What do you do when you need to move a six-ton killer whale from one tank to another? Or a 1000-pound polar bear from its outside enclosure to its indoor enclosure? What if your horse won’t get into its travel trailer? You can’t just pick these animals up or give them a yank on the leash. While there have been all sorts of creative attempts at solving these problems, one simple behaviour solves all of them —and you can teach it to your own dog in one day.
“Targeting” is a most useful skill to teach any animal. The job is for the animal to touch her nose to an object you identify as a “target.” With a bit of work, the animal learns to go from turning her head to touch the target to walking from one enclosure to another, or swimming from one tank to another to touch the target. Trainers working in zoos and with large animals in other preserves have used this technique to great advantage — and it’s just the beginning! Used creatively, targeting can be an easy stepping stone to teaching your dog all kinds of complex behaviours.
We (my wife Petra and I) teach targeting with reinforcement; that is, we reward the dogs for touching the target, usually with a food treat. I begin by offering a fist close to the dog’s nose; so close, in fact, that she may even hit it by accident. When she does this successfully, I mark the touch (usually with a click from a clicker or an evenly spoken “Yes”), then I immediately pay her for touching my fist. After three or four touches like this, a dog will usually get the idea.
Once your dog is reliably reaching over to touch your fist, it’s time to up the ante a bit. Hold your fist a few inches away so that your dog has to stretch a bit to reach your fist and touch it. Again, mark and immediately reward the success. The process continues as you increase the challenge incrementally, moving the target slightly farther away or to either side.
It’s best to think of this as a game, like “Charades”, where you’re helping your dog find out what behaviour is getting the reward. Like any game, it has to be easy enough to win while still providing a challenge. After all, if you can’t win and get the treat, why play? If the challenge gets too hard too quickly, it’s confusing and hard to keep winning. If your dog doesn’t want to play anymore, there’s not more learning.
Some Training Rules of Thumb
Before you get too far down the line with what you’re teaching, let’s talk a little about how you’re teaching it. In training, we always say that, “motivation is job #1″. If you can’t keep your dog interested and eager to work with you, your job is much harder, if not impossible. So we try to balance success with the increasing challenge with our “70% Rule”, my dog has to be successful at what I’m asking for seven out of 10 tries. If you’re into statistics, you would notice that my dog is being successful and getting the treat twice as often as she is failing. Those are some pretty good odds — I’d want to keep playing!
Keeping track of something like 70% success or seven out of 10 tries takes a little work, but it’s important to keep the dog “in the game” so to speak. To help with this, we created our training“Rule of 3″ that says, “The dog MUST be successful on the third try. So if my dog has failed to touch my fist for two tries in a row, I need to make it easier to be successful so that she hits it on the third try without fail and gets rewarded. Too much frustration all at once can turn your dog off of the training game quickly. The Rule of 3 helps you remember to keep your dog working with by guaranteeing her success.
Since I’m trying to work toward my dog touching the target from greater and greater distances, I need to keep increasing the challenge by repositioning my fist. Each time I increase the difficulty, the chances of my dog failing go up. The greater the increase in difficulty, the greater the risk of failure. This is where the “Goldilocks Rule” comes in. I have to keep challenging my dog in order to keep her moving toward the goal, but I can’t ask for so much that her failure rate becomes too high. So, like Goldilocks in the fairytale, I need to find out what’s too much, what’s too little, and what’s just right in terms of challenge.
As I try to push for greater distance, my girl may start to be confused or fail too much, or she could easily be pecking away at my hand so much that she might get bored of filled up with treats — too easy! Ideally I move my fist out a few inches and she misses a couple of times; I move my fist closer, she succeeds and I move it out again. I’m coaxing her along to try a little harder without making it impossible to succeed.
Helping or Not?
One of the most interesting rule sof our traning approach is the “Helping is not always helping” rule. Remember, this is like a game of “Charades” for the dog, so my dog is paying attention to everything that’s happening, hoping to figure out which behaviour is earning the treat. Every time I move or talk, it could be a clue to the mystery. So my little words of encouragement, such as “that’s right honey!”, may actually distract my dog from the actual solution — to touch the fist with her nose. She shouldn’t have to ignore the chittering monkey that I might become.
The same is true of any movements. Waving my hands around or even repositioning my body while we’re working could be a distraction that just makes my job harder. The advice here is that a quiet trainer is a good trainer by keeping any distractions to a minimum.
Have you noticed that I haven’t said anything about telling my dog when she’s not got it right? There’s a simple reason for that; she already knows! How does she know she hasn’t got it right? She hasn’t gotten paid. So there’s no reason for me to add to her frustration with unnecessary talk or movement. I simply make the exercise a little easier and let her succeed. Then she wins, she gets paid, and there is general happiness.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Another important element in how we train our dogs is that old showbiz adage, “Always leave them wanting more.” Not everything has to be learned all at once, so we try to keep our training sessions short — only a few minutes at a time — and we always try to end with the dog being successful.
When our dog Rizzo was a puppy, he would only work two or three minutes at a time with Petra. At eight or nine weeks old, he thought training time was the coolest thing ever! Playing with mom and getting all those treats was fun.
Petra would always end the session before Rizzo tired of the work. In that way, he couldn’t wait for the next training session — and it worked. Petra would work with him four or five times a day in short sessions, perhaps for a total of 10-15 minutes in a day. It wasn’t stressful for her since the short sessions could happen when she had a spare moment. They each felt training sessions were like spontaneous little parties with some learning involved — and always leave the party while your still having fun.
With older or more experienced dogs, you could work a bit longer, perhaps five or 10 minutes per session. The key thing is to keep their frustration low and their success high. Make it easy for them to look forward to training time.
So you can get your dog to touch your fist with her nose, big deal. What use is a skill like this? You might be surprised. Let me start by telling you about a horse that had been sold and the owners couldn’t get the horse to go into the trailer for transport, not for for love or money. It was just too terrified. After days of frustration, they called in a clicker trainer who solved the problem in a single afternoon. After all the pushing and yanking and frustration the horse owners had endured, this clicker got their horse to walk, willingly, onto that trailer in just a few hours. How you might ask? The horse didn’t “walk into the trailer”, it moved forward to touch a target with its nose, just at it had been taught. It just so happened that the target was being held at the back of the trailer!
Once your dog understands how to target your fist with his nose, you can transfer that skill to other objects. Do you have trouble getting your dog to stand still for brushing? Teach her to target a sticky note, and stick one on the wall. While you’re brushing her, ask her poke the sticky note and pay her with a treat. Trust me, she won’t go far from that sticky note, and you’ll get your brushing done without the fuss.
There are other training applications too. Need to teach your dog to go under your leg? Hold her target there. How about teaching heel? Hold the target at your waist. Nose targeting is such a useful skill for our dogs that I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather train first. It opens up so many possibilities.
Perhaps most importantly, targetting quickly and easily teaches dogs that they have an effect on her world. It shows them that they can make the marker happen with their actions, and they get rewarded for their efforts. That’s a very empowering thing. It teaches them to watch us and cooperate with what we’re asking for.
Frankly, I can’t think of a better “life skill” to teach my dogs, no matter what age they happen to be. I hope you’ll give target training a try with your own dogs, and I’d love to hear how your training goes. It would also be great to hear your stories of the creative ways you’ve used “target” in your own training!
Happy training and, until next time, have fun with your dog!
Photo and Video Credits
Rhino Nose Targeting – CMZooTube 2007 from YouTube – Video
Nose – Normanack 2010 flickr
Touch – C Jill Reed 2008 flickr
Horse Trailer Target – Ksturg8929 2007 from YouTube – Video
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