Targeting can simply be defined as a behavior where the animal touches a body part to an object on cue. Why train your dog to target? It may seem like a parlor trick, or something that only dog actors need to know, but it actually can be like a magic wand – very useful in a number of ways.
As a training method – a way to get another behavior. Targeting can be very helpful to train an animal to load up into a trailer, or into a crate or vehicle, or to go lie down on a mat or dog bed. Targeting can also be used to train moving behaviors such as walking at your side, or circling around you.
As a recall – if you teach your dog to touch his nose to your hand, you can extend the distance away from which he responds to your cue, producing a recall that ends when the dog targets your hand.
To easily move a dog in a tight space – with a hand target, you can quickly move a dog from one side of you to the other, or to move him out of the way of someone approaching.
To help a shy dog gain confidence – once a dog has been taught (with positive reinforcement) to target objects, targeting can be used to help a dog approach a person or object that they are hesitant to approach on their own.
To facilitate grooming, examinations, medical care – targeting can be used to teach the dog to calmly hold still in a certain location (a station) or in a certain position so that you can easily accomplish grooming, or apply medications, or do an exam.
What to use as a target? You can simply start with your hand, or use an object such as a target stick, an empty plastic bottle, or other easily held object. If your dog is one who tends to take any offered object in his mouth, or try to lick your offered hand, you may want to start with a sticky note or piece of masking tape stuck onto a blank surface at dog nose height. If you have already taught your dog a nose target, try training a nose target to a new object.
If you use your hand as the target, you will want to present your hand in a consistent way (and not the way you present your hand when giving a treat or a toy). I like to think of my hand target as a sort of upside down salute – arm stiff, fingers together, elbow slightly bent, palm toward dog. Some dogs are less likely to lick a presented hand if the back of the hand is presented rather than the palm. Or you can try presenting just the pointer finger or the thumb. The idea here is that the hand looks different from other ways the dog sees a hand presented to them, and yet is consistent in form.
If you use a sticky note or piece of tape on a wall, you will not be removing that after each trial. Instead, after you click, toss the treat or present the treat so that the dog turns away from the target sticky.
Timing – needs to be precise. Your click or verbal marker should occur at the same time as the dog’s nose touches the target. The mark should be simultaneous with the nose target.
Keep your training sessions short – less than 5 minutes. Don’t worry if your dog doesn’t “get it” right away, put the target stick away and try again later in the day.
Steps to success – each step below will be something you will click and treat (or mark and treat) repeatedly, until you think the dog reliably responds with the nose target after the presentation of the target. Then move on to the next step. The actual presentation of the target is the cue at this point.
1. The dog should be near you, do not ask the dog to stay in any particular position. Present the target (hand or other object) close (less than 2 inches) to the dog’s nose and click any movement or glance toward it. Move the target toward the dog from the side or underneath his head, not downward from above (which could be alarming to the dog). Remove the target after each click. You will want to keep trying this until you get a nose touch to the object.
2. Present the target 2 inches to the side of the dog’s nose, click as the nose touches. Remove the target, treat, and present target again while dog is still chewing. If the dog does not move his nose toward the target, you may have the target to far away.
3. Present the target above or below dog’s nose, click the instant the dog’s nose touches the target, remove target, then treat.
4. As dog is reliably touching the target, begin to present it in various positions, still close to dog’s nose.
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