Target training is a popular and effective method for teaching dogs agility skills and improving obedience. The basic premise of target training is to teach the dog to touch a target object with their nose or paw. This target can then be used to guide the dog through various obstacles, direct their attention, and reinforce desired behaviors. Targets provide dogs with clear information about what behavior is expected in a given situation. They also allow the handler to communicate with the dog from a distance. Targets are commonly everyday objects like plastic lids, foam balls on sticks, or even the handler’s hand. With proper implementation, target training can help proof behaviors, build drive, and instill confidence in dogs learning agility or obedience skills. This article will provide an overview of how to utilize target training for some common challenges faced in agility and competitive obedience.
Teaching Basic Targeting
The first step in target training is to teach the dog how to properly touch the target object. Start by presenting the target in front of the dog’s nose and rewarding any interaction with the target. Use high-value food rewards paired with verbal markers like “yes!” or clicker training to mark the precise moment the dog touches the target. Once the dog is consistently touching the target with their nose, add the verbal cue “touch.” Say “touch” right before the dog touches the target and then reward. After 10-20 repetitions, say the verbal cue first to ask the dog to touch before presenting the target. Only reward the dog for touching upon hearing the verbal cue. This establishes “touch” as the operant command.
Gradually increase the criteria by only rewarding the dog for harder touches, moving the target around, placing it higher or lower, and fading the lure. Work up to being able to cue “touch” from a few feet away or with the target in different positions. Use jackpot rewards periodically to maintain the dog’s engagement and enthusiasm. Avoid flooding the dog by working in short sessions and setting the dog up for success. Target training requires focused attention from the dog, so strive for mastery of each skill set before moving on. With regular short training sessions, most dogs can learn to reliably target within a couple weeks.
Teaching Nose Targets vs Paw Targets
Most dogs will naturally nose touch a nearby target when first learning to touch. Use a verbal marker like “yes!” to capture and reward this correct behavior. Say the cue “touch” as the dog’s nose approaches the target, then reward the completed touch. For dogs that insist on using their paw, hold the target slightly away from the dog’s body so they have to lean forward and crane their neck to make contact. Reward touches only with the nose initially.
To teach paw targeting, present the target near the dog’s chest so their leg easily reaches. Mark and reward any paw contact with the target. Gradually add the verbal cue “paw” before the dog touches the target with their paw. Have the dog alternate between nose and paw targeting to help them differentiate between the cues. Make sure to avoid inadvertently cuing the wrong behavior and then rewarding it. For example, don’t say “paw” but then reward a nose touch. Be patient and keep training sessions short to prevent confusion. With regular practice, dogs can learn to reliably nose and paw target.
Using Targets for Heeling and Attention
Targets are extremely useful for reinforcing attention and focus when heeling in obedience. Teaching the dog to touch a hand target while heeling redirects their focus to the handler if they start to get distracted or lag. Present your open palm near the dog’s nose as you start moving and say “touch.” Reward the dog for maintaining heel position while touching the target. Release the dog from the behavior by ending the touch cue. Avoid using leash corrections for poor heeling when first training this skill. Instead, use the target to re-focus the dog and reinforce the correct behavior of looking at the target in heel position.
Hand targets while heeling are also helpful for dogs that anticipate halts or get wide around turns. Right before stopping, cue “touch” and reward the dog for focusing on the target and maintaining position. Increase criteria by working up to halting from a fast pace over longer durations. Reward the dog for staying focused on the target and resisting the urge to break heel. The target gives the dog clear information to remain engaged with the handler instead of breaking the skill.
Building Drive and Confidence
Target training builds drive by creating a positive association through conditioned reinforcement. With enough repetition, touching the target itself becomes rewarding to dogs. The target then serves as a conditioned reinforcer that can be used to increase motivation. For example, when training agility sequences, place targets near the entrance of tunnels, in front of the weave poles, or at the start line to rev the dog up and incite their toy drive. Use high-value rewards for targeting these spots to increase excitement and speed. Avoid forcing interactions if the dog is showing stress or lack of drive. Instead, retrain with higher value rewards in short bursts to rebuild the dog’s confidence and desire to target.
For fearful dogs, touching targets can help build confidence by providing clarity. Scary obstacles like teeter-totters, wobble boards, and unfavorable surfaces can be less intimidating with targets as guides. Place targets leading up to and on top of fearful objects. Let the dog set the pace and reward any incremental progress, no matter how small. Rather than flooding the dog, continue using targets to systematically desensitize them to new or scary obstacles over multiple training sessions. Reduce food lures as confidence improves but continue rewarding all target touches.
Target Placement for Agility Handling
Strategic target placement allows handlers to clearly communicate where the dog should move next on an agility course. Targets help dogs understand where to turn, which obstacles to take, and when to come back to the handler. They provide dogs with an objective visual guide.
On sequences with hard angles, place targets directly in front of the entrance of the next obstacle. The target gives the dog a precise focal point versus just trying to figure out the handler’s body language. For wrapping turns, put targets in a wide arc around the turning obstacle to indicate the exact path. Place targets ahead of time for discriminations, where the dog must choose between two obstacles. Targets on the ground can also prevent the dog from dropping bars by keeping their focus forward.
For collections or front crosses, set up a target between obstacles that clearly tells the dog when and where to turn back to the handler. Place a target against the stanchion of the jump to stop the dog’s momentum and redirect their attention. Front cross too early or late? No problem – the target gives the dog the right information regardless of handler position. While initially time consuming, thoughtfully using targets throughout a course prevents miscommunication and helps establish consistent handling.
Fading Lures and Prompts
As dogs become proficient with target training, it is important to gradually fade out lures and prompts to transition to true obedience. Follow these steps to fade rewards:
Reward every touch of the target.
Reward every other touch of the target.
Randomize when you reward target touches.
Increase duration of targeting before rewarding.
Reward only the best and hardest touches.
Reward targeting in different positions and from a distance.
Eventually reward only targeting that is cued from afar.
Avoid removing rewards too quickly or assuming the dog understands duration before they are ready. Read the dog’s body language carefully for signs of stress or confusion and slow the fading process if needed. If the dog ever stops reliably targeting, go back to rewarding every touch and rebuild. Patience and many repetitions create understanding and proofing.
The same process applies to fading physical prompts and lures. Gradually incorporate verbal or visual cues to replace physically leading the dog or presenting the target right in front of their nose. Signal with the target from a distance or use guides like cones and dots on the ground to indicate target location. Fade these prompts as the dog demonstrates understanding. Avoid overly prompt dependent behaviors by ensuring dogs only receive rewards for responding to cues.
Maintaining and Generalizing Targeting
Like any trained behavior, targeting skills require maintenance training to remain sharp. Run through targeting drills before agility runs or obedience trials.Periodically return to basics by rewarding every touch again. Challenge the dog by targeting in distracting environments or from longer distances. Recruit strangers to present the target cue to improve generalization. Changing target textures and shapes can also force dogs to problem solve and improvise. Increase difficulty slowly to avoid frustration. Consistent maintenance training ensures targeting does not deteriorate with time and high distraction.
To troubleshoot issues, first consider whether the problem is difficulty discriminating cues, lack of motivation, or deficiencies in mechanical skill. Break down the behavior and retrain foundational targeting in simple environments without distractions. Rebuild drive using high-value rewards for approximation. Increase skills systematically but slowly. Identify holes in criteria by analyzing when and why the dog makes mistakes. Address these gaps through thoughtful training plans tailored to the dog's needs. Most importantly, keep targeting sessions short, fun, and engaging to promote learning.
Target training requires patience but pays huge dividends in clearer communication and reinforcement of correct behaviors. With time and consistency, targets become powerful tools to help dogs reach their agility and obedience goals. Careful implementation provides guiding information, builds drive and confidence, and improves overall teamwork. Target training creates joyful, dedicated canine partners ready to take on any challenge the handler sets out before them, paw touch by paw touch.
In summary, target training is a versatile and effective technique for improving agility and obedience skills. Teaching dogs to reliably nose touch and paw touch targets opens up countless options for shaping behaviors, directing focus, building drive, and fading lures. Strategic target placement guides dogs through challenging obstacle courses and handling maneuvers. Gradual fading of food and prompts results in reliable off-leash behaviors. While initial target training requires effort, the improved communication and reinforcement ultimately creates a stronger working relationship between dog and handler. Targets give clear information and tap into conditioned reinforcers to motivate dogs. With proper implementation, target training can help handlers overcome many common challenges faced in agility and obedience. The result is a confident, enthusiastic canine partner ready to excel in any performance sport.