Teaching your dog to run to a target provides a behavior that can be used in training other obedience exercises such as the go-out, the broad jump and even the gloves. It also can be turned into a useful household behavior for those of you who never plan compete with your dog (the "go-to-bed" behavior we teach in puppy kindergarten.) Targeting is indispensable in agility because it allows you to teach correct performance of the contact obstacles, create motivated weave poles, and increase the distance a dog works away from the handler. Targeting is easily learned, and the dogs enjoy it. This is a great exercise to begin during the heat of the summer since the early stages can be taught in the comfort of your air conditioned home! You will need three things for this exercise -- a target, some tasty treats and a dog. You can use just about anything that is flat and easily seen as a target. Two commonly used objects are white washcloths and plastic lids. We use washcloths with beginning agility dogs because they can be seen easily at a distance. They also can be cut into smaller targets as the training progresses. For obedience, I favor plastic lids such as those from yogurt containers or the yellow tops from cans of tennis balls. These types of lids are just the right size to fit into a pants pocket which is useful in the later stages of go-out training, and the yellow lids work well with experienced dogs on the agility contact equipment.
The goal of targeting is to have a dog who can focus straight ahead and run forward in a straight line until given instructions to do something else. This simple behavior can be developed into other more complex responses.
Step 1. Introducing the Target.
Initially, the target will be placed in close proximity to the dog. For agility, I want the dog to look straight down on my command so I start with the target right in front of the dog. This is a good way to begin obedience dogs as well. Sit the dog with the target on the floor by the dog's front toes. You should kneel down or sit on the floor next to the target. Show the dog a piece of food, place the food on the target and let the dog get the food. After a few tries tell the dog to "get it" as you place the food. Repeat this a number of times to build an association between the target and the food.
Step 2. Teaching the dog to focus on the target on command.
Before proceeding, decide what your command for focusing on the target will be. I use the word "look". When I use the command "look", what I want the dog to do is to look at the target. No movement other than that of the head is required. Eventually, with experience, the dog will learn how to adjust focus to the context in which he is working, but for now, the focal point should be very obvious. When the dog has the idea that the target is associated with food, sit quietly by the target but don't put any food on it. Let the dog figure out what behavior will cause food to appear on the target. The behavior you want to reward is the dog looking at the target. A clicker can be useful for marking the behavior. Watch the dog's head. As soon as the head begins to drop, reward the behavior by dropping a treat on the target and telling the dog to "get it". I always use the command "get it" to let the dog know that it is OK to take the treat. Later there will be times when you will give the dog some other command, and the dog does not necessarily get a treat off the target. I like to start preparing for that right from the beginning.
If your dog can't figure out that he needs to look at the target to get the treat at this point, go back to Step 1 for more conditioning. When the dog is offering the looking behavior regularly, introduce your target command as the head begins to drop. Continue with this exercise until you can initiate the focusing behavior on command.
Step 3. Increasing the dog's focusing distance.
When the dog will look at the target on command, you are ready to start increasing the distance between the dog and the target. Put your target loaded with a treat on the floor (concrete or another smooth surface is better than grass at this point.) Position the dog so that he is a few feet from the target. Gently restrain the dog by the collar and give your "look" command. This command does not mean that the dog should move anything but his focus (this is why you are restraining the dog.) Watch the dog carefully. As he focuses on the target, release him with the word that you will eventually use in your go-out exercise along with your "get it" command. I use the word combination "go" and "get it". FOLLOW THE DOG TO THE TARGET. It is important at this stage that you do not let the dog get the treat and then continue searching for more goodies, wonder off or turn and come back to you. You need to meet the dog at the target. As soon as he has eaten his treat, release him with another treat directly from you (this is in preparation for training the turn and sit at the end of the go-out). Slowly, increase the distance between the dog and the target. It is important that as you increase distance, you be very observant of your dog's behavior. If you increase the distance too rapidly, the dog will not learn to adjust his point of focus. Watching the dog's posture and eyes will tell you if he is focusing on the target. Any time you do not get the desired response to the "look" command, decrease the distance. Every time you send the dog, you must follow the dog and end the exercise at the target. A word of caution, you must let the dog focus and move to the target without your guidance. Follow the dog at a distance that will make you arrive at the target as the dog is finishing the treat. In other words, don't run along side the dog to the target.
You need to be able to send the dog at least 50 feet to the target before you are ready to move to the next step in the training process. At this point, the target always should be in plain sight and loaded with a treat. As the dog gains experience, vary the place you do the exercise. Do one and then move the target so the dog must go in a different direction. As you increase the distance, you should separate your "go" and "get it" commands . To send the dog to the target from a distance, give the "look" command (dog restrained if necessary). When the dog is focusing straight ahead on the target, give the "go" command. When the dog has gone about a quarter of the way to the target, begin to follow behind. As the dog approaches the target, give the "get it" command. Meet the dog at the target, give another treat and release with praise.
The dogs find this game great fun since they can win so easily. I often let the dog play this game after working on another exercise that the dog finds difficult. I suggest that you try it even if you don't plan to compete in utility or agility. Next month, I'll discuss how to turn this game into the utility go-out, an exercise easily taught to novice dogs. In an upcoming column, I will also tell you how you can combine this game with a laser pointer for use in agility, obedience and even just an impressive parlor trick.
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Last Modified November 10, 1998