Target training is simply teaching your dog to approach an object and touch it with his nose. In this article, we’re going to focus on teaching a dog to target to the palm of your hand. This simple behavior can be useful in all kinds of ways. A dog that can target to a palm can be easily taught to heel close beside you. Targeting can be a great way to guide a dog through new agility obstacles while they’re learning the basics. It can help strengthen a recall and can encourage polite greeting behavior. After all, most people offer a hand out to a dog they’re meeting for the first time. A dog who sees an offered palm as a cue will likely approach with interest and touch her nose to the new hand, so target training can also be a great way to help socialize and build confidence.
Here’s a simple way to introduce targeting to your dog.
Step 1: Clicker charge your dog. If your dog doesn’t understand a clicker or target word, it’s time to
teach her! Targeting is difficult to reward without some kind of sound to mark the desired behavior when it happens, so make sure your dog is on board with a clicker or marker word before going any further. Click here to learn how to clicker charger your dog.
Step 2: Hold your clicker and a couple small treats in your non-dominant hand curled into a loose fist, such that you can still easily click the clicker. Take this hand (still holding clicker and treats) and place it against the back of your dominant hand. Keeping your hands aligned in this manner, present the palm of your dominant hand to your dog, a few inches away from his face. When he touches his nose to your palm as he sniffs at the treats you’re holding behind it, immediately click and treat.
Step 3: Repeat Step 2 about 10 times.
Step 4: Return to holding your hands normally, and offer the palm of your dominant hand to your dog with nothing behind it. Wait a few seconds to let your dog think it through. If she touches her nose to your palm, click and treat! If she doesn’t, repeat Step 3.
Step 5: Repeat Step 4 about 10 times.
Step 6: Take a break! This is a good time to let your dog’s new learning percolate, and by now, you’ve probably been training for somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Give yourself and your dog a few hours off or start again the following day.
Step 7: Clean up the behavior. If your dog is now consistently touching his nose to your palm, you can now pay attention to the quality of those touches. Some dogs will go from nose touches to licks or start to make their nose touches very light and brief. Now that your dog understands what you want him to do, only click and treat for the nose touches that are nice solid presses of nose to palm. Don’t click for licks or “fly bys”.
Step 8: Give the behavior a name. Once your dog is giving nice touches reliably, start giving the command you want to use as you offer your palm. “Touch” and “target” are common commands for this behavior, but you can call it anything you like so long as you use the same command every time. Also continue to click and treat for each correct nose tap.
Step 9: Take another break!
Step 10: Alternate palms. Now that your dog is touching your palm consistently, alternate between offering one palm and the other, asking your dog to walk back and forth between them. Continue to click and treat for each correct touch.
Step 11: Add movement. Now that your dog is eagerly walking up to press her nose to your palm when you’re stationary, it’s time to up the bar a little. Ask for a “target” (or whatever command you’ve chosen), and when your dog turns to your palm, move it a few inches away so your dog has to walk after your palm a step or two before he can touch it. Do this back and forth, asking for touches on both palms, gradually increasing the distance he has to walk before he can touch your palm. Gradual increases are key. If you make your dog walk too far, too quickly, he might get confused or give up. You can stretch this step over numerous sessions, but the end goal is to teach your dog to follow after your hand along the length of a large room or a back yard. Remember to click and treat for each nose touch.
Step 12: Add more palms! It’s time to get your friends and family in on the fun. Once your dog is confidently touching your palms, even when you walk, have some other people come over and ask for your dog to “target”. The idea is to teach your dog to target to a palm, even if the palm isn’t yours. However, YOU should be the one to click and treat each successful nose touch, regardless of whose palm is being targeted.
Step 13: Add distractions. Now that your dog is targeting like a pro for many people and across distances, start asking for targets in more distracted settings. Just remember this important rule: every time you add a new distraction, you have to decrease the complexity of the behavior and work back up. Your dog may target from ten feet away in a quiet room, but if you want to teach the same dog to target in the presence of rowdy children, other dogs or other big distractions, scale back. Start by asking for a few simple touches close to her head and then increase distance, again. The process will go much more quickly than when you first taught it, but if you ask too much too quickly, your dog may give up and just focus on the distraction. Be sure to click and treat each correct target, and make sure you’re using “big gun” treats. The higher the level of distraction, the more exciting your reward should be.
Step 14: Scale back your rewards. Although you will still click and treat intermittently, you can now begin asking for 2 or 3 touches before your dog earns her click and treat. The key is to be a bit random. Sometimes ask for 2 touches, sometimes 3, sometimes 4 or 5, before you click and treat. If your dog can’t predict when she’ll be rewarded, you can treat less while still keeping her eager to perform the behavior. This is not a cart blanche to stop treating your dog, but using an unpredictable reward schedule, rather than a ‘one click for one behavior’ schedule, will actually keep the behavior stronger in the long run. You can also incorporate “real life” rewards into the target command. Ask your dog for a touch before putting on the leash to take him for a walk. Or, ask for a touch before putting down his food bowl or throwing his favorite toy. In this way, targeting will become a part of your dog’s daily repertoire, and you’ll have more flexibility with your rewards.
Step 15: Take it out on the town. Now that your dog is a master at targeting palms, make use of this wonderful, versatile behavior. Ask your dog to target while on a walk, and she’ll stay in step beside you. Asking your dog to target a guest’s hand makes for a lovely, polite greeting behavior. Ask your dog to target as a means of guiding her around weave poles or over jumps to introduce her to agility. Ask your dog to target from across the room or yard, and you’re building a wonderful recall command. You can use targeting to guide your dog anywhere. The only limit of this great, simple command is your own imagination!
Target training is so simple and so useful. Be patient with your dog during the learning process, stick with introducing Steps 11 and above over a number of short sessions across days or weeks, and in a few weeks, you will have a dog who loves to target and will perform the behavior with confidence and enthusiasm. Teaching your dog how to target will give your dog an incredibly useful skill, make you a better teacher for your pup and strengthen the bond between you and your dog!