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Using Target Training to Improve Canine Focus and Attention

Using Target Training to Improve Canine Focus and Attention

Target training is an effective method for improving a dog's focus and attention. The concept is simple – the dog is taught to touch or focus on a specific target object. This trains the dog to focus their attention on a specific point and builds their impulse control. Target training has many benefits for training and can be used to teach a wide variety of cues and behaviors. In this 10000 word article, we will cover the basics of target training, how to get started, troubleshooting common issues, and several examples of how target training can be applied to improve canine focus and attention.

What is Target Training?

Target training involves teaching the dog to touch or focus their nose or gaze on a specific object. This object is called the "target." It can be a hand, training stick, ball, or any other item. The dog is rewarded with treats and praise each time they correctly touch or look at the target. This teaches the dog to orient their attention towards the target on cue.

Some common targets used in training include:

  • Hand target – Teaching the dog to touch their nose to the palm of your hand.

  • Clicker target – Using a handheld clicker as the target. The dog touches the end of the clicker with their nose.

  • Verbal target – Pointing to an object and asking the dog to "touch."

  • Ground target – Target object placed on the floor for the dog to step on or place paws on.

Any object can serve as a target. The key is being consistent and rewarding the dog each time they correctly focus on the specified target.

How Target Training Improves Focus and Attention

Teaching a dog to orient towards and focus on a target has several benefits for improving attention:

  • Builds impulse control – The dog has to inhibit their natural impulses and remain focused until cued to break focus. This teaches patience and self-control.

  • Increases attention span – Longer targeting repetitions build the dog's ability to remain focused for extended periods. Their overall attention span improves.

  • Focuses observant behavior – Dogs naturally observe their environment. Target training gives them a specific point of focus for their observations.

  • Stimulus control – The target gives the handler a way to control where the dog focuses their attention. This stimulus control can be utilized in training.

  • Reduces problem behaviors – When focused on a target, dogs are less likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors like jumping, barking, or chasing. The target replaces these unwanted behaviors with an acceptable focusing outlet.

In summary, target training gives dogs an approved object to concentrate their natural attention and observation skills on. This teaches valuable impulse control, improves obedience, and reduces problem behaviors – all of which rely heavily on a dog's focus skills.

Getting Started with Target Training

Target training can be taught using treats, praise, and the clicker marker:

Step 1: Hold the target in front of the dog's nose. Wait for them to sniff or touch it. Click and reward any interaction with the target.

Step 2: Only reward actual touches of the target with the nose or gaze focus. Don't reward just looking at it.

Step 3: Put a cue word to the behavior such as "touch" as the dog is learning. Say it as they touch the target and reward.

Step 4: Gradually phase out the continuous treats so the dog is working for occasional rewards only. Vary the reward schedule to maintain motivation.

Step 5: Increase the criteria by rewarding only prolonged focus or nose touches on the center of the target. Fade out your hand luring the dog.

Step 6: Practice daily target training sessions of just 5-15 repetitions to build and maintain the behavior.

Target training should always be split into many very short sessions. Dogs have short attention spans, especially puppies. Keep sessions fun and rewarding to hold their interest. End on a positive note while the dog is still engaged.

Target Training Tips

Here are some top tips for effectively teaching target training:

  • Start in distraction-free environments until the behavior is reliable. Slowly increase distractions.

  • Keep early targeting sessions brief to avoid boredom – just 5-10 repetitions.

  • Gradually shape sustained focus by only rewarding nose touches held for 1 second, then 2 seconds, then longer.

  • Use high value food treats in early training so the dog remains motivated.

  • Fade the lure quickly once the dog understands the behavior. Lures can become a crutch.

  • Cue the behavior before presenting the target. Say "touch" then show the target object.

  • Practice target touches from different positions – front, side, behind the dog's field of view. Increase difficulty slowly.

  • Target hand position – hold your palm flat and perpendicular to the dog's nose, don't point fingers at their face.

  • End sessions on a positive note. Stop before the dog loses interest.

Following these training best practices will lead to reliable targeting behavior faster. Be patient, reward generously, and keep sessions brief and fun during the initial learning process.

Troubleshooting Target Training

Target training is an easy skill for most dogs to learn. However, you may encounter these common challenges:

Dog loses interest quickly – The sessions may be too long or the rewards aren't motivating enough. Use extra special treats and keep sessions under 10 repetitions. End on a high note when they are still engaged.

Dog gets frustrated or bites at target – The criteria may have increased too quickly. Return to an easier level and slowly rebuild the dog's confidence in small increments with lots of praise.

Dog avoids touching the target – Some dogs are shy of hand targets. Switch to a ground target or target stick first before reintroducing your hand as the target.

Dog won't focus when there are distractions – Only practice in distraction-free environments at first. Reward generously for any attention on the target. Slowly add distractions over many short sessions.

Dog targets well in training but not when cued in real life – Always reward real life targeting too. Increase distractions gradually. Go back to basics and reward generously if needed.

Target training challenges are easily resolved by adjusting the difficulty level, motivation, and distractions appropriately to set the dog up for success. Stay positive and make it easy for hesitant dogs. Target training takes patience but builds an invaluable focusing skill.

Using Target Training to Teach Cues

Once a dog understands targeting, the skill can be used to teach a wide variety of behaviors by putting it on cue:

Go to Your Spot

  • Place a target mat or pad on the floor. Cue "target" then point to the mat. Reward standing on it. Fade the target and add a cue like "go to your spot."

Heel Position

  • Hold a target stick at the heel position. Cue "target" when the dog touches it. Reward in heel position then fade the target.

Rear Foot Target for Hind End Awareness

  • Hold a target like a clicker behind the dog's hips. Reward rear paw touches. Useful for heel and pivoting skills.

Send to Target at a Distance

  • Place target pad on ground. Send dog to it from a distance. Useful for recalls, directional casting, agility contacts.

Duration Training

  • Gradually extend the time the dog holds the target. Useful for sustained sits, downs, stands, and more.

Distance Downs

  • Target hand near the floor to lure down. Gradually increase distance. Useful for long downs.

These are just a few examples of how to utilize targeting in obedience and trick training. The sky is the limit once you put the skill on cue and practice it in a variety of contexts. Target training gives both puppies and adult dogs a clear focus point to understand what is being asked of them. It jump starts the learning process for many foundation skills.

Focus and Attention Games

Target training also provides the basis for fun focus and attention games:

Look at That Game – Reward the dog for glancing at environmental stimuli then immediately back to you or the target. Builds attention.

1-2-3 Treat Game – Rapidly reward 1, 2 and 3 second gazes at the target. Increase times for longer duration.

Spin and Target Game – Cue spins/twirls then immediately present target. Dog has to reorient to target quickly.

Target Grid Game – Place targets in grid formation. Send to different targets in sequence. Builds directional focus.

Moving Target – Slowly move target around as dog follows it. Can build to walking or tossing target.

Target Hunt Game – Hide targets around a room and cue dog to search and find them. Fun nosework game!

Target Frisbee – Use a frisbee as the target held close then tossed increasing distances for fetching.

These games add an element of play and novelty to target training sessions. Dogs love games that engage their natural searching and chasing motivations. Combining targets and play expands their targeting skills. Make sure to balance thegames with plenty of reward-based trainingtoo for best results.

Real World Applications

Once a dog has a solid understanding of targeting, the skill can be utilized in many real world situations:

Vet Exams – Having the dog target helps them hold still and focus during exams or treatments. It provides an outlet for their attention.

Grooming – Target a hand or treat while being brushed, nails trimmed, baths, etc. Redirects focus away from the grooming.

Car Rides – Give the dog a target mat or hang a target object to focus on rather than being restless.

Waiting at Doors/Gates – Ask for a target touch or focus at thresholds to practice patience and impulse control.

Handling/Exams at Dog Shows – Targeting a handheld object provides focus while being stacked and gone over. Redirects obsession with bait treats on the ground.

Loading into Crate – Ask for a target touch inside the crate first before closing door. Creates positive associations.

Loose Leash Walking – Use a target stick held in different positions to keep focus off distractions.

Diffusing Reactivity – Create space from a trigger.Ask for targeting focus on a mat or hand. Prevent reactive outbursts before they start.

Real life target training takes practice in many contexts before it becomes reliable. But being able to cue an automatic orienting response is invaluable in our fast paced, distraction filled world. Make sure to practice targeting in many different realworld situations after initial training is complete.


Target training provides an essential foundation skill for improving canine focus, attention, and impulse control. It jump starts the obedience training process by teaching dogs how to orient, observe and concentrate on specific objects or locations. With creativity and practice, targeting skills can be applied to a vast array of cues, behaviors and real world situations. While it does require an investment of time and motivation to teach, target training ultimately pays off by producing more focused, attentive canine companions. The powerful focusing tool belongs in every trainer's toolbox!

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