If I Could Teach Only ONE Thing to my Dog | National Train Your Dog Month

National Train Your Dog Month exists to promote training for the family dog, and the good news is that training can be FUN and BENEFICIAL for both you and your dog! Training doesn’t need to be long or complicated. In fact, studies have shown that your student’s learning actually benefits from shorter sessions, consistently sprinkled throughout your week. These training sessions will build pride in your ability to teach and pride in your pet’s ability to learn. The mental stimulation will be like ‘brain exercise’ for your companion and will actually promote calm focus.  Make the most of this National Train your Dog Month!

If I could only teach ONE thing to my dog this National Train your Dog Month (thankfully none of us are limited to ONE thing!), it would be TARGETING SKILLS.

An understanding of targeting will be foundational for so many other skills for your pet AND will provide a better way for you to explain some core concepts.

Simply put, targeting teaches your pet to touch an object with a part of his body. The most common body parts an animal might use for targeting are nose and paws. . . and even shoulders.

Targeting is used extensively with zoo animals, enabling the zoo keepers to position huge powerful animals for needed routine husbandry tasks or for vet exams. The animal is first taught to touch a part of his body to a specific spot or object and then that skill is strengthened by adding duration and distraction to the training sessions. This video shows a baby Black Rhino being moved onto the scale in order to track his weight.  The object being targeting is a brush and the reinforcement for touching the brush is getting a good back-scratch-brushing.

It is highly unlikely that any of us will need to train a Black Rhino, BUT the same skill can be exceedingly useful and versatile for your companion!!

A few uses for target training:

  • Confidence building: Having ‘touch’ on cue ensures that your hand is not a threat to your dog, but an opportunity for interaction and reinforcement.
  • Husbandry tasks: brushing, trimming nails, brushing teeth, and more.
  • Positioning:  moving dog from one spot to another via following your target hand)
  • Recall: My dogs learn that reinforcement comes when they touch their nose to my hand, and they run swiftly when I drop my hand and extend it for a nose touch. It makes a fabulous recall signal.
  • Movement: Teach your dog to follow your hand to move him from one spot to another (it’s a  much better option than dragging your dog by the collar).
  • Reinforcement: My dogs have learned to love targeting so much that it is actually reinforcing to them! We turn it into a fun game. I extend my hand high and low, and to one side and then another, and the dog must quickly watch my movements to target my hand. They LOVE this game.
  • Service dog work: targeting the handler is a fabulous alert for a medical condition, closing cabinets, opening doors, nudging his handler awake and more.
  • Other behaviors: targeting can be useful in teaching a dog to retrieve, to find a close “front” position for obedience competition, to maintain proper heel position, fun tricks like “high 5”, “shake a paw” and “wave.”

The versatility of targeting is why this is an excellent place to start during national train your dog month

And teaching a dog to target is not only fun and useful but also easy.

This video shows a clip of  my eight-week old pup, AmosP, in his first session of target training and also shows a glimpse from a couple of weeks later; clearly, he has gained confidence and understands the task much better in a very short amount of time.

Teaching Nose Target to Hand:

Since dogs are naturally curious, if you place your target goal (flattened palm, 2 fingers extended or fist) very close directly in front of their nose, your dog will probably ask, “What’s up?” He will ask this question by moving his nose closer to investigate.

  • Mark that behavior (I use a clicker) and then reinforce.
  • Move your hand away while he enjoys his treat.
  • Present your hand again and wait. When he moves toward your hand – or ultimately, when he touches your hand, mark and reinforce.
  • Repeat about 10 times and then stop.
  • Short training sessions are best for you and your dog

When your dog is reliably touching your hand with his nose, give the behavior a name. I use the cue “touch”. Say the cue as he is moving to touch your hand. As he gains practice, you will be  able to say the cue earlier such that you are saying “touch” before he moves to make contact.

Repeat, adding one variation at a time*: 

  • Use your other hand
  • Try a different body position (sitting in a chair, sitting on the floor, standing)
  • New locations
  • Distractions in background : tv, other people, other animal
  • Hold hand high
  • Next Hold hand low
  • Lastly Hold hand to left or right

*each time you change the criteria, withhold the cue and add it back as the dog shows you he remembers the task.

When your dog excels at touching your hand, you might add a sticky note onto your palm hand. Then move the sticky note onto an object in order to teach your dog to target something off your body.

This video contains a few clips of some sessions with Ari, learning to target a specific spot on the wall:

At the end of that clip, I’m actually beginning to add some distance so that I could send her from across the room. Later, I’ll use that sticky note to teach her to close drawers and doors.

Targeting opens the doors to sooo many fun behaviors.

Practice nose targeting. Begin to ask the dog to FOLLOW the target by moving it slightly as he begins to touch. Build duration by slightly delaying the marker and reinforcement and then incrementally adding duration.

When your dog is having fun targeting your hand, try asking him to target other body parts. Your foot, your leg, your arm ….. you get the idea.

This is Ari learning to target my foot :

I’ll be back to share more target skills and their application; there is sooo much you and your pet can do with targeting skills!

National Train Your Dog Month

Contact us for more information on how Cold Nose College can help you achieve your training goals.  We provid online training options so you can be located anywhere in the world!  Make the most of National Train your Dog Month!

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Rachel Thornton is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed, a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy of Animal Training and Behavior and Owner of Cold Nose College Natchez Trace located in Hamilton, Alabama. She’s also well-known trainer and mentor in the service dog community. Rachel offers force-free training and behavior consulting to clients in the tri-state area of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. 205-412-3612; www.coldnosecollege.com


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