What is Target Training and Why Can It Be Useful?

Target training, sometimes also referred to as a ‘hand touch’, or ‘hand target’, or just as a “touch”, is something that might initially seem like an odd thing to teach your dog, but it can actually have a lot of really useful practical applications.  Generally, most trainers recommend starting by teaching your dog to touch your hand on cue and then this can be progressed further to teach your dog to touch other objects and to also use other parts of their body to do the touch, rather than just with the nose.

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Teaching your dog to voluntarily touch their nose into your hand on command can be a very simple and practical training exercise


How Do You Introduce Target Training?

While there are lots of ways that target training can be taught, initially, it is best to start off very simple, before progressing onto more complex examples of target training.

Teaching a Hand Touch

The hand touch is the most simple and common way of getting your dog to offer a targeting behaviour.  This is simply having your dog learn to touch your hand with their nose when asked.

As with any new training exercise, make sure that you pick a familiar and non-distracting environment to work in as this will make it easier to get their focus and attention and set you both up for success.

Make sure that you have lots of yummy treats to hand too.  Pick something that they love and make sure that they are small pieces to allow you to give frequent rewards without over treating your dog.

Hold out your hand flat, relatively close to your dog’s nose.  If they are nervous, you can start with your hand slightly further back.  As soon as your dog looks at your palm, make sure you reward them. Some dogs may immediately touch your palm.  If they do, great. Make sure you reward that too.

It is all about the timing.  Using a marker to let them know the moment they have given you the behaviour you want is helpful too.  So you can either use a clicker to mark when they look at your hand or a vocal marker like ‘Yes’. Don’t reward them if they do not clearly look at your palm and make sure the reward comes straight after.  Too long a gap can mean they will not associate getting the reward with the behaviour you wanted.

Continue to click and treat every time they look at your palm.  After they are reliably offering this behaviour, you want to have them bring their nose closer, ideally to touching.  Be patient and wait for them to move closer to your palm, only reward them when there is visible movement towards your palm.  Again continue to reward this closer contact. You may find that they touch your palm at this point. Great. Make sure to click and treat immediately and continue to do this anytime they touch again.

Once they have mastered that they are rewarded every time their nose touches your hand, then you can start to move your hand around a little and reward them for still touching.  Don’t go too quickly or make it too challenging, your hand should still be relatively close to them.

Having your hand further away and asking for a hand target should come once they have mastered close targeting.

Even if your dog is doing wonderfully well and picking up the touch command very quickly, don’t push it.  Make sure that you keep the training sessions short, five minutes maximum, to avoid them getting bored.

When your dog is reliably presenting their nose in your palm then you can introduce a verbal cue for the behaviour so that you can phase out the click or marker command.  Most people use the word ‘touch’. You can also work on the duration of the touch too, getting them to hold the contact for just a second initially and building up to a five or ten second held touch.

At this point you can work on the ‘touch’ command in an environment that is a little more distracting, perhaps in the back garden or while out on a walk.  You can also gradually introduce other people into the training and get them to ask your dog for a touch too.

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If your dog only wants to move their snout towards you initially, rather than touch your palm, be sure to reward this too.  You may have to build up to an actual touch gradually if the dog is nervous

Teaching Target With a Paw

A lot of owners and trainers also like to teach a dog to target things using their paws.  If you have a dog that likes to use their paws, this can be a good way to put that natural desire to good use.

If you have already worked on a nose target and use the command ‘touch’ for this, then it would be better to use a different cue for the paw.  Sometimes ‘foot’ or ‘pad’ is used. Whatever you opt to use, make sure you are consistent.

If your dog already offers paw on command then you can pop an object underneath their paw as they lowers it and click and treat as soon as their paw touches the object.  Don’t forget, don’t use the new cue word yet. You need to wait until they are reliably offering the behaviour.

Once they have done a number of sessions where they are rewarded for their paw touching the object, you can then try moving the object slightly to the left or right for them to then actively start to ‘target’ it.

Eventually, you should be able to put the object on the ground and wait for them to actively touch it with their paw.

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Teaching your dog to use their paw to target an object can also be useful

What NOT to do When Teaching Targeting?

It is important not to force your dog into targeting.  Don’t force your hand into their face and then give them a treat.  This is not teaching them what they are getting rewarded for as they are not having any active participation.  It can also be intimidating for a nervous dog. Always wait for your dog to offer a small step for themselves.

Tools that Can Be Useful When Working on Target Training

A Clicker

Clickers are wonderful tools for clearly and precisely marking the desired behaviour that your dog has offered.  If they are used regularly, your dog will understand that whenever they hear the click this will be immediately followed by a treat so they understand that they have done something good and it will motivate them to try to offer a behaviour again for another reward.

There are lots of different clickers on the market and while they all do a similar job, some are heavier than others, some with a louder click, some with particular types of handholds.  The I-Click from renowned clicker trainer Karen Pryor is a popular choice. It is lightweight, inexpensive and has an easy clicking action.

Read our article on Clicker Training for more in-depth details on how to use a Clicker and their benefits.

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A Target Stick

A Target Stick can be an extremely useful tool. If you teach your dog to target this, rather than just your hand, then it gives your dog a clear point to focus on, it can help when working at a distance, it can save your back and, when it comes out, your dog will often become excited at the prospect of doing something engaging.  It can also be helpful for luring them into positions.

You can make a homemade target stick, some people use the end of a wooden spoon or ruler, or even a smooth good branch from a tree that has a particular gnarly spot on it that you want your dog to focus on.

Alternatively, you can buy a target stick that is specifically designed for dog training.  It usually has a small ball fixed to the tip and it is adjustable in length.

If your dog is scared of the stick to start with, gradually build up to the touch.  Have it on the shortest length to start with and just reward them for looking at it from a distance.  You can then gradually build up to getting them to touch it. If they need some extra encouragement you could smear it with some peanut butter and then reward when they lick it.

There are lots of target sticks on the market.  Two of the most popular are the Company of Animals Target Stick, which is inexpensive and easy to change the length of, or the Karen Pryor Clik Stick, which also has a built-in clicker for easy marking and rewarding of behaviours.

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Training Treat Pouch

It can also be useful to have a training treat pouch.  You are going to be giving lots of little rewards during these training sessions and a training treat pouch will give you quick and easy access, and will save your pockets from getting all smelly and greasy.

A popular and practical choice is the Doggone Good Rapid Reward Treat Pouch.

See our article on training treat pouches for further suggested options.

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Why Can Targeting be Beneficial?

Any positive training that you do with your dog can be a good thing.  It increases the bond with your dog, stimulates and enriches them and often it can then have a practical application too.

Teaching your dog to target can be a great tool to have in your arsenal.  There are so many potential benefits of teaching your dog to be able to target.  Just a few of them are outlined below

It Can be a Great Training Technique for Helping a Nervous or Fearful Dog

By encouraging your dog to voluntarily make contact without force and with only minimal contact this can be an effective, gentle and gradual way to help a fearful dog understand that contact with people is rewarded.

It can also be a fantastic distraction technique.  If they are nervous at the vet or around other dogs, by getting them to focus on hand targeting and offering rewards for this behaviour, it can be a great way to move their focus away from what might be scaring them.

It Can Help Focus Hyper or Excitable Dogs

For dogs that can become easily overstimulated, it can be a good technique for regaining their focus and getting calm behaviour that can then be rewarded.  If they are a rowdy greeter, if they always want to jump up or lick, asking for this sort of alternative behaviour can be useful.

Once you are doing more complicated chains of behaviour using target training, you can ask for your dog to target a specific spot in the house with their body to get them to settle.

If you want your dog to be calm and relaxed and in a specific position for nail trimming, getting them to target their paw into your hand can be a helpful tool.  It can also be useful for getting them to be still while they receive an injection or exam at the vet.

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If your dog is an excitable greeter, teaching a hand touch can be a good, calm, rewardable alternative behaviour to ask for instead of jumping up

Loose Leash Walking

Teaching your dog to follow a target stick can be really a practical way to help perfect loose leash walking.  It saves your back from getting sore and gives them a clear focus and helps them get into a heel position.

When Working on A Retrieve

If you want to teach your dog to bring something back to you, using targeting as part of the process can really help to speed the training up.  If you can easily get them to understand that you want them to touch a particular item, it becomes easier to then encourage them to hold it.

For Helpful Commands For Service Dogs

Touch can be extremely useful for training assistance dogs.  If they can learn to target specific objects easily it can then be much easier to get them to turn on a light with their paw or nose, close a door, pull off a sock and lots more practical commands.

Great Training For Reduced Mobility Dog

Target training is a great exercise for dogs that have reduced mobility as it doesn’t always require a lot of movement.  So if you have a dog that is recovering from surgery and needs to be on restricted exercise, or a senior dog that can’t do as much physical exercise anymore, or it is just a miserable day and the weather is stopping you from getting out, then this can be a great way to help your dog stay mentally enriched.

For Teaching Body Awareness

By working on your dog using other parts of their body, rather than just their nose, to target certain items, it can help your dog to increase their body awareness.  This can be very useful for balance, muscle toning and strength exercises. It is also useful for dogs that take part in sports like agility and flyball as it can help them to perfect movements more easily and can be used to give them more awareness of their back end and also help them to accurately touch the contact points required for their sport.

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Targeting can help a dog hit its contact points more accurately in agility

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