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Using Target Training to Improve Canine Problem-Solving Skills

Using Target Training to Improve Canine Problem-Solving Skills

Target training is a scientifically-backed method for improving dogs' problem-solving abilities. By systematically teaching dogs to perform specific behaviors in response to cues, target training builds a dog's confidence, focus, and cognitive skills. This article will provide an overview of target training, explain the science behind why it works, and give step-by-step instructions for implementing a target training program with your own dog.

What is Target Training?

Target training, also known as "do as I do" training, is a force-free, reward-based training method. The basic premise is that you teach your dog to touch specific objects or locations with their nose or paw. These are called "targets."

To start, you present your dog with a target – this could be your hand, a spoon, a Frisbee, or any object. You mark and reward the dog every time they touch the target. Through repetition, the dog learns that touching the target earns a reward.

Once your dog consistently touches one target, you add more targets into the training. You can fade out food lures and hand gestures so the dog touches objects based only on your verbal cue – for example, saying "touch" when you point to a target.

Target training is extremely flexible. Targets can be stationary objects, moving objects, body parts, locations on the ground – anything you can point to or indicate. As your dog's targeting skills improve, you can use targets to guide their movement and have them interact with their environment in increasingly complex ways.

The Science Behind Target Training

Target training leverages several key principles of animal behavior and learning theory. These include:

Marking: Providing a "marker" like a click or word when your dog touches the target pinpoints the exact moment they performed the desired behavior. This helps them quickly associate that behavior with a reward.

Shaping: Gradually rewarding approximations of the target behavior allows your dog to figure out what you want them to do. Shaping builds understanding.

Fading Lures: Reducing and eventually eliminating lures like hand gestures teaches your dog to respond to verbal cues alone. This promotes self-directed learning.

Generalization: Switching between different targets in various locations requires generalization. Your dog learns that touching any target earns rewards, not just a specific one.

Fluency: Requiring speed and accuracy when touching targets improves your dog's fluency in responding to cues. Their targeting response becomes habitual.

Cognition: Mixing up target training challenges like sequencing multiple targets, chaining touches together, and problem-solving new target arrangements all provide cognitive enrichment.

In essence, target training taps into reward-based learning, promotes generalization of skills, requires focused attention and impulse control, and allows for creative problem solving. The result is improved cognition, confidence, and human-canine communication.

Step-By-Step Guide to Implementing Target Training

Here is a step-by-step guide to start target training with your dog:

Choose Your Targets

  • Everyday objects like spoons or tennis balls work well. Sticky notes on the wall make great temporary targets too.
  • Avoid targets that could startle your dog when touched, like hot surfaces or unstable objects.
  • Have at least 3-5 initial targets to promote generalization.

Introduce Your Dog to Targets

  • Show your dog a target from a few feet away. Encourage them to investigate and touch it.
  • The instant they touch it, mark the behavior with a click or "yes!" Then reward with a treat.
  • Keep sessions short and rewards frequent at first. Do a few repetitions with each new target.

Add Cues

  • Once your dog is consistently touching targets, add a verbal cue like "touch." Say it right before they touch.
  • After several successes with the same target, switch to a different target and cue it the same way.
  • Gradually phase out any hand gestures or lures so your dog responds to just the verbal cue.

Increase Difficulty Slowly

  • Have your dog target objects that are farther away, higher up, or smaller.
  • Place targets so your dog must move around obstacles to reach them.
  • Call your dog away from one target and cue them to find another target in a new location.

Chain Targets Together

  • Sequence multiple targets by cueing your dog to touch them one after the other.
  • Randomize these target chains so your dog has to problem-solve and listen closely.
  • Hide targets in boxes or containers so your dog uses nose targeting to find them.

Practice Everywhere

  • Take target training on the road! Practice at parks, pet stores, out on walks – the world is full of target opportunities.
  • The more places you practice, the better your dog's targeting response will generalize.

With creative target ideas and mini training games, you can build your dog's confidence and cognitive skills. Keep sessions short, fun and rewarding!

Target Training Games

Target training lends itself well to fun games that dogs love. Here are a few lively ideas:

Nosework Challenge

Hide targets in boxes or under cups around a room. Have your dog find them using nose targeting and cue words like "find it!"

Paw Painting

Dip your dog's paws in non-toxic paint and have them paw target sheets of paper mounted low on a wall to create colorful abstract paintings.

Disc Dog

Toss targets like frisbees or plastic lids on the ground or through the air and cue your dog to touch them before bringing them back to you.

Obedience Popcorn

Randomly place multiple targets on the floor. Cue your dog to rapidly run from one target to the next, touching each one.

Target Limbo

Hold a target stick and progressively lower it as you cue your dog to touch it by ducking underneath. See how low they can go!

Target Tug

Attach targets to a rope toy. As your dog tugs, cue them to briefly touch the targets between tugs to earn extra rewards.

The key is to keep sessions fast-paced and fun while practicing target cues. Your dog will gain confidence, learn to focus, and problem-solve – all while burning mental and physical energy.

Benefits of Target Training

There are many reasons why target training is a valuable activity for dogs:

  • Mental Enrichment: Target training provides mental stimulation and cognitive exercise. Dogs learn faster with this kind of engagement.

  • Focus: Cueing your dog to find and touch specific targets requires – and builds – their ability to focus.

  • Impulse Control: With targets temptingly in sight, dogs must control their impulses and wait for cues. This teaches self-control.

  • Communication: Target training relies heavily on human verbal cues. Giving and responding to cues strengthens communication between handler and dog.

  • Confidence: Achieving success touching targets gives dogs a sense of accomplishment. This confidence boost often translates into other areas of training.

  • Problem Solving: Finding the right target amongst distractions, sequencing multiple targets, and performing cued behaviors in new environments all require creative thinking.

  • Bonding: The cooperation and positive interactions during target training strengthens the bond between dog and handler.

  • Fun! Dogs typically find target training highly enjoyable, especially when incorporated into games. Fun, reward-based activities lead to faster learning.

Target training checks all the boxes for boosting your dog's cognitive abilities, focus, communication skills and confidence while having a blast together. It's a win-win activity for dogs of all ages, breeds and backgrounds.

Target Training Tips

Follow these tips for effective, quality target training sessions with your dog:

  • Keep early sessions short (just 3-5 minutes) but frequent, especially when introducing new targets. This prevents your dog from becoming frustrated or bored.

  • Vary target textures, sizes, locations and difficulties to encourage generalization of the targeting skill. Don't let your dog rely on cues from your body language – fade those out over time.

  • Use highly rewarding treats and lots of praise during initial targeting attempts. This motivates your dog to figure out what earns the rewards.

  • Avoid flooding your dog by introducing too many targets too quickly. Build up targeting fluency on known targets before adding new ones.

  • If your dog seems confused or frustrated, go back to an earlier step in the training where they experienced success. End each session on a positive note!

  • Be creative! Target training can happen almost anywhere at home or out in public. Look for opportunities to practice during everyday activities and outings.

  • Keep a positive, upbeat attitude and make target training sessions feel like a fun game for your dog. Your enthusiasm will be contagious!

With patience and consistency using these tips, you can improve your dog's confidence, cognitive abilities, and communication skills leaps and bounds through target training.


Target training is a force-free, mentally stimulating activity with proven benefits for dogs. By systematically teaching dogs to touch specific objects or locations on cue, target training improves focus, self-control, human-animal communication and problem solving abilities. It taps into reward-based learning theory and provides dogs with confidence-building cognitive challenges.

This article outlines the science behind target training and provides practical steps for owners to follow with their own dogs, including introducing targets, adding verbal cues, chaining targets together and practicing in different environments. Simple yet engaging target training games are also described to keep sessions enjoyable.

While easy to learn, target training offers a lifetime of possibilities for dogs to gain competence, finesse their skills and have fun interacting with their handlers. With some creativity and consistency using the tips above, owners can enrich their dog's life exponentially through target training. So grab some targets like spoons or sticky notes and let the cognitive canine games begin!

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