Tuesday, January 6, 2009

9. Targeting: The Most Useful Skill You Can Teach Your Dog

Targeting is simple, yet effective tool for everyone to use when training their dog. In many ways, it is a handy extension of your arm that helps your dog to understand what his destination is for any specific task.

Targeting is used by dog owners without them thinking about they are doing. When you pat your leg or use your finger to point, you are using targeting. It is usually the first step in shaping most behaviors.

How to Teach the Basic Behavior
Before you present your dog with a new target, be ready with his treats and clicker since the first time he sees it is the best time to catch him for interacting with it. If you wait until he has sniffed it a few times before c/t, he may lose interest and it will take longer to get him interested the second time. Try to use good timing: that is click the instant his nose touches the object. This makes it very clear the exact behavior he is being rewarded for.

Present your target to your dog in the easiest way for him: it might be at nose level for a nose target, or down on the ground for a foot target. For a stick, present it in a way that he can only touch the tip the first few times. You want to set your dog up to succeed.

When he sees the target and is interested, c/t him for any interaction with it. It’s that simple! You need to decide what part of the body you eventually want him to use for that object (nose, paw, body etc) and start c/t for any movements that look closer and closer to that behavior.

Most targets get a look in the object’s direction, a sniff of the object, then progress to a fleeting nose graze, then nose touch, possibly a paw touch or other body movement. From there, what you will click is determined by which behavior is your final goal.

In the beginning stages of learning every target type, click and treat (c/t) for every targeting behavior your dog offers that looks close to correct. As he progresses, avoid c/t if he mouths or paws the target if you are training for a nose touch. Once he is consistently offering that one behavior no matter what angle you present the target to him, start lowering it or adding height, or start with it further away from him. Or increase his time laying the target. Or have him follow or chase the target (such as following your hand over and around things and over increasing distances).

This video shows two dogs first try at learning to target a hand with their nose.

Here are all the steps.

Naming the Target Behavior
Once your dog is touching the target consistently with only that part of his body, you can start adding the cue “touch” or “paw” etc. I call anything what she touches with her nose “touch”, anything that I want pawed with front paw “paw” and anything targeting with back paw “foot”.

Next, fade the target. This may be done by making your hand gesture less obvious, shortening a stick by holding it closer ot one end, cutting the spot down in size, or using a see-through object instead of a solid one, or replacing it with a different object. For some behaviors you may want to rename the behavior when it is done. For example, in the
Shut the Door video, I start cuing "touch" on the spot to show Jessie what starting behavior I want, but quickly stop using any cue and she continues to touch it with her nose or paw. Then after she is doing the behavior of pushing the door closed, you’ll see I then start calling the new behavior “shut”.

After the behavior is named, the clicker substituted with a verbal marker and the dog trained in several different locations, you can substitute other rewards such as toys and affection, then real life rewards.

Always make targeting a game. Keep training sessions short (say max. 10 repetitions for a puppy and 50 reps for a mature dog) and break up sessions with bouts of play and mixed in with training other behaviors.
What Can Be a Target?Almost anything can be a target. Here are a few of the most common ones used with Service Dogs:

Hand Targeting This useful for teaching heeling as he learns to follow your hand. Or for greeting people politely. They extend their palm facing him and you cue a touch to get him to touch his nose of the hand which also means that he must keep his feet on the floor. You can also use to position him after a recall.

Finger Tip Targeting. This is handy for pointing, especially if you teach him that it is not the tip of your finger, but the direction that your finger is pointing that you are indicating.

Stick Targeting Think of these as an extension of your arm. This is handy to point at objects for your dog to retrieve objects, teach the name of objects or indicate where you want a retrieved object placed.

This video shows you what is possible with a target stick. When training, you want to only click and treat for the exact behavior of nose touching ONLY. Watch as this dog grabs at the stick. That behavior should not have been clicked and it will lead to mouthing and likely grabbing the stick later. (The dog is also very excited due to the speed of her movement and if she slowed down, this might decrease the dog’s need to grab the stick.)

This video shows a pup successfully following a shorter target stick for quite a distance and very quickly. You can also use a wooden mixing spoon for this (3 for $1 from dollar stores). I place a bit of dark tape on the end so the dog has a clear target to touch.

Extendable Stick Targeting (an old TV antennae) is great if you need your dog to interaction with an object further than arm’s distance. It can also be used to guide your dog around you without you having to move in your chair, as in training him to reposition himself. It also allows you to point out objects to retrieve in a store.