Not long ago, I had my friend and colleague Colleen Koch, DVM, join us on the dogster blog to discuss Reducing Stress at the Vet. (I’ll have to have her back soon, judging by the feedback on the post, dogsters liked Colleen almost as much as I do!) One of the things Colleen recommended was that dogs learn how to “hand target.”
In the comment field, a reader asked what targeting was. Targeting is, in this author’s position, one of the most important foundation skills a dog can learn. Targeting involves teaching your dog to touch some object with a particular part of his body. The most basic and frequently taught target is a nose-touch-to-hand target, where your dog moves his nose until it connects with your outstretched hands. There are lots of other types of targets as well, you can teach your dog to touch a particular item with a specific paw, with his hip, or even with his whole body, as in teaching “go settle on a mat.”
Targeting is one of my favorite behaviors to teach because it is just so useful! I thought about making a video, but it seems as if Emily Larlham, one of the coolest ladies and best trainers I know, has just recently done so.
Here are 6 great uses for targeting (though I can think of many more!):
Every-day recall: I’ve met quite a few dogs that will come running back to their owners as quickly as they can and then continue running in the opposite direction as quickly as they can. Teaching your dog to touch your hand on cue will bring your dog right into your body, where you can quickly get your hands on your dog if you need to keep him safe.
Invisible leash: Being a Saint Bernard mom, I can’t exactly overpower my dog. It’s much easier for me to have him follow my hand to get into the bath tub, on or off the couch or bed, into the car, onto the grooming table, the scale at the veterinarian’s office, etc., than it is to physically manipulate him into any of those positions.
Life skill for shy dogs: my friend Debbie Jacobs is probably more committed to instructing pet owners on how to build confidence in fearful dogs than almost anyone I know (and I know a lot of dog people!). Here is a nice entry from Debbie’s “Fearful Dog Blog” on how to use targeting to teach confidence in fearful dogs.
Target past distractions: if your dog is easily distracted on walks, targeting can be a great skill to gain his focus in a highly distracting environment by manipulating him into a heeling position.
Useful foundation behavior for teaching a lot of tricks! You can teach your dog to spin, bow, weave through your legs, “dance,” “sit pretty,” turn lights on/off, open and close doors, interact with agility obstacles, etc., using targeting.
Distance work: reliable behaviors must be “proofed” for a number of aspects of fluency, one of which is distance. While you can use a tether to practice teaching your dog distance responses, eventually you’ll likely want your dog to be able to respond to your cues at a distance, off leash. If your dog knows to touch a stationary target, you can send him away from you to practice skills at a distance easily – an easy way to make a target to do this is by taking a tennis ball, cutting a small slit with a knife, and inserting the tennis ball over a wooden dowel rod, that can then be stuck in the ground. Once the targeting behavior is built for distance, you can begin asking your dog to perform behaviors at the target!
There really are myriad uses for targeting, and these are just a few of my favorite ways to build this simple skill into a very useful foundation behavior!