run away. Then when it comes back, give it love. Be consistent. Eventually you won't have to scruff it anymore, and can just say no. And by the time it's an adult. It knows what's okay, and not okay. I did that with my first cat. And it works. My girlfriend doesn't discipline the cat, gives her nothing but love and it doesn't give her time or day, unless she's hungry or wants something. I assume there's probably some room for error since most animals have some-what different personalities (to an extent, they are only animals and have limited capabilities when it comes to expressing themselves so alot of animals are the same) also, as a fun fact, this method does not work on a gold fish. RIP one eye'd charlie

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