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Using “Targets” To Help Puppies Learn

Teaching animals to touch or follow a target is a very useful tool to teach and reinforce desired behaviors.

First, we teach the dog to touch its nose to or follow the target to obtain a food reward. Food is the primary reward. The dog soon learns to associate the target with the food and its nose will soon follow wherever the target goes. And as we all know, wherever the nose goes, the rest of the body follows. Targets are often wands or pointers that can be used quickly and easily to teach a dog to sit, lie down, come, open a door, flip a light switch, ring a bell or pick up an object.

We recommend using a hand, with fingers closed, to hold a piece of food, as a target to teach a dog to come, sit and down or any desired behavior because we always have the closed hand with us. The closed hand makes an excellent target. It has the added advantage of always being with us and ready to be put to use as an inviting target for the dog.

We establish the new behavior by opening the hand to give food every time the dog responds.

Then we maintain the learned behavior at a high level of response by opening the hand to give food on a variable ratio schedule, which means intermittently and unpredictably like a slot machine.

The closed hand is very useful as the target because it hides the presence or absence of the food reward so the dog cannot know if it will be rewarded at any given response.

Use targeting to quickly and easily teach and maintain desired behaviors.

A closed hand with food inside quickly becomes an easy-to-use and highly motivational target.

Sit

Keeping the target (your closed hand with the “million dollar food reward”) about ½ inch from the puppy’s nose, slowly lift your target hand up and back towards puppy’s rear as puppy’s nose follows. By keeping your target hand right at puppy’s nose, his nose points up to the ceiling and his rear end goes down to the floor. Immediately reward with treat, soft praise and petting.

If puppy jumps and the target hand, your hand is too high and needs to be lowered. If your puppy wants to back up during this exercise, place your hand several inches behind his rear legs. With your target hand right at puppy’s nose, slowly lift your target hand up and back towards puppy’s rear as puppy’s nose follows. As he backs up, he’ll stop when he bumps into your hand. By keeping your target hand right at puppy’s nose, his nose points up to the ceiling and his rear end hits the floor. Immediately reward with treat, soft praise and petting while the puppy is in the sit position.

Let puppy know the exercise is over by saying a “release word”. Some examples include “thank you”, “all done”, “relax”, good job”, etc. Avoid using a word or phrase that is commonly used by family members throughout the day, such as “okay”, “good puppy”, etc. To increase the length of sit, delay the reward and release word for a few seconds. Gradually increase the length of time between the sit, reward and release word.

Stand

Target your puppy into a sit. With your target hand right at puppy’s nose, bring your target hand forward away from puppy at puppy’s nose level. Move your target hand slowly so that puppy’s nose is only ½ inch from the target hand. Remember, if puppy jumps at the target hand, you’ve got it too high and need to lower it. As puppy follows the target hand, he’ll move into a stand position. Immediately reward with treat praise and petting while puppy is in the stand position. Use your release word for a few seconds. Gradually increase the length of time between the stand and release word.

Down

Target your puppy into a sit. Keeping the target about ½ inch from puppy’s nose, move the target slowly toward the floor keeping close to puppy’s chest and front legs. Go slowly enough to make sure the puppy’s nose follows the target toward the floor.

Then whichever method works best for you and the puppy to achieve a down position, either:

Continue moving the target slowly forward along the floor, with puppy’s nose and front feet following at ½ inch until puppy is lying on his chest and abdomen on the floor. Continue moving the target directing puppy’s nose away from your body and around towards puppy’s hip. Praise puppy in a soft, high tone of voice as puppy rolls over on his underside hip (putting puppy’s body in a “C” position) with puppy’s rear legs pointing away from your body. Puppy’s rear legs are no longer ready to spring up or kick off your body and puppy is comfortable.

or…

Continue moving the target slowly directing puppy’s nose away from your body and around towards puppy’s hip. Praise puppy in a soft, high tone of voice as puppy rolls over on his underside hip (putting puppy’s putting puppy’s body in a “C” position) with puppy’s rear legs pointing away from your body. Puppy’s rear legs are no longer ready to spring up or kick off your body and puppy is comfortable.

Immediately reward with treat, praise and petting. Use your release word to let puppy know the down exercise is over. To increase the length of the down, delay the reward and release word for a few seconds. Gradually increase the length of time between the down and release word.

While we realize many of you have already started training your puppy using command words, we ask that you and puppy focus on using target hand this week. We’ll introduce the correct timing of command words next week. Please do use your release word.