Teaching your dog to target on cue is a very useful tool. At first we teach it as a way to get our dog to redirect her attention when loose leash walking, or as an alternative to “come”, but it is the building block for many exercises. For assistance dogs, “touch” can evolve into turning the lights on or off, bringing specific items to you, pressing the crosswalk button to cross the street, etc. It is also used in most dog sports to, guide your dog away from you, reach contacts in agility, bring Treiballs to you, etc. And many pet parents have used it to teach their dogs to ring a bell to go outside. It is quite easy to teach touch since we are using your dog’s instinct to sniff.
Get ready with a variety of tiny, yummy, treats. Reach your hand out towards your pup to smell. When she reaches your hand with her face, “click” or say “yes” and feed her a treat with your other hand. We are using your dogs instinct to sniff your hand to make her bump it or touch it with her muzzle. Move your hand to the side or move backwards and wait for your dog to touch it again, “click” and treat. Once she is consistently touching it every time you put your hand out, give it a name, you can call it “touch“, “target” or “bump”.
Start making the game harder by moving your hand higher up, down bellow or to the side. The faster the game goes the better, keep it fun and be super quick with your reward. You want your dog reaching out as fast as she can in quick succession to keep her engaged.
Once you can get her to target your hand no matter where it is, grab a long, wooden spoon and have her target that. At fist your dog will probably try to “touch” your hand instead of the spoon. Wait a little with the reward and she will soon try something a bit different to get the “click” and treat. This is called shaping, we are making the dog figure it out on her own, with little steps getting her closer to the final product. First she only had to sniff your hand, then we wanted a more marked contact with the hand, then touching any part of the new object, then we start moving farther away from the hand to the tip of the object.
Some dogs prefer to touch with their paw and that is ok for most cases. Make sure you are consistent with your dog, you should only reward what you actually want. We can ask her to “bump” a hand with her snout and later on ask her to “target” a mat with her paws.
Dogs are very smart and with the right reinforcements we can get them to differentiate between objects and how we want them to engage with said objects. Be patient and think ahead… What is your ultimate goal for this exercise? Will it be paws targeting a contact in agility? A muzzle bump to roll a ball playing Treiball? Maybe you want her to not only reach, but lie down on the mat? Or maybe it will turn into a fun trick like “shake” or “hi five”? You can have many cues for ultimately the same behavior and then use these cues to teach separate exercises.
Short training sessions tend to be more productive and effective so work for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, let your dog relax and then try again in a few hours or the next day. Use very yummy treats when you are teaching something new, once your dog starts to “get it”, you can switch to lower value treats or treat less often. Don’t just quit rewarding or she will loose interest, it has to be gradual with some rewarding surprises thrown in sometimes.
Always remember to be patient with your dog and have fun!