Methods of “Getting Behavior”: Targeting

Yesterday, we learned about using a training technique called capturing to reinforce and put on cue behaviors which are freely offered by the dog. Today...

Yesterday, we learned about using a training technique called capturing to reinforce and put on cue behaviors which are freely offered by the dog. Today we’ll talk about one of my favorite methods for manufacturing behavior – targeting, as demonstrated by Ken Ramirez of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium in the video above.

When target training, we teach a dog to touch a designated object with a particular body part on cue.

At orientation for my new students, I tell them that one of the most important behaviors their dog will learn is to touch his nose to your hand. Here is an article on clicker target training from Karen Pryor that you may find helpful.

Why would this behavior be useful?

  • It allows you to move your dog without touching him. I certainly cannot pick Monte up and put him in the tub. By teaching him to follow my hand, I can get him into or out of the tub without touching him. I can also get my dogs – on/off furniture, in/out of a crate or car, on/off the scale at the vet’s office, through weave poles, a jump, or over an A-frame. All without touching their collar, pulling on their leash, or otherwise coercing them to move.
  • It is a great cue for recall and allows you to bring your dog directly into your body. Research has shown what dog trainers have known for a long time – that dogs respond better to body cues and hand signals than they do to a spoken word. Presentation of a hand target is a nice, clear signal to your dog that is salient even at a distance. Additionally, I know many dogs that, when responding to a recall cue, will run toward their owner as quickly as possible and then…keep running in the other direction as quickly as possible. Incorporating a target into our recall cue allows us to bring the dog directly into our body, where we can grab the dog’s collar or harness for safety if necessary.
  • It teaches hand-shy dogs a different way to interact with hands. Hand targeting can be great for teaching shy dogs to interact confidently with new people, by allowing the dog to initiate the contact/feel in control of the social situation.
  • It is a great alternative, incompatible behavior for barky and lunge-y dogs. For instance, if I have proofed the targeting behavior so that Monte will follow my hand for distance despite distractions, I can use this to redirect my reactive Saint from reacting to the dog across the street. If his nose is glued to my hand, he can’t be barking/lunging at the neighbor’s dog.

Hand targeting is just the beginning. You can teach your dog to target a variety of different objects with a variety of different body parts. Targeting is especially helpful when training service dog behaviors like retrieving particular items for the handler, waiting at curbs, pressing an emergency alert button on a telephone, lying under a table on a mat politely, turning on/off light switches, even bracework! Targeting can also be used to teach dogs to stay within specified boundaries, leg weaves, to remain stationary for veterinary husbandry, to interact with various agility obstacles, in scent detection, and for distance cue responses.

In this free video, Karen Pryor demonstrates targeting with dogs (and fish!).


  • Having a target-savvy dog allows you to add a cue to behaviors which would be impossible to capture. Very few dogs naturally can offer spontaneously a complete service task like finding a handler and leading them back to the source of a household sound (doorbell, telephone) upon hearing the sound.
  • Targeting can help trainers teach complex new behaviors more rapidly than shaping (stay tuned for shaping tomorrow!).


  • Initially, the handler may feel awkward manipulating the clicker, treats, and target object. (As with any mechanical skill, practice makes perfect!)
  • Foundation training (groundwork) must be laid before trainers can use the target to teach advanced behaviors.
  • For more on target training, I highly recommend readers purchase a copy of Right on Target! Taking Dog Training to a New Level, which is chock-full of how-to’s and practical suggestions for how you can make targeting one of the most useful tools in your training toolbox.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss shaping, another useful training technique for teaching a variety of complex behaviors. Stay tuned!

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