Targeting: The Swiss Army Knife of Behaviors
The mother of all behaviors, as they say, is attention. If you can’t get your dog’s attention, you can’t expect to get the responses you want. But targeting is definitely the Swiss army knife of behaviors. When your dog can target, she has a tool with an amazing variety of terrifically useful functions. Yes, soon your dog will be able to uncork wine bottles and file her own nails! Well, almost.
Just about everyone I work with seems baffled when I introduce targeting. But what is it good for? Then I get to demonstrate how quickly their dog gets it and enjoys it—and explain how many other wonderful behaviors are easy to learn, thanks to this simple, basic skill.
Targeting is not just about making contact. It’s also teaching your dog to focus on you, or an object, or a place. It begins with a nose bump to your hand, which most dogs think is a pretty fun way to earn treats.
This is how I begin teaching or strengthening the recall. (In fact, in some situations, seeing the hand signal works better than saying Come.) It’s great for dogs who run up to you and leap into your face. And for giving confidence to dogs too shy to approach strangers. And for redirecting your dog away from doing something undesirable or dangerous, so you don’t have to yell NO. Here are some more everyday benefits:
Use Targeting to Get Your Dog to . . . So You Don’t Have to . . .
Move this or that way Drag by the collar
Walk next to you Pull or jerk on leash
Come to you Come, Come! Come HERE!
Go into the crate, car, stairs Force, lift, or lure with food
Ring a bell to go out Guess when she needs to go
Settle on a mat Deal with counter-surfing, etc.
Get dressed Struggle to put on harness, apparel
Greet politely Stop jumping up on people
Stand still for vet exams* Physically restrain
Plus, tricks galore!
What Experts Say
Clicker trainers regard targeting as an invaluable and essential skill. Leslie McDevitt, who wrote Control Unleashed, says “[Targeting] helps a dog learn to focus on a specific object and block out distractions. It teaches distance work and reinforces attention at the same time. . . . It enables a stressed dog to move through crowds or across a classroom because he can focus on something safe.”
From Gail Fisher, author of The Thinking Dog, Crossover to Clicker Training: “Tremendously helpful for crossover dogs [those trained the old-fashioned way], targeting can be used both for improving behaviors your dog already knows and for introducing new behaviors. With nearly limitless possibilities, targeting greatly speeds learning, giving the dog a focus that helps narrow the parameters of a behavior.” She goes on to list all the competitive activities, sports, and service tasks, as well as basic manners, that benefit from target training.
“Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” —Diana Ross
To get targeting started, have some treats hidden in one hand or pocket and when your dog is near, present an empty hand to the side. The motion piques her interest, and she will very likely come in for a sniff. At the moment her nose makes contact, click or say YES! and offer a treat with your other hand. Simple, right?
If your dog seems hesitant or uninterested, rub your hand with a soft treat to make it smell more interesting. If that’s not enough, put your hand behind your back, then re-present it. If a flat hand doesn’t work well, or if you already use that same signal to mean something else, try making a fist, sticking out just two fingers, or using the back of your hand. Don’t move it toward the dog; that can be off-putting. Find out which signal works for your dog, then be consistent.
Be silent during this process, so your dog can focus. Introduce the cue Touch only after you get the nose bump several times in a row. Say Touch, then present your hand—not at the same time.
Then make it a little more difficult: raise your hand, lower it, switch hands, stand up, sit down, turn your body away. When this is going well, start adding distance by backing up (without bending forward). When the dog has to travel several steps, that’s when I change the cue to Come. When things are going well with distance, go back to a couple of steps apart and begin to add distractions. If a distraction or distance is too great for your dog to be successful, make it easier.
To build a quick, reliable response, reward with a treat every single time. It doesn’t take long at all to get there if you practice often, in different locations. Once established, it’s pretty easy to transfer the touch/orientation from your hand to objects, like a door bell, mat, or crate. Paws can target too, of course.
To see exactly how it works, have a look at these two short videos by the fabulous Emily Larlham (kikopup):
Teaching Touch (nose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWSJVwZybwo
Paw Targeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9tOdmJLVl0
*The Bucket Game, developed by Chirag Patel, teaches dogs how to cope with vet exams and procedures. Here’s an introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJSs9eqi2r8
Copyright Lisa Benshoff 2017