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Targeting involves teaching your dog to touch an object with their paw or nose, a very useful skill. Targeting behaviors can build your dog’s foundation skills for sports and help them navigate stressful situations. You can even teach it to them at home with a limited amount of equipment. So how do you go about teaching your dog targeting?
What Is Targeting?
Targeting will allow your dog to touch something on command with part of their body, generally their nose, front leg, or hind leg. Some are more complicated to teach, but there are reasons to try them all. Nose targeting is a good way to help guide your dog through crowded areas or stressful situations. Reactive or anxious dogs might also find this method helpful, allowing them to refocus on you and away from reactivity triggers.
Paw targeting involves teaching your dog to put their front two paws onto an object when cued. This skill is helpful for working your dog’s core muscles and balance, and can be used for sports like Agility and AKC Trick Dog. To train this skill, you’ll want to work with a low and stable object, like a book, solid box, or training platform such as the KLIMB training platform (without the legs attached).
Rear-foot targeting is an advanced skill to teach your dog. Unless and until they are taught otherwise, most dogs are front-wheel drive, meaning that where their front feet go, their rear feet will follow. Working with your dog on rear-foot targeting can help build confidence, as well as overall coordination, which can be beneficial for dog sports.
Below, you’ll find the steps to teaching your dog each type of targeting. With a little patience and lots of practice, they’ll be targeting pros before you know it!
Teaching Your Dog Nose Targeting
Hold your flat palm out close to your dog’s face and wait for your dog to engage. When your dog goes to sniff, verbally mark by saying “yes” or click (if you’re clicker training) as their nose touches your hand. Immediately treat your dog.
If your dog doesn’t sniff at your hand, you can start by having a treat between two fingers. Hold your hand with the treat out to your dog. When they sniff at the treat, verbally mark or click. Once your dog is consistently touching your hand with the treat, you can try without the treat.
Repeat Step 1. When your dog is constantly touching your hand, you can introduce a verbal cue of choice, like “touch” or “target.”
When your dog is eagerly targeting your outstretched hand with their nose, you can now begin to increase the difficulty. Ask your dog to target from further away and with your hand in different positions.
Once your dog is confidently targeting with your hand in different positions, it’s time to add distractions. Begin asking your dog for the hand target behavior while you are playing and out on walks. Start incorporating this behavior in areas with few distractions first. Then, build up to working in busier and more distracting environments.
Teaching Your Dog Front-Paw Targeting
Put your training platform on the floor in front of your dog. Start by marking and rewarding your dog for looking at the platform. Then, mark and reward your dog for sniffing or engaging with the platform in any way. The goal is to help your dog get comfortable with the presence of the training platform.
Take a treat and use it to lure or guide your dog toward the object where you want them to target their front paws. Then, once you have your dog’s attention, slowly raise the treat in the air, above the object, and over the platform.
As your dog’s nose follows the treat up, their front feet will go up onto the object. When your dog’s front paws are on the object, say “yes” or click (if you’re clicker training). Immediately treat your dog while they still have their paws up on the object.
If your dog is nervous, start by rewarding your dog for approaching the platform or for putting just one paw on. With practice, your dog will get more comfortable and be ready to put two paws on the object.
Repeat Step 2 several times until your dog is consistently putting their paws up onto the object as you lure. At this point, you can start to introduce a verbal cue of your choice (like “paws up” or “paws”) as your dog’s feet touch the platform. Praise and treat your dog when their paws touch the object.
After a few repetitions, you can stop luring your dog up, and just give the verbal cue. Then, praise or click and treat your dog when their paws touch the platform.
Once your dog is confident with paw targeting, you can start to ask your dog to target their front paws onto different objects, including flat targets and unstable platforms like exercise or balance discs. You can even begin asking for this behavior while out walking, as you find natural objects (like rocks and logs) that your dog can target onto.
Teaching Your Dog Rear-Foot Targeting
Pick a low, solid platform like a large book, training platform (without the legs attached), firm pillow, or short, sturdy box that can hold your dog’s weight. For teaching rear-foot targeting, it’s helpful to have a wide platform to help dogs be more successful.
Take a treat and lure your dog, so they walk forward and up onto the platform and then off, until only their back feet are on the platform. Then, use a verbal marker like a “yes” or click (if you’re clicker training) and treat your dog. Dogs don’t naturally know where their rear feet are, so teaching your dog to target with their back feet can take a little practice.
Another more advanced option—if your dog already has a strong “back-up” cue, you can use that cue or lure your dog backward until their rear feet are touching the platform. Then, verbally mark with a “yes” or click, then treat your dog. You can also slowly lure your dog backward with a treat until they touch the platform.
Some dogs will get startled and balk or try to move out of the way when their back feet hit the platform. This is why it’s helpful to use a wide platform that your dog can’t move around. If your dog is struggling with backing up onto the platform, experiment with lower platforms, such as a folded towel or a target mat.
Repeat Step 2 until your dog is constantly following the treat lure to place their rear feet onto the platform, either by getting up and levering their rear feet onto the platform, or backing up onto the platform.
At this point, you can introduce the verbal cue of your choice, such as “feet” or “contact.” Make sure whatever verbal cue you choose is different from the one you use for front-foot targeting.
After many repetitions, you’ll be able to fade out the physical cue, and just give your dog a verbal cue to foot target. Note this is a more advanced skill and takes a lot of practice.
Once your dog has a solid understanding of rear-foot targeting, you can diversify the objects you ask them to rear-foot target onto. The surfaces can include flat targets or unstable but safe target objects like balance discs.