3 min read

May this should be titled “Why would you teach without a target?”

Targets and targeting are a concept and core understanding that our training revolves around.

The clicker revolution was the dawn of target training for dog trainers. It introduced a new understanding of communicating to our learners. Dog trainers are able to enjoy the luxury of full time contact with their learners. Past methods encouraged lots of physical prompting to train the desired behaviours. Touching with hands to encourage responses: sit, down or pressure through the collar to move a dog to a location: a bed, a crate; or treats to lure to a position: heel at your side, sit in front, jump in the car.

These methods did not encourage a broader view that exotic animal trainers require where direct contact is not available. “Contactless” teaching gave birth to a much broader application of the technology where trainers could not actually move the dolphin, or lion, with physical pressure.

Lion training anyone?

These creative trainers employed targets: as a language of cues, as a language of points of contact, of actions and of locations. Learners acquire the targets within their own range of behaviours allowing for greater potential and less fallout.

The dog trainers were slow in learning these skills and still today many of the traditional ways of training dogs are heavily reliant of feeling safe (or should we think “person is bigger” mindset), intrusive physical contact at any time with or without permission, and luring to achieve outcomes. If, as trainers, we had needed to learn our skills on animals with Big Teeth that could take your hand off, I am sure luring would feature less as well.

As dog trainers with free access to physical contact, manipulation and luring why would we benefit from learning to teach and use targets? Targets are a concept bring a whole new dynamic and creative understanding.

From the learners’ aspect the objects we use as targets are much easier to understand, they are rarely ambiguous if taught cleanly and uniquely. A dumbbell or dummy is a mouth target that is carried. A cup on a stick is a follow target that is not a mouth target. A tub is a target we stand or, turn it upside down and we stand on it.

With thoughtful planning there is only one response to the presentation of the target, one action, one successful result. A platform is a place to go, to stand and wait for further instruction. A mat is a place to go and lie down and wait. A crate is a place to go for sleeping.

By building a target repertoire we can build sentences of exquisite complexity. We can teach a foot target with a specific foot – one target for the left front, one for the right front. Each target can then have an additional information of how to use that foot :

~ place it here to rest (and your nails will be polished and buffed)

~ place it here to push (and the door will open and give you access to the sofa)

~ raise it this way to say hello

~ raise it this way to ask for help

Compound complexity

We can then combine this with a location target, such as platform or stool or examination table.

We can then add additional positioning cues that give information on how to present the rest of your body.

Go to the table,
adopt a sitting position
and place your front left paw
on this object.

Each target-cue-action is taught as an individual process and then it can be combined in other combinations.

Trainers can learn how to communicate with clarity and build strong, clean responses. We can teach different types of delicate movements or power contained jumps.

Agility equipment is jump, climb targets that tell the dog what to do and how to do it.

Retrieve is carry-target that combined with take-from and go-to, can be used to teach refined cup-stacking, collecting and delivering assistance equipment.

Heeling is a dance with visual and contact-target points where the partners can move in time and be synchronised with their actions.

Freestyle can tell a dramatic story with the location-targets combining physical actions, from carrying the poisoned apple to Snow White, to assuming death and drama Game of Thrones.

Search dogs can scent-target dangerous threats to lost climbers, to missing phones and hidden car keys.

Carers can teach relaxed stationing-target for veterinary procedures to grooming and massage.

Start afresh

If the trainer screws it up and confuses the learner – change the object, throw it away and find another object. But if the trainer screws up contact or touch, it becomes pretty hard to undo that negative association.

Targets are, by essence, pro-active openers. They are not used to associate something to keep away from, but something to seek and respond to. Targets are gateways to rewards and are greeted with enthusiasm and confidence.

Targets are often a lifetime of language or they can be a temporary step to a future cue. What they should always be is thoughtful, pro-active and for the welfare of the learner.


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