When it comes to Service Dog training, all of the hundreds of available tasks can be boiled down to 7 essential behaviors. One of those behaviors, targeting, is an easy foundation behavior every Service Dog should know. By learning how to teach a Service Dog to target, you’ll be able to start task work with a solid base upon which to build.
7 Task Work Foundations
- Harness Work
Targeting forms the basis for a variety of common Service Dog tasks, from opening doors to closing cabinets to helping the human partner in/out of bed to nudging a fallen arm back onto an arm rest to preventing crowding in public. There are too many tasks built upon a foundation of targeting to mention, but any task that requires an Assistance Dog to purposefully utilize part of his body with a nudge, shove or push begins with targeting. Targeting can be done with any part of a dog’s body, but for most Service Dog tasks, targeting with the nose or paw are the most common.
These instructions can be used for nose or paw targeting, and most teams prefer to teach both. When you teach a Service Dog to target, you’ll quickly notice most pups seem to prefer using their nose over the paw or vice versa. Make sure you keep your partner’s preferences in mind while training and offer extra reinforcement when teaching the non-dominant behavior. So, if your Assistance Dog prefers using her nose to hit a button, if you’re teaching her to use her paw to complete a targeting task, make sure you reward her with something super high value.
Pick your targeting cue before you begin training. Switching cues in the middle is confusing. Many people use “push,” “touch,” “hit it,” “button,” or “target” as their cue, but it can be anything. Pick a distinct cue for nose targeting and a distinct cue for paw targeting. We’ll actually use two cues throughout this training process, one for nose-targeting a closed fist and the other for targeting at a distance. Targeting your fist is a super useful behavior for teaching focus, proximity, heeling and position work, which is why we’ll put it on cue separately.
Your partner should be familiar with a clicker or a verbal marker and understand that a treat always follows the click. Ideally, your partner enjoys playing the training game and is willing to hang out with you and puzzle through a new lesson.
Things You’ll Need to Teach a Service Dog to Target
- Pile of High Value Treats (Diced chicken, cheese, hot dogs)
- Blue or yellow sticky notes
Teach a Service Dog to Target: Nudging Your Fist
- Place your Service Dog or Service Dog in Training on a leash if he won’t stay close to you while you’re training.
- Sit or stand with your partner facing you.
- Click and treat for eye contact 2 or 3 times to warm up and gain your Service Dog’s focus.
- Show your partner a treat, then place it in your closed fist. Offer your fist to your Service Dog. Click and treat for nose nudges. Ignore mouthing, teeth contact or anything you consider “rude.” Click only for a clean, firm nuzzle or nudge to your closed fist.
- Click the instant your Service Dog nudges your fist. Open your hand and feed the treat. Repeat several times in a row until your partner happily nudges your fist with his nose and then waits expectantly for the treat.
- Offer your partner a closed fist without a treat in it. When he nose bumps your fist, click and treat. Repeat several times in a row.
- Begin varying the location your fist is in. Move it to the left of your partner, to the right, above your partner, between your legs — anything you can think of. Always click and treat for nose nudges. If your Service Dog suddenly acts like he doesn’t know what’s going on, you need to practice more with your fist closer to him.
- Move to the next phase when your Service Dog will move several feet in any direction to nose bump your empty closed fist.
Teach a Service Dog to Target: Cue Introduction
- Begin saying the word, “Touch” the instant your Service Dog nose bumps your closed fist. Remember to click and treat for successful nose nudges.
- Place your fist close to your partner initially, then begin varying the distance and placement.
- Move to the next phase when your Service Dog will reliably nose bump your closed, empty fist on cue (“Touch”) no matter where you place it.
Teach a Service Dog to Target: Target Introduction
- Dig out your blue or yellow Post-It or sticky notes. Scientific research suggests dogs are able to distinguish blue and yellow easily from other colors, but have limited ability to discern other colors. If your partner will be targeting handicap door buttons for you, consider sticking with blue Post-It notes.
- Stick a Post-It note to the knuckles of your closed fist.
- Offer your fist to your Service Dog and hold your breath.
- Click and give several treats in a row (a jackpot) when your partner happily nose bumps you. If your partner doesn’t nose bump your fist, offer it again and give the cue “Touch.” Click and treat. Repeat a couple of times.
- Continue practicing until your Service Dog readily nose punches the sticky note on your fist. Click and treat only for direct nose contact with the sticky note.
- Move to the next phase when your partner is able to reliably hit the sticky note from any angle regardless of where your fist is positioned.
Teach a Service Dog to Target: Increasing Distance
- Pick a blank wall or sturdy object, like the back of a couch. Place a sticky note on the object.
- Place a second sticky note on your fist, and arrange yourself so your fist, with the sticky note, is positioned directly beside the one you’ve placed on the object. Cue your Service Dog to “Touch” the sticky note on your fist. Click and treat. Repeat a couple times to warm up.
- Remove the stick note from your fist. Move it out of sight.
- Tap the sticky note on the wall with your hand positioned as show in the picture (palm towards the wall, knuckles just above the sticky note). This presentation is similar enough to the sticky note on your fist that your Service Dog will quickly make the connection.
- Encourage your Service Dog to target the sticky note with his nose. Click and treat several times in a row (jackpot) when he nose bumps it. Have a party, dance, whoop it up. Repeat a couple of times.
- Simply tap the sticky note. Click and treat when your Service Dog nose punches it.
- Stand super close to the sticky note looking bored. Don’t give a verbal cue and don’t touch the sticky note. Wait. The second your Service Dog nose nudges the sticky note, have another party. Pass out treats like it’s the last chance you’ll ever have to do so. Repeat a couple of times. Move on when your partner readily touches the sticky note with his nose with no guidance from you.
Teach a Service Dog to Target: Distance Cue
- Introduce whatever cue you’d like to use to mean “Go touch that thing with your nose that isn’t my fist.” We’ll use “Target.”
- Say “Target” every time your Service Dog nose bumps the Post-It note on the wall. Remember to click and treat.
Teach a Service Dog to Target: Distance Targeting
- Cue your partner to target the Post-It note with you standing right next to it a couple of times.
- Take a single step away from the Post-It note, preferably straight back. Cue your partner to “Target.”
- Continue increasing distance one step by tiny step at a time until your partner can reliably be sent to target the Post-It note from a variety of angles, distances and set-ups.
- Begin introducing distractions. Remember, if your partner fails 2-3 times in a row, you’ve increased the distance or the distraction too quickly. Move closer to the Post-It note again and lower the distraction level until your partner can succeed.
Stay tuned for follow-up posts on specific, target-based tasks.