Training Diaries: Teach Your Animal to Target!

This easy (and awesome!) behavior is easy to teach and incredibly useful, but isn’t covered in a lot of “obedience” classes. Why? Possibly because it’s more of a foundation training exercise than an obedience behavior, but it can make your life so much easier!

<em><strong>What is it?</strong></em>

What you’re going to teach is a nose touch to your hand or object, but targeting is used to describe a wide variety of different behaviors where an animal is trained to touch a specific part of their body to an object or mark.

<em><strong>How is it useful?</strong></em>

When I introduce this behavior to people I often get asked why I teach it, and how it might be useful. As I mentioned above, this is a fantastic foundation behavior, meaning it’s a very useful starting point when you’re teaching a number of other behaviors. It’s also useful for a number of other things. It’s great for teaching recall, teaching your dog leash walking or heeling skills. You can use it to teach your dog to go to a spot and stay there, to turn the lights off, or to close the door. You can also use it as a confidence builder for shy dogs, or simply to ask your dog to move out of the way or get off the furniture.

<strong><em>Getting started</em></strong>

All you need to get started are some treats or your dog’s regular food, a reasonable quiet space, and your dog. I like to use a clicker to teach this behavior, but you can also teach it without one using a verbal marker or just the treat.

First you need to make sure you have your dog’s attention. If you’ve done much training before, especially if you used treats, this won’t be difficult. The quiet room or other space helps too, especially if it’s a place that your dog is already familiar with so he doesn’t need to spend a lot of time investigating or being otherwise distracted from the game.

With your treats handy on a nearby table or in your pocket, but not in your hand, present your hand near your dog. You can present your palm, the back of your hand, or two fingers, or you can even work with an object if you prefer. The key is to be consistent about what you reinforce. Once you’ve presented your hand most dogs will look at, or sniff, or nose your hand. If any of those occur you’ll “click” and then give your dog a treat. If your dog does not respond after a couple of seconds, take your hand away and try again.

Repeat this process several times. If your dog started out by only looking at your hand you’re going to gradually require him to do more to earn his “click” moving closer, or sniffing, or touching each time. The timing of the “click” is important, it should happen immediately as your dog is doing what you want them to do. If you wait too long, he may think you’re reinforcing something else. Most dogs catch on very quickly if you’re timing is even okay. Part of the reason targeting is so easy to teach is because most dogs will want to investigate something that suddenly appears in their environment, or something that moves. Dogs are often especially interested in our hands because that’s how they get lots of good stuff: petting, treats, and their food bowl.

Once your dog is reliable touching his nose to your hand about 80% of the time, you can refine the behavior a little if you need to. So if he’s licking instead of just nosing, and you don’t like that, click and treat only for those repetitions where he only noses your hand. Once the targeting behavior is where you want it to be you can add a verbal cue. The presentation of your hand is already a cue for them to touch, so you can add a verbal cue right as you begin to present your hand to help your dog make the connection.

Now it’s time to take that training “on the road.” It can be difficult for a dog to generalize a new behavior he’s learned to new environments or circumstances. So if you started training in your living room, or sitting down, he may not immediately understand that you want the same behavior in the backyard or when you’re standing up. That’s okay, he’s not dumb and you’re not a training failure. You just need to go back a couple of steps to teach him that the cue can apply in different contexts. The more you practice, and the more you vary the environment you’re practicing in (just not too fast), the better and more reliable your dog will be at performing the behavior you’ve taught him.

Now you can add distance, duration, and distractions to the behavior one at a time. As you’re adding distance a little at a time you get a very good start to teaching your dog a good recall cue. If you need him to sit or stand still you’ll be working on duration, and a good start to a stay. You’ll gradually introduce distractions to help your dog succeed at listening to your cues no matter what else is going on. Your friends will be amazed at how awesome your dog is, and you’ll have a dog who can enjoy more of life with you.

Teaching targeting behavior is simple, and it can be done quickly and easily. Once you’ve taught your dog to target the possibilities for teaching other behaviors are endless. Targeting is a great behavior to teach other animals as well so set aside a few minutes of your time and start training today!

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