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Using Target Training to Teach Your Dog Environmental Cues

Using Target Training to Teach Your Dog Environmental Cues

Target training is a very effective way to teach your dog environmental cues. The basic premise is that you teach your dog to touch or look at a specific target object, and then you can use that target to direct their attention and get them to perform behaviors. The target creates a clear visual cue for your dog to understand what you want them to do. Target training utilizes operant conditioning, rewarding your dog when they correctly follow the target. With consistency and patience, your dog will reliably orient to the target and generalize following it to many contexts.

Some of the key benefits of using target training for environmental cues are:

  • It taps into your dog's natural instinct to follow movement and touch objects with their nose. This makes it intrinsically reinforcing for them.

  • It marks the exact desired behavior. The target gives a precise visual marker, avoiding confusion.

  • It simplifies guiding your dog through complex behaviors or chains of behaviors.

  • Dogs generalize well to following targets in many environments and situations.

  • It is a force-free, positive training method that avoids corrections.

By following some simple steps, you can use targeting to teach your dog a wide range of real world behaviors and environmental cues.

Choosing a Target

The first step in target training is choosing what visual target you will use. There are various options:

  • Your hand or fingers in a point. This is readily available but less precise.

  • A wooden dowel orchopstick. Allows you to mark precise points in space.

  • A spoon with a long handle. The bowl gives a clear end point.

  • A plastic lid. Provides a distinct visual cue.

  • A foam ball on a stick. Gives a soft target good for gentle-mouthed dogs.

  • A knot on a rope. Creates a textured target to feel.

The target should be distinct against your background environment. Avoid targets similar in color or texture. Start with a neutral object without strong associations for your dog. You want them following it purely as a visual marker.

The size of the target matters too. Very small targets are hard for dogs to see. Large targets block their vision. Intermediate sized targets 3-6 inches across generally work best.

Loading the Target

After choosing your target object, the next step is loading it. This means teaching your dog to reliably touch and follow the target.

Start by showing your dog the target and rewarding for any interest or interaction with it. Click or say "yes!" the moment they sniff, touch, or look at it. Give treats or toss a toy when you mark the behavior.

Once your dog engages with the target, hold it steady and wait for them to touch it. Mark and reward each touch. Gradually only reward actual target touches, not just looks.

Now move the target around and reward your dog for following it with their nose. Vary height and direction – move it horizontally, vertically, close to your dog's face, down by the floor. Go slowly at first. Mark and reward small movements towards the target.

Work in short sessions of just a few minutes, a few times per day. End each session on a positive note with an easy success. Once your dog is enthusiastically touching and following the target in all directions, they understand the game and the target is loaded!

Using the Target for Cues

Now you are ready to apply targeting to guiding real world behaviors. The key is to associate the target with a spatial location, environmental feature, or desired action from your dog. Move the target to mark exactly where you want your dog to go or what you want them to do. Reward following the target.

Some examples of using a target for environmental cues:

  • Lure your dog into position at doors or gates with the target, mark and reward. They learn to go to that place when you present the target.

  • Target a specific mat or rug you want your dog to go settle on. Reward them for following the target onto the mat.

  • Hold a target by a chair to cue your dog to circle around it. Click for following the target with the desired behavior.

  • Target a spot on the floor to lure your dog into a down position. Mark and reward when they lie down on the targeted spot.

  • Touch the target to your dog's hind end to prompt them to sit. Reward sitting when their rear follows the target.

The key is being consistent. Always reward your dog for following the target and complying with the desired behavior or position. With enough repetitions, they learn that target = the appropriate action or place to go.

Chaining Behaviors

An advanced targeting technique is chaining multiple behaviors together. For example:

  • Target to a mat so your dog goes to it, click and reward.

  • Then target a food bowl to cue your dog to down on the mat, click and reward.

  • Finally target the door to release your dog from the mat to the door, click and reward.

Chaining behaviors builds reliably on each other since your dog is heavily reinforced for responding to the target in the right sequence.

You can also incorporate non-target cues like verbal commands into a target-focused behavior chain. Once your dog has learned specific actions through targeting, you can add commands before the target.

For example:

  • Verbal cue "Go to your mat", THEN target the mat for your dog to orient there.

  • Command "Lie down", THEN target by the food bowl to complete the down.

This transfers behaviors learned through targeting over to traditional commands.

Tips for Effective Target Training

Here are some tips to get the most success out of your target training sessions:

  • Reward every follow of the target at first. Be patient and allow your dog time to learn the game.

  • Use very high value treats your dog loves as rewards for targeting. This keeps them engaged.

  • Limit sessions to 3-5 mins max to avoid your dog getting tired or bored with the target.

  • Gradually phase out food rewards once your dog reliably follows the target, but still occasionally reward to keep up motivation.

  • Practice targeting in various environments – inside, outside, at parks, pet stores, etc. This builds generalization.

  • If your dog loses interest in a target, switch to a novel target object to reinvigorate their curiosity.

  • Avoid overly luring or guiding your dog with the target. Let them follow it independently as much as possible.

  • Keep a fast pace of marking and rewarding your dog's successes. This keeps energy levels high.

Target training requires focus and effort from both dog and handler. Used creatively, it is an extremely versatile way to teach environmental cues, obedience behaviors, tricks and more using positive reinforcement!


Target training leverages your dog's natural targeting instincts to provide clear visual cues for desired behaviors. Following just a few simple steps – choosing a distinct target, loading your dog to follow it, using it to mark locations and guide actions – you can train real world environmental cues through positive reinforcement. Targets help break down complex chains into discrete steps your dog reliably learns. With creativity and consistency in target training, you can teach your dogs a wide range of practical skills and behaviors to properly navigate their environment.

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