Want a smarter dog? Try target training

An easy way to add to your German Shepherd’s repertoire of tricks or commands is to teach her how to target objects.

Targeting (or “target training”) means your dog pays attention to, and then performs an action based on, a particular stimulus (usually an object such as your hand, or a target stick). A dog putting his paw on an object on command, or bumping your hand with his nose upon request, is targeting. Targeting is a super-quick behavior to teach and has a variety of uses.

“Go to your mat” is one handy result of target training. We first teach the dog to “target” his mat, add the cue “Go to your mat,” and then place in a location of our choosing. Agility trainers use targeting quite often to teach their dogs not to skip contact zones while climbing or dismounting obstacles. Service dog trainers use targeting to teach German Shepherds to open doors, turn lights on and off, and more. Target training is useful in the show ring to teach dogs how to gait and stack.

Teaching hand targeting

Targeting your hand is an easy behavior for most dogs to learn. Follow the steps below to get started. You’ll need a clicker, a bunch of small, tasty, easy-to-swallow treats, and a leash (if your dogs needs a reason to stick around).

  1. Remember to always offer your dog a reward after you click, even if you have made an error.
  2. Offer your dog your hand, palm facing the tip of her nose (you can hold your hand in whatever position is most comfortable). Most dogs will sniff or lick your hand out of curiosity. As soon as she touches your hand, click and offer a treat. If your dog does not attempt to touch your hand, put it behind your back for a second or two, then try again. If your dog is having trouble finding your palm, hold it closer to her face. Click only when she reaches and touches your palm with her nose.
  3. Timing is everything! Be sure you are clicking as the dog’s nose touches your hand, not after. Otherwise, she won’t understand which behavior is earning a treat.
  4. Add the word “touch” or “target” just as your dog touches your hand. As your dog becomes more fluent, begin asking your dog to touch your palm, using the command.
  5. Raise and lower the target hand so that your dog has to take several steps to reach it. Have you moved it closer and closer to the ground, and up high so she has to stand up on her hind legs to reach it? Have you moved across the floor and had her follow you, nose to the target, as if her nose was magnetized?
  6. Begin asking your German Shepherd to target other objects with her nose, such as small container lids, pieces of cloth, the end of a stick, etc. You can also vary the length of time the dog must keep her nose on your hand or target object before she gets her click and treat.

Of course, you can teach your dog to target any number of objects, whether portable or not. The most portable object I ever used to teach target training was a sticker, which could then be placed anywhere, including unmovable places like walls!

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