Fido’s Homeschooling DIY Training Program: Target Training

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In this next installment of Fido’s Homeschooling DIY dog training program, we will explore the art and functionality of target training. Targeting is teaching animals (humans target too!) to use a body part to touch something with intention. This core behavior has many applications for other important skills such as cooperative husbandry (placing a paw in a human hand for nail trimming, for instance) and “place” training (moving the entire body onto a specific mat or bed when the doorbell rings, say, instead of charging the door). 

Target Training
Ringo Starr Practicing Hand-Targeting

The exercise presented in this post will teach your dog to touch the palm of your hand with his or her nose. After that, the sky’s the limit! Use the basic concept to teach Fido to use his paw (or nose) to press a bell to communicate that he wants to go outside to potty. Or how about touching the palm of a human hand with the top of his head so he can be pet? You can also use targeting as an option to call your dog to come to you by placing your open palm by your side and cueing ‘touch’. Or if the goal is to create distance between the dog and handler, you can use a target stick held away from you and cue ‘touch.’

The key in teaching any, or all, of these skills is that the animal is in control of the movement, as opposed to humans trying to control the animal. This allows for cooperative learning, and a learner who is usually more excited to participate in the activity. 

A very popular operant behavior (or “trick”) zoo animals are taught is to touch target sticks or other objects with their noses. But, the world and art of targeting goes beyond noses and objects. Here’s a lovely little article talking about target training and zoo animals

Target Training Exercise For Dogs

(Helpful Tip #1: If you missed the previous post on Clickers and the Magic Word, it will be helpful to take a look at that before moving on to this exercise.)

  • Prepare a large number of small treats ahead of time. Place them in your hand or a treat pouch or set them in a container near you.  
  • Get your clicker ready. (Or, determine your “marker word”.) 
  • It’s easiest to begin this exercise with your dog sitting or standing.  You can sit or stand. 
  • Encourage your dog to touch the palm of your hand by holding it 4-6 inches in front of him or her. As soon as he or she sniffs or touches it, click and treat from your other hand. 
  • Repeat this exercise, each time taking your hand away after your dog touches it before presenting it to him or her again. 
  • Wait until your dog is reliably touching your palm before adding in the cue word. You can say “touch” or choose another cue word, just be consistent. 
  • Be sure to reward each successful touch. 
Ringo Starr Practicing Hand-Targeting – Great for Recall (coming when called)

Expand on It

When you feel your pup has got it, you can start to – very gradually- add in the 3-Ds: Distance, Duration and Distractions, one ‘D’ at a time. You can slowly build the Distance of the touch cue by moving your hand a little further away or changing your orientation towards your dog. At this point, if your dog seems bored or Distracted, make it simpler for both of you by adjusting the 3-D’s as needed. Helpful Tip #2: The more you click at the beginning of the exercise, the more “hooked” into the game your dog will likely be. So, if you’re feeling stuck, try changing your expectations, making it easier on your dog, so you click more often. Remember at this stage of the learning process, if Distractions are higher, then difficulty needs to be lower. 

Generalize It

Over time, as your dog responds to the cue more reliably, continue changing it up, so that beyond learning a skill — or doing a skill — your pup is learning to apply it in different scenarios. Generalizing is the key to unleashing training success! Practice in different locations and at varying times. Can other people, aside from your immediate family ask Fido for the cue and get the desired response? If so, great job! That’s a sign that your pup truly knows the behavior. If the dog/human team isn’t quite there yet, no problem. This might be a good time to review the post on Essential Training Concepts to help you succeed. Take a break, take a breath and remember to have fun, trust the process and trust that your Inquisitive Canine will get there eventually with your clear, consistent, loving guidance.

Go to Your Place Targeting
Ringo Starr Practicing “Go to your place” Targeting with Distractions

Practice It

After all that hard – but rewarding – work, once you’ve both got it, keep practicing. Sometimes trained behaviors fail or fall apart because pets and their people haven’t used the skills in real-life situations enough. (“Use it or lose it” as the saying goes.) Us humans learn math and English in school, but it’s not until we’re budgeting for rent and groceries, or writing an email (or a blog post), that we really learn, right? Happily, because of the many, many creative and practical applications of target training, you might soon find that some of your (and your pup’s!)  favorite training exercises are targeting – so much fun! 

Until next time, thank you for being inquisitive and joining us in bringing out the best in your best friend using a humane, force-free approach.


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