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Using Target Training to Teach Your Dog New Tricks

Using Target Training to Teach Your Dog New Tricks

Target training is an effective and humane way to teach dogs new behaviors and tricks. It relies on breaking down complex behaviors into small, achievable steps and rewarding the dog for completing each step. The key is to use targets – objects the dog is trained to touch with their nose or paw – to guide the dog into position. Target training builds trust and communication between handler and dog and helps reinforce desired behaviors. In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover the benefits of target training, how to get started, tips for success, and examples of fun tricks you can teach your dog. With dedication and patience, target training can give both you and your dog skills for a lifetime.

What is Target Training?

Target training is a form of operant conditioning that uses targets to guide a dog's behavior and movement. The targets act as a communication tool between handler and dog. Targets can be any object – examples include plastic lids, spoons, sticky notes, or even your hand.

The dog is trained to understand that touching the target with their nose or paw means "move to this spot". The targets allow you to show the dog precisely where you want them to go, setting them up for success. Targets are paired with rewards like treats or praise to reinforce the behavior.

Target training breaks down complex tricks into small, achievable steps. For example, to teach spin, you would first train touching the target. Then you would reward for one step to the side, then two steps, building up to a full spin. The targets provide clarity for the dog as they learn.

The Benefits of Using Target Training

There are many advantages to using target training for dogs:

  • Clear communication – Targets give very specific instructions to your dog so they understand exactly what behavior is desired. This avoids confusion which can hinder training.

  • Builds confidence – With target training, dogs experience many successes from the very beginning. This motivates them to continue training.

  • Positive reinforcement – Target training relies on reward-based methods. This creates a cooperative training environment.

  • Moldable behaviors – Targets allow you to gently guide your dog's body position, shaping behaviors.

  • Breaks down complexity – Targets let you teach complicated behaviors in small, achievable steps.

  • Hands-free training – Once targets are introduced, they can be used without your hands guiding the dog.

  • Works for all dogs – Target training is effective for puppies, older dogs, and dogs with special needs.

The clear direction targets provide makes training straightforward for dogs to understand and gives them the tools to successfully perform the behaviors asked of them.

Getting Started With Target Training

Target training can be taught to any dog at any age. Here are some tips on how to introduce targets:

  • Start by showing your dog the target and rewarding for any interest or touch. Treats, clickers, and praise can all be used.

  • Once the dog is consistently touching the target, put a verbal cue on the behavior such as "touch".

  • Gradually increase criteria by rewarding only for deliberate touches on the center of the target.

  • Present the target in different positions – held out to the side, low to the ground, etc. – and reward touches.

  • Practice targeting with the target in both your left and right hands so the dog generalizes.

  • Soon the dog should be able to move their nose or paw to touch the target on cue whenever and wherever it is presented.

  • Keep training sessions short and fun. End on successes so the dog is motivated to train again.

  • When first teaching targeting, there is no need to fade the lure or treat rewards. The priority is to reinforce targeting behavior.

With regular short sessions, most dogs will quickly learn targeting. Once your dog eagerly touches targets on cue, you can begin using them in training!

Using Targets in Training

The real power of target training comes in using targets to teach complex behaviors. Here are some ways to incorporate targets into training:

  • Guiding position – Hold targets in the positions you want your dog to move their body, like sitting, spinning, or bowing. Reward correct positions.

  • Chaining behaviors – Have your dog follow targets that move from place to place, chaining movements together.

  • Shape tricks – Hold targets so the dog stretches or moves their paws in tricky ways, like for waving or opening doors.

  • Target placement – Stick targets on shelves, prop them on objects, or place them on the floor to train moving to specific locations.

  • Send to target – Set targets across a room and train your dog to run out and touch them on cue. Great for recall training.

  • Contact behaviors – Use targets to lure and reward precise behaviors like making doggy eye contact.

The key is being creative in how you present and use your targets during training sessions. You can fade out food and target lures over time as behaviors are learned.

Tips for Target Training Success

Here are some top tips to set you and your dog up for success with target training:

  • Make targets obvious and unique from the environment so your dog can easily focus on them. Bright colors and textures help.

  • Try different target objects to find what your dog interacts with best – lids, spoons, foam squares, sticky notes, even your hand.

  • If your dog becomes frustrated, go back to an easier step. End sessions on successes.

  • Build targeting in different environments – inside, outdoors, with distractions – to proof the behavior.

  • Use high-value rewards like real meat when first training a challenging behavior.

  • Fade lures and rewards slowly so you don't lose behaviors. If needed, go back to rewarding every repetition.

  • Target training develops a strong motivation to work with you. Balance with real-life rewards like play, petting, or letting your dog explore.

  • Make sure targeting is rewarding! Vary reinforcement with treats, toys, praise, or anything your dog loves.

With patience and creativity, you can teach your dog amazing behaviors with target training. Stick to the basics, troubleshoot issues, and keep sessions fun for best results.

Fun Tricks to Teach with Target Training

Target training allows you to get creative in the tricks you teach your dog. Here are some fun ideas:

  • Wave – Hold a target so your dog lifts their paw up and down in a wave.

  • High five – Teach your dog to lift their paw up to slap your hand for a high five.

  • Spin circles – Use targets to lure your dog in a circle and reward with each step, building up to continuous spins.

  • Crawl – Place targets low on the ground or under chairs to teach your dog to crawl.

  • Close doors – Train your dog to touch targets placed on doors with their nose to swing them shut.

  • Pick up objects – Hold targets over items you want your dog to grasp with their mouth like a basket for laundry.

  • Jump rope – Have two people hold targets and reward your dog for jumping back and forth over a jump rope.

  • Open fridge – Stick a target on the fridge handle for your dog to grab. Great for service dogs!

  • Ring bell – Affix a target to a bell your dog can nose or paw to make it ring.

The sky's the limit for creative target uses. Anything you can imagine, you can break into small steps using targets to teach your dog. Just focus on one behavior at a time for best results. With regular short training sessions, you'll be amazed at what new tricks your dog will learn!


Target training leverages targets, marker cues like clicks or "yes!", and rewards to communicate clearly with your dog during training. The targets allow you to guide your dog through complex behaviors by breaking them into achievable steps. With creativity and patience, target training can help dogs master an impressive array of fun and useful skills.

The beauty of target training is that it relies entirely on positive reinforcement. There is no need for physical manipulation, corrections, or intimidation. This collaborative approach strengthens the bond between handler and dog. Target training provides mental and physical enrichment for dogs while building their confidence through successes.

Whether your goals are basic manners or advanced tricks, target training gives you the tools to set your dog up for achievement. With a thorough understanding of technique, dedication through daily training sessions, and an emphasis on fun, you'll be amazed at what your dog can learn. So get ready to tap into your dog's potential with the power and precision of target training!

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