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How to Teach Your Pet to Target

Picture the possibilities

Imagine teaching your dog to put his hind feet—just his hind feet—on a mat. Or, imagine teaching your cat to give a high-five. What if you could teach your dog to use his nose to ring a bell to go outside?

These fun and useful behaviors are all examples of targeting a body part to a specific object. Training your pet to touch a target is not only a fun game to play, but it is easy to teach and can extend to even more complicated behaviors or to tools in administering veterinary care.

Targets can be almost anything. Use a kitchen rug as a settle mat for your dog; the dog targets his whole body onto the kitchen rug. Your cat can sit on a drink coaster while you fix dinner; as long as her feet are on the coaster, she can't jump on the counter and pester you. Teach your dog to ring a bell, and you have a doggie doorbell for him to use when he has to go to the bathroom outside. Targeting the dog's nose to the bell is the easiest way to avoid damage to the bell. Teach your horse to target a hoof to a bucket, and you have made soaking the hoof a lot easier (for you and the horse!).

Nose-first

It's easiest to begin by teaching an animal to touch its nose to a target held close to the nose. Use just about anything as a target: a sticky note, a pencil, or even your hand. These targets all work well for smaller animals like dogs and cats. For larger animals, a larger target may be easier. A tennis ball on a dowel rod can be used as an inexpensive target for horse training.

Step-by-step

Here's how to get started using a target with your pet:

Click and treat the instant your animal looks at the target.
  1. Choose an appropriate target. For a dog, your hand or a sticky note is a good choice.
  2. Present the target swiftly and about ¼" in front of the animal's nose.
  3. Click and treat the instant your animal looks at the target. (If your dog touches it right away, click that!)
  4. Again, present the target ¼" away from your animal's nose.
  5. When the dog touches the target, click and treat.
  6. Next, progress to presenting the target a little to the left, a little to the right, a little higher, a little lower—clicking and treating every time your animal touches the target. For now, make it easy for your animal by continuing to present the target close to your animal's nose.
  7. If your pet is overexcited and tends to bite at the target, click just as he moves toward the target instead of waiting for him get the target in his mouth.
  8. Work in short sessions, no more than 3-5 minutes at a time.

Following the target—for business and tricks!

Think of how easy it would be to move your pet from one location to another if all you have to do is place a target in front of your pet's face.

After you have taught your animal to touch a target, move to a more advanced targeting skill: following a target. Think of how easy it would be to move your pet from one location to another (loading your dog into a car, for example) if all you have to do is place a target in front of your pet's face and then move the target to where you'd like the animal to go!

Other uses for targeting include getting an animal onto the scale at the veterinary hospital, moving your pet off the sofa so you can have a seat, and moving your dog away from another dog walking down the path. You can also use a target to teach your dog to move away from you. Stick the target on the wall and the dog will learn to move away from you in order to earn a click and treat.

Here's how to teach your pet to follow a target:

  1. Present the target stick.
  2. As your pet moves to touch the target stick, pull the target about an inch away so the animal has to stretch its neck to reach the target. Click and treat.
  3. Continue at the same distance for a few repetitions so that the animal has a fun and easy time with the task.
  4. Begin to move the target a little further away as the animal stretches.
  5. Over the course of a few training sessions, your animal should be happy to follow the target around for a few feet.

Using the target stick makes teaching tricks easier, too! Imagine how easy it would be to teach your dog to turn the lights off or to close the refrigerator door for you. You can accomplish this, and realize other dreams, all by using a target stick!

Final suggestions

There are so many practical and entertaining applications of targeting!

The targeting behavior comes in handy if you would like your dog to walk on a loose lead. Simply present the target next to your leg; click and treat the dog for walking at your side (i.e., for following the target). Targeting is a great tool for horse owners, as well. Using a tennis ball on a dowel makes loading your horse into a trailer a breeze. There are so many practical and entertaining applications of targeting!

Whatever needs targeting can fill for you and your animal, remember to work toward your goals slowly and positively. Steady success makes training so much more enjoyable for all!


About the Author

Laurie Luck.Laurie Luck, KPA CTP, and a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, is the founder of Smart Dog University. She has been involved with many pet dog trainer certification initiatives, all based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge. Laurie also participates in service dog training, and she and her Tango are a pet-therapy team. Through her work with dogs and owners, Laurie has developed many happy canine and human friendships.