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Using Target Training to Teach Your Dog Advanced Commands

Using Target Training to Teach Your Dog Advanced Commands

Target training is a positive reinforcement method used to teach dogs complex behaviors and tricks. The basic premise is that you use a target, which is any object the dog is trained to touch with their nose or paw, to guide them through performing the behavior you want to teach. Target training breaks down advanced behaviors into small, manageable steps which makes it easier for the dog to learn. It also relies heavily on marking and rewarding correct responses from the dog, making it a force-free and effective way to train more advanced dog tricks and commands.

The Benefits of Target Training

There are many advantages to using target training for advanced dog training:

  • It's incredibly clear for the dog what you want them to do. The target shows them the exact behavior. This avoids confusion which occurs in other training methods.

  • Dogs learn rapidly with target training since the increments are small and they are heavily rewarded for correct responses. Their success rate is very high.

  • It's scientifically proven as an effective training method. Target training utilizes principles of operant conditioning which we know enable animals to learn quickly.

  • No force or punishment is involved. The dog is never physically manipulated into positions or postures. This promotes a willing and trusting relationship between dog and handler.

  • Target training is mentally stimulating and enjoyable for dogs. They get challenged to figure out new behaviors but are set up to succeed. This enhances their confidence.

  • It teaches dogs to focus on and follow objects, which is the foundation of many complex skills. This focused attention is an acquired skill.

  • Any dog at any age or skill level can learn through target training. The complexity is adjustable for each individual dog.

Target training taps into a dog's natural learning abilities in a positive framework. For teaching advanced skills to dogs, it is one of the most effective and humane training methods.

Choosing Targets

The first step in target training is choosing what target or targets you will use. The target can be any object that is distinct from the background environment and easy for the dog to see. Common choices include:

  • Plastic lids
  • Foam paintbrush handles
  • Small plastic containers
  • Wooden spoons
  • Tennis balls on rope handles
  • Acrylic paint brushes
  • Chopsticks
  • Sponges on sticks

You want a target that is sized for your dog to be able to touch it easily with their nose or paw. Avoid anything too large or heavy. The target should be something that will hold the dog's interest and is unique from everyday objects in your home or training area.

It can be helpful to have two different shaped targets, such as a round lid and a rectangular paintbrush. This gives you options when training different behaviors. Just be sure the dog knows which is Target 1 vs Target 2.

Charging the Target

Before using your target in training, you need to teach the dog to touch and follow the target consistently. This process is known as charging the target. Follow these steps:

  1. Hold the target in front of the dog's nose and wait for them to sniff or touch it. You can wiggle it or tap their nose to get their attention.

  2. The instant they touch their nose to it, mark the behavior with a clicker or verbal marker like the word "Yes!". Reward with a treat.

  3. Repeat this 10-20 times, rewarding every touch to the target. Keep sessions short to avoid the dog getting bored. Make sure to reward enthusiasm and interest in the target.

  4. Once the dog is reliably touching the target, start holding it in different positions – above their head, down near the floor, to the side, etc. Reward them for stretching or bending to reach it if needed.

  5. Gradually increase the criteria by only rewarding sustained contact on the target of 1 second, then 2 seconds, then longer. Add the verbal cue "Touch" as they understand.

  6. Practice target touches from greater distances and in different locations. Use high value rewards at first if needed to keep their engagement.

With regular short sessions, your dog will soon rush to touch their nose or paw to the target reliably. Now you can use it to guide new behaviors!

Teaching Stand

The stand is a classic trick where the dog plants their feet and stands completely still in position. It's perfect to teach with a target:

  1. With the dog in front of you, hold the target directly above their head. Say "Touch" to cue them to reach up and touch it.

  2. Reward this stretch upward with treats or praise. Do this several times until they are reliably looking up and touching the target.

  3. Hold the target just an inch or two higher so they have to stand on their hind legs. Mark and reward this standing behavior.

  4. Gradually raise the target as the sessions progress so the dog has to fully stand, then hold the stand, to touch it.

  5. Put the behavior on cue by saying "Stand" as they follow the target up. Fade out the target over time.

  6. Increase distance and add distractions to proof the stand. Reward heavily for ignoring distractions while standing.

Following the target up with their nose teaches a beautiful stand in small steps. Keep training sessions short to avoid overstressing their joints. With persistence, your dog will soon stand on cue!

Teaching Weaving Through Legs

Weaving through the handler's legs while walking is an elegant advanced trick. But it's made easy to teach with targets:

  1. With the dog sitting in heel position, hold the target down by your left ankle and say "Touch" to cue the dog to reach the target. Reward correct touches.

  2. Gradually move the target between your legs so they have to push through your stance to get to it. Reward generously for all effort.

  3. Advanced to holding the target between your right ankle. Use a second target if needed. Give the cue "Weave" as they push through.

  4. Begin walking forward at a slow pace, leading with either leg first. Hold the target down by opposite ankle so the dog weaves as you walk.

  5. Increase speed gradually over training sessions as the dog gets comfortable weaving through your moving legs.

  6. Reduce and fade out the targets, rewarding the dog for responding to the verbal cue "Weave." Practice during changes of direction too.

The targets show the dog the ideal path through your legs, setting them up for success. Keep sessions upbeat and positive as this behavior requires considerable coordination and confidence from the dog.

Teaching Fetching Items Off Ground

Fetching specific items teaches dogs to use their object discrimination skills. This trick can be handy for useful tasks too:

  1. Begin with 2 distinctly different items like a glove and a hat on the floor. Dog should already be trained to "Take it" and "Hold" objects.

  2. Show the dog one item, say "Glove" then "Take it." Mark and reward correct takes. Do the same for the other item, saying "Hat."

  3. Put both items on the floor and cue "Glove." Reward for picking up the correct object and holding it.

  4. Increase the distance between items over training sessions to make the discrimination harder.

  5. Practice having the dog fetch the items from other rooms or when out of view.

With ample repetition, the dog will learn to identify multiple specific items to fetch off the ground or floor on cue. This can be expanded to include useful household objects like bringing slippers or the TV remote!

Teaching Backing Up

Backing their body up on command can be useful for dogs to learn. A target helps lure the behavior:

  1. With the dog in front of you, hold the target near their chest and walk into them so they have to back up to maintain contact on the target. Mark and reward a few steps back.

  2. Advance to cueing "Back" as you use the target to guide them backwards across the room. Use high value treats to keep them engaged.

  3. Gradually phase out the target, maintaining the rewards for backing up on just the verbal cue.

  4. Have them back up along surfaces like walls or fences to learn alignment. Change direction too.

  5. Increase distance over time – backing across the yard, down hallways, etc. Keep sessions short to avoid frustration.

While this behavior takes considerable coordination, the target provides continuous information to the dog on where to move their body. Use patience and check that they understand the cue before phasing out the target.

Teaching Object Balancing

Dogs balancing objects on their nose or paws is an entertaining trick. But it takes practice to develop the physical skills. Targets are extremely helpful:

  1. Allow the dog to sniff and paw at the object (basket, bin lid, board, etc) on the ground first. Let them get comfortable with it.

  2. Hold the target to their nose, then touch the object. Repeat until they understand touching the object earns rewards.

  3. Lightly attach the object to their nose or paws using tape or velcro. This helps them understand the sensation. Reward heavily here!

  4. Gradually reduce the attachments, using the target to guide their nose/paws back to the object if it falls off.

  5. When they are proficient, add the verbal cue "Balance" as they get into position and remove the target.

  6. In later training, teach them to walk a few steps or spin with the item balanced. But keep exercises short to avoid stress on joints or paws.

Balancing takes strength and coordination that will develop over time. Let the dog learn at their own pace, using targets and rewards to encourage their confidence without force. They will love showing off their newfound skills!


The key to target training is breaking behaviors down into tiny, achievable increments that sets the dog up to succeed. Targets provide a clear physical guide to the dog through each step along the way. Combined with positive reinforcement, targets help dogs master even complex skills and tricks through a stress-free, confidence-building process. With creativity and patience, target training can teach dogs an impressive array of fun and useful advanced commands.

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