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Target Training

Targets can be a versatile training aid. Dogs, cats, and other animals easily learn to touch a target for a click and a treat. Touching a target is also an easy behavior for new clicker trainers to teach.

You may use any object for a target. A pencil or the end of your finger or the dot of light from a laser pointer all make good targets. Agility trainers use a plastic food container lid, placed on the ground or obstacle wherever they want the dog to stop. Post-It notes make good movable targets. Horse clicker trainers have taken to using orange plastic traffic cones for targets that horses can easily see at a distance.

Many dog trainers are using target sticks which can be carried conveniently in a pocket or bag and unfolded when needed. The dog is taught to touch and then to follow the tip of the stick. When the dog will freely follow the stick, you can lead the dog wherever you want it to go, instead of having to pull, push, lift, or coax it. You can target the dog into the car, onto a grooming table, over jumps, or into the correct position for gaiting or stacking. You can put the target upright in the ground to teach the dog to go away from you. With the target stick you can teach many tricks and useful skills, such as closing a door, turning a light switch on and off, and retrieving objects by name.

Here are some basic tips for developing the behavior of targeting. For detailed instruction on using the target stick in many kinds of advanced training see Morgan Spector's very complete guide, Clicker Training for Obedience (see Chapter 16, Resources.)

Getting started with target training

  1. Rub some food on the tip of the target stick and encourage the dog to sniff it. Click for looking at the stick, for nosing it, licking it, and bumping it. Give the dog a treat after each click. Repeat several times, putting the end of the stick an inch or two from the dog's nose each time.
  2. Move the stick so it is above the dog's nose, below it, to the left, and to the right, clicking for touches in each direction. Move it away a little, and click if the dog takes a step toward it. Try walking with the dog and the stick; sometimes the dog catches on faster if it gets clicked while moving.
  3. See if you can get the dog to stand on its hind legs to reach the tip of the stick, or bow down to reach to the floor. Settle for small movements at first; make it easy for the dog, not hard.
  4. Keep your sessions short; three or four minutes is plenty. Keep the stick and some treats handy, perhaps in the kitchen, so you can do a little target training several times a day. Some dogs will catch on in a single session, and begin racing for a chance to touch the stick; others may take five or six sessions just to touch it with confidence.
  5. Watch for signs of understanding: a wagging tail is a good sign. When the dog is eagerly touching and following the stick, and perhaps grabbing at it when you aren't even asking for that, raise your criteria. Start asking him to touch it two or three times for a single click and treat, or to follow it for several steps.

    Omit the click if the dog mouthes or bites the target stick, or touches it along the side rather than at the end. Your dog will not mind the omitted clicks, but will try harder to find out what he needs to do to get you to click him again.

  6. Now you can use the target stick to teach other behavior. If you are interested in agility training, you can use the target stick to teach the dog the obstacles, and to indicate contact points. An obedience trainer could use the target to teach go-outs and the drop on recall.
  7. Use the target to teach the dog to walk beside you on a loose leash, or out in front of you in "parade" position for the conformation show ring.
  8. You can transfer the behavior to other targets. Yellow sticky notes can be used as targets on furniture or on/off switches, or to teach the dog to retrieve specific items such as the TV remote. The red dot of a laser pointer can be a wonderful target for working your dog at a distance; a laser pointer can be useful in tracking and other scent work, in agility, and in police work.
  9. Above all, have fun with target training, and enjoy this new way of communicating with your dog.
About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.