On Target with Target Training

Want to improve your training accuracy and precision? How about helping your dog learn how to be an active partner in the training process? Would you like a way to build solid complex behaviors? Then targeting is the technique for you! Sure, shaping is fancy and fun, and luring is quick and easy, but targeting offers its own unique advantages. 

Whenever I talk about teaching new behaviors I always say that I rely on three main techniques: shaping, luring, and targeting. Target training can be an incredibly versatile and useful way to develop new behaviors and refine existing ones. As with any other training technique, targeting can be accomplished in a smooth and precise manner or in a sloppy haphazard one, with the expected results.

What is Target Training? 

If you distill target training down to its central component it could be described as "touch this with that." Okay, so maybe that sounds just a little bit kinky. The goal is for our dogs to use a specific body part to come into physical contact with a specific object or prop. You are only limited by your dog's physical and mental abilities and your imagination!

5 Common Target Training Mistakes 

Over and over again I see people making the same basic mistakes when it comes to target training. Here are my top 5:

1. Taking the target to the dog rather than letting the dog go to the target.

Very early in some of my target work I might, for example, actually place my hand in the desired position. However, that very quickly transitions into offering my hand for the dog to move towards it. What I often see is the dog moving towards the hand for a nose touch while the trainer is also moving the hand towards the dog. I want the target to be still, and often in later training, to be moving AWAY from the dog. A target moving towards the dog can actually cause the dog to back off, which is the very opposite of what we want.

2. Accepting close enough as good enough. 

The fly by or brush is very common in target training. In the early stages this might be a fine way to establish the approximations towards the behavior. As you continue training however, you want an actual touch, not an almost. I have a fun little way to avoid this problem if you are working on either a hand target or holding the target in your hand. Simply close your eyes and train by feel. Either you feel the touch or you don't. Having your eyes closed keeps you honest. If you are training by vision you will often reinforce "close enough" rather than an actual touch.

3. Marking too late! 

This one is cheating a bit. It isn't specific to target training because it's the biggest error in most training. It still causes some predictable and avoidable issues with targeting though. If you are making late with targeting then you are marking AFTER the touch as the dog is moving away from the object. That's a problem. The touch itself will often be fast, sloppy, and rushed, in order to move away in order to get the reinforcement.

4. Not knowing what comes next. 

So by repetition three your dog touches the target. What now? Touch it again? And again? How long until your dog gets bored doing the same exact thing and loses all interest? What happens after you get the initial contact? Do you want multiple repetitions of the same behavior? Or do you want duration? What about more pressure or intensity? Knowing what you want to see next is imperative, particularly if your dog is a fairly fast learner. Staying at the same levelfor too long means you'll get stuck there.

5. Ignoring the possibilities.

So your dog does a nose touch and a paw touch to your hand. What else is there to target training? So much more! You are missing so many amazing possibilities! Solid target work allows us to train better precision for different positions. It allows us to help our dogs move away from us with independent confidence. And it makes things like cooperative care and fitness work much much easier to teach. Get your foundation target training right and the sky's the limit!

Continuing the Conversation: Target Training

When should you focus on target training? Right now! The sooner the better. I have a workshop coming up that is the perfect opportunity to establish or refine your dog's targeting skills. We'll go over how to introduce and strengthen the basics (including some really helpful tips!), discuss common issues and how to fix or avoid them, and explore all the applications of target work. This workshop can either get you started, get you on the right track, or push you to be even better. I'm really looking forward to it!

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