Nose Target. No thanks
Did I teach this 20 years ago? Oh yes.
Do I teach it now? Nope.
Advancing our skills, knowledge and understanding is about learning more, adding depth and changing what we do and what we teach. Advanced training is rarely about increase complexity but exploring the complexities that are within simple behaviours.
Nose target is permanently off my “would teach” list
Nose targeting where the dog presses, or bumps, their nose to the palm of the open hand or fingers is a commonly taught, regularly employed activity.
It is used to bring the dog close to hand contact, teach nose-first behaviours and husbandry. Its history goes back to the earliest days of clicker training as an example of targeting, with an easy-to-teach attraction.
I suspect it evolved from the exotic and marine mammal training, especially with sea lions – I am in awe of their exquisite neck muscles to achieve the balance point.
I am sure this is a familiar sight, along with games where the ball is thrown at the animal who nose-butts it back again. I have visited collections where the animals are regularly introduced to guests. The safety protocol to keep teeth away from guest was the long duration nose target.
The structure of the sea lions’ nose and a dog’s nose is different. Dogs cannot close their nostrils and often take considerable effort to protect this delicate and important organ from damage.
When a dog is burying a bone, the soil is pushed with the top or bridge of the nose. Not directly against the nostrils.
When I see one of the dogs playfully poke another dog with their nose, it is the lips covering the teeth that engage in the effort, not the nostrils.
For whose benefit?
We cannot excuse the process with “he doesn’t seem to mind” where the potential treat on offer and the training history outweigh any discomfort. Dogs, men and small children can all be manipulated to engage in stupidity for a short-term rewards without awareness of the long-term consequences.
Boxers (as a sport not a breed of dog), get their faces punched on a regular basis and I suppose the short-term consequences support the “he doesn’t mind” reasoning, without the acknowledgement of the long-term effects. But I would mind. I have experienced the uprising dog as I bent over and I know it is super painful.
There is a fashion to teach the heads-up heelwork with this nose contact to hand for extensive duration. Apart from it presenting an uncomfortable, nose squishing learning process it ONLY positions the head of the dog.
The trainer rarely sees that it does not allow for natural free movement and balance.
I regularly see:
~ compromised action (when the hand is too high and the dog’s front legs are flailing) or
~ compressed vertebrae around the neck and upper back (when the hand is too low),
~ and the greater extreme where there is limited flexibility in the spine, a dog walking in a half sitting position.
Target training is an exquisite process used to build accurate, detailed, complex or simple behaviours to every animal, but it also needs thoughtfulness and skill to engage safely.
Many protocols or methods are now coming under the “I only train with positive reinforcement” label, but there is a gradual inclusion of the knowledge being used to manipulate dogs into behaviours that are not for their individual benefit but purely to serve the desires of the person.
Training for dog-sports has often included a high cost to the animal, and we can now include Cool Dog Trick Videos as the new sport that compromises animal welfare. The dogs most easily manipulated? Colloquially labelled as “high drive”.
Targets are REALLY cool
Learning how to teach and use targets as straight forward, unambiguous cues for the dog is at the centre of thoughtful training.
There is a rich range of uses where we can bring awareness to the dog of their own body, through isolation or immobility or enhanced movement.
A location, usually in association with an object where the whole body is held stationary, or “on station”. I use platforms.
Training a specific part to hold position whilst another part of the dog is trained to a different target or movement. This is perfect for developing proprioception skills, self-awareness, physical rehabilitation.
Husbandry with chin rests
This enables a maintained stillness of the head, with a free hand for treatment. It can be transferred to an object, such as a mouse mat, which can be placed on a chair, or a person’s leg, floor when lying down etc.
We can teach a visual target so that the dog learns to follow and move freely without nose-squishing.
Targets are one of the most versatile ways of communicating, from mice to giraffe. Learning good target teaching skills is at the very core of thoughtful training.