Target Training

by Cinda Bishop, Mucho Poocho Doggy Day School

Targeting – what is it?
A target is anything that the dog must focus on and perform some action towards. Attention is a form of targeting, where the dog is focusing his gaze on your face (or hands). “Come” is a form of targeting in which the dog must find the area right in front of you. The dog can show his focus on the target in many ways. The most common are a nose-touch or a paw-touch.

What’s it used for?
There are many specialized uses for targeting. In competition obedience, a dog is trained to move away from the handler on a “go out” in targeting. They are also asked to retrieve certain objects. In agility, dogs must step within a certain area called a contact zone on many obstacles.

What about pet dogs?
Two of the best uses for targeting are teaching a dog to walk by your side and to go to his bed on command. It’s possible to teach a dog to walk at your side just by rewarding him for doing so (and of course removing the reward for walking anywhere else), but it may be that “at your side” is too vague for many dogs. If they have something to focus on, they can immediately know where they’re supposed to be. So, if you teach your dog to follow your hand (or a stick in your hand, for a shorter dog) with his nose, he will be perfectly placed and ready for reap your rewards.

There are many times when you may want to send your dog away from you. Maybe you have guests coming over and want to greet them at the door without your dog’s help. Maybe everyone’s sitting on the ground to enjoy a barbeque. Wouldn’t it be nice to cue your dog to “go to bed” and have him find his special pillow or crate to curl up in for a while? Targeting will help.

You can use targeting to start a lot of tricks too. You can teach a dog to spin in a circle or push doors closed and you can teach a paw wave or pushing a lever with a paw-touch on a target. You can easily groom a dog who is keeping his nose or feet on a target. Hearing ear dogs for the deaf often touch their partners with a paw to alert them to phones, doorbells or fire alarms. You can teach your dog to run to a door or to a certain part of the yard at the sound of your own smoke alarm.

How do you train it?
The beginning of target training takes advantage of the dog’s natural curiosity. Most dogs will sniff or even touch your palm if you hold it out to them – especially if you’ve just been handling food treats. Simply mark and reward your dog for each touch. It helps if you hold it close to their nose, maybe just below their nose level. If you want to eventually transfer the nose-touch to some inanimate object – like a target stick, sticky note or margarine lid – simply put some food smell on that and hold it cupped in your hand when you begin.

To train the paw touch, move your hand around in short, jerky movements low to the ground near the dog’s paws, or hold a treat under your hand. Most dogs will paw at this. Mark and reward for each touch. Repeat this a few times. See if your dog becomes more confident in his touching. Many dogs, even those with some experience with training and treats, act as if they don’t believe that simply touching your hand will work. Make sure that you reward this easy first step quite a few times before making it any harder.

Once your dog is fairly confident in the initial touching, hold the target out a little bit further, a few inches away, or just enough for the dog to really stretch out their neck (or leg) to touch it. Mark and reward those touches, repeating it a few times.

Now begin varying the position of the target relative to the dog and relative to you and you relative to the dog. Hold it out slightly to one side, hold it an inch or two above or below the original level. Hold the target out while you stand or sit, while you face the dog or have the dog at your side. Make it clear that it’s touching the target that is causing you to mark and reward, not any of the other factors your dog is seeing.

When your dog will consistently touch the target each time, add a cue like “touch” or “paw it”, or a hand signal like touching the target yourself with two fingers of the other hand. Add the cue just before you think the dog will do it to form the association between the cue and the action.

Fading the target
For some actions, you won’t ever need to take away the target. Your front and eyes will always be there for your dog to find on a “come” or “pay attention.” Your dog’s bed or crate will always be there for him to trot over to when you ask him to go there.

For other actions, you’ll want to fade away the target. You probably don’t want to walk with your hand or target stick in front of your dog’s nose. If you’re teaching a paw wave or head shake you’ll want the dog to move his body without having to follow your target, so you’ll need to fade it away.

You can make it less relevant by making it smaller (cutting down the lid, shortening the stick or fading your palm to a few fingers) or by holding it further away, while still rewarding the dog for following through with the actions that you want. In fact, the less relevant you make the target, the more you want to reward the action. You’re shifting the importance from following the target with nose or paw to completing the action in the absence of the target. Have fun with it and think of creative ways to teach your dog new tricks with his targeting skills.
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