Target training is a method of dog training that focuses on teaching a dog to reliably perform specific behaviors on cue. The key principles of target training are using targets to clearly mark desired behaviors, rewarding success frequently to reinforce those behaviors, and fading out lures and prompts over time so the dog learns to perform cued behaviors independently.
With target training, dogs learn that touching their nose to a specific target object earns a reward. This shapes the behavior of orienting to and making contact with the target. Targets can then be used to guide the dog into desired positions and postures. Target training provides clarity, builds motivation through positive reinforcement, and sets the dog up to succeed. It is an effective way to teach precision behaviors.
Some of the benefits of using target training for precision commands include:
Clear communication. Targets give dogs a physical marker for the behavior we want. There is no ambiguity.
Increased focus and engagement from the dog. Targets create a interactive game that dogs enjoy.
Shaping behaviors systematically. Targets allow you to gradually mold behaviors by controlling target position.
Fading out lures/prompts. Targets provide a substitute for lures as the dog learns independent behavior.
Portability. Targets can be used in many contexts and taken on the go.
Building a foundation for chained behaviors. Targets can link behaviors together into sequences.
In this article, I’ll cover the core principles of target training, how to apply targeting to common obedience behaviors, troubleshooting issues, and advanced targeting techniques. Follow along to learn how to use target training for precision control of your dog.
Core Principles of Target Training
Target training is based on a few key principles derived from behavioral science:
Use Targets to Mark Precisely Where You Want Your Dog
The primary purpose of targets in dog training is to give clear information to the dog about what behavior is desired. Targets serve as physical markers that communicate exactly where we want our dog's nose, paws, hips, etc. For example, targets on the ground can show a dog where to position his rear or front feet for a sit or down. Targets give dogs the feedback they need to understand how to comply with commands.
Targets can be made from a variety of everyday objects – plastic lids, sticky notes, spoons, or commercially available targeting pads. Anything the dog can touch with its nose can be a target. The object itself is neutral – it’s the handler’s use of the target that gives it meaning as a behavioral marker.
Reward Frequently at First for Success
Dog training relies heavily on reinforcing desired behaviors so they are likely to reoccur. With target training, the dog is rewarded frequently (with food, praise, toys, etc) the moment its nose touches the target. This communicates to the dog that target touching behavior is what earns the reward.
At first, rewards should be given every 1-2 repetitions to establish the target touching response. Then, once the dog is consistently touching the target, rewards can be given on a variable schedule to maintain the behavior. Keep sessions short and rewarding in the initial stages.
Fade Lures and Prompts Over Time
In the beginning of training a new behavior, food lures or physical prompts from the handler are often needed to guide the dog. For example, food held above a target can lure the dog into a down position. However, lures and prompts should not remain a permanent part of the behavior chain.
The ultimate goal is for the dog to respond to just a verbal cue and/or hand signal without needing the lure. So, prompts need to be faded out over time as the dog learns the behavior. Target training provides a way to fade lures while still giving the dog clear direction.
Set the Dog Up for Success
During the learning process, set your dog up to succeed as much as possible. Keep training sessions short, engaging, and highly reinforced so the dog has a positive experience. Go at your dog’s pace and don’t move too quickly. If your dog seems confused or disengaged, revert back to providing more direction and rewards. Good training should be enjoyable!
Now that we’ve covered the core principles, let’s look at how target training can be applied to teaching basic obedience behaviors.
How to Use Target Training for Common Obedience Behaviors
Target training provides an excellent way to teach some of the most important behaviors we want our dogs to learn – sit, down, stand, heel, place, etc. Here’s an overview of how to use targeting in training some of these common obedience behaviors:
One of the easiest applications of target training is for teaching a puppy or dog to sit on cue. Here are the steps:
Hold a target (e.g. lid, sticky note) in your hand at the dog’s nose level, let them touch it and reward. Repeat until offering the target evokes a nose touch.
Move the target up and back over the dog’s head. Most dogs will sit down as their nose follows the target. Reward in position.
Say “sit” as the dog’s rear hits the ground, then reward again. With repetition, fade out the target so sit happens on just the verbal cue.
Practice with distractions and varying durations to solidify it. Remember to reward frequently in the initial stages.
Target training can also be useful for luring your dog into a down:
As in the sit exercise, first charge your target by letting your dog touch their nose to it and rewarding until the touch becomes a conditioned response.
Hold the target at your dog’s nose level, then move it down between their front paws to lure their nose down to the ground into a down position. Reward in position.
Say your “down” cue as your dog’s elbows touch the ground, then reward again. Repeat until dog downs on just the verbal.
Gradually increase distance from the target and fade out food lures over many repetitions to transition to a hand signal and/or verbal only down.
Stand is another fun behavior to train with a target:
Hold the target at your dog’s nose level while they are sitting. Let them touch the target, mark and reward.
Slowly raise the target upward, prompting your dog to raise up into a stand as they follow the target. Reward in position.
Say your “stand” cue as your dog fully stands, continue rewarding repetitions.
When reliable, add distractions and fade out the target and food lures over time.
Heel and Loose Leash Walking
Targets held in your hand can be useful for keeping a dog in heel position or maintaining a loose leash:
With dog sitting in heel position, let them touch the target in your hand and reward.
Take a few steps forward, luring with the target and rewarding for staying with the target.
Gradually increase number of steps before rewarding over many sessions.
Phase out food lures but continue to show the target and reward intermittently for checking in.
The same technique can be used when walking on leash. Reward your dog frequently for focusing on the target and staying near your side rather than pulling forward.
Place/Go to Spot
Target training provides a clear way to teach going to a designated spot or platform:
Place your target on the spot you want your dog to go to. Say “place” as they step on it and reward.
Take a step back but continue to reward for staying on the target. Gradually increase distance.
Reward intermittent check-ins on the spot. Practice with longer durations.
Fade out the target once your dog reliably goes to the spot on just your verbal “place” cue from a distance.
Use this method to teach going to a crate, bed, or any location you specify. Dogs learn to orient to the defined target area.
As you can see, target training gives us a way to mark exact positions for key obedience behaviors and reinforce compliance. Combined with fading out prompts and adding distractions, it develops reliable responsiveness to cues. Let’s look at some common troubleshooting issues that can arise with targeting.
Troubleshooting Target Training
Target training is a relatively straightforward technique, but there are a few common issues that can pop up as you’re teaching your dog. Here are some troubleshooting tips:
Problem: My dog won’t touch the target consistently.
Solution: Make sure you are rewarding every repetition for a while so your dog builds a strong association between target touching and reward. Also check that your dog is not too overstimulated or distracted in the training environment. Work in short sessions of just a few repetitions in the beginning.
Problem: My dog learned to target, but now refuses or loses interest.
Solution: Dogs can sometimes get bored of behaviors they’ve repeated frequently. Try using a different target item (sticky note instead of lid) or vary the rewards given to inject some novelty and motivation. Also be sure to fade rewards and prompts gradually rather than all at once.
Problem: My dog touches the target, but won’t hold the trained position like sit or down.
Solution: Increase rate of reinforcement in the beginning. For example, reward several times while the dog holds the sit position rather than just once. This builds duration. Also be sure to use targets to mark the correct position and don’t lure too far forward.
Problem: My dog won’t follow the target if I move it away.
Solution: You may be moving the target too quickly or too far from your dog’s nose. Try moving just an inch away at first before rewarding for following. Build in small increments so they are set up to succeed.
Problem: My dog still won’t perform the behavior without the target present.
Solution: Be patient and gradually fade the target over many sessions. Come back to providing the target if your dog seems confused. Ensure you deliver a reward for correct responses without the target to reinforce the transition.
The key is to set your dog up for success by working in short, highly reinforced sessions, troubleshooting issues with environmental management, and breaking down the targeting process into small steps at your dog’s pace. Let’s look now at some more advanced target training techniques.
Advanced Target Training Techniques
Once you and your dog have mastered the basics of target training, there are some more advanced techniques you can explore:
Chaining behaviors: String multiple behaviors together by moving targets sequentially. For example, target to sit, target to down.
Distance targeting: Teach your dog to move away from you and touch targets at a distance.
Retrieving objects: Use targets to teach fetch and other retrieval behaviors.
Agility contacts: Touch targets with front or hind feet to teach agility equipment contacts.
Send away: Place targets on the ground to teach sending your dog away from you to a specific spot.
Nose targeting: Teach your dog to target objects using just their nose, no paws.
Duration targeting: Building long hold durations on a target to work impulse control.
Stimulus discrimination: Use targets of different colors and shapes to teach discrimination abilities.
Location-specific behaviors: Place targets in different locations to cue different behaviors in each spot.
The possibilities are endless for ways to incorporate target training once you have a solid foundation! It’s a helpful tool for both beginning and advanced dog trainers.
Target training provides a clear communication system to mark precise behaviors we want from our dogs. Using targets allows us to efficiently shape behaviors by giving dogs concrete information about how to comply with our cues.
The core principles of target training involve marking desired behaviors with targets, rewarding success frequently at first, fading out lures/prompts over time, and setting dogs up for success. Following these principles allows you to use targeting to teach reliable sit, down, stand, heel, place, and other obedience behaviors.
While there may be some common troubleshooting issues, they can be resolved by returning to fundamentals like setting a solid reinforcement history, working at your dog’s pace, and gradually increasing criteria. Once you and your dog master the obedience basics, there are many advanced applications to explore as well.
Overall, target training is a positive, engaging way to develop precision and reliability with obedience cues. With clear communication through targeting and a system of reinforcement, you can enjoy obedience behaviors that are voluntary and joyful for your dog. The result is a well-trained canine companion who loves working with you.