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Target - Fear - By Jules Nye, CPDT, ABC Mentor Trainer, & Owner of Sit Stay & Play Inc.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010 : 12:19:55 PM
Updated Thursday, August 18, 2011 : 10:06:33 AM
Target training is one of those essential behaviors all dogs should know. By teaching a dog to touch his nose to your hand you have a clear behavior you can use for many things, like a recall. If a dog understands “touch my nose to handler's hand” the dog will have to come to you to touch your hand. It's not like you'll get the dog's nose without the rest of the animal, hence, an easily understandable recall. You can also teach a dog to target with his paw or to touch an object such as a target stick.
Training a dog to target is quite easy, especially when you use a clicker. Offer your hand so it is vertical, flat, palm facing the dog, fingers pointing to the floor, at neck level about six inches away. Most dogs will sniff your hand or investigate the possibility of a treat. When the dog engages with your hand, click & treat. Ideally, the microsecond you feel the dog's nose is what you want to mark as the correct behavior because you're teaching the dog to physically contact your hand. Crisp timing is important to capture this as dogs will be quick to touch and quickly pull away. (And you don't want to mark the dog pulling away from your hand.) After a few minutes, don't be surprised if your dog is excitedly targeting your hand. Teach a verbal cue like target or touch. And remember to say the cue first as a predictor of the behavior to happen. Sooner than later your dog will hear “target” and willingly look for your hand to touch. With this behavior taught with positive reinforcement, now you can use the target cue as a reinforcer in situations in which the dog is unsure. Plus you can direct the dog to target your hand either near or far from the questionable stimulus, giving you lots of power to manage the situation. By presenting something that guarantees pleasant consequences, it makes entering an uncomfortable situation easier. Because by adding a known cue taught with positive reinforcement, the history of receiving a reward can trump the dog's fear. This of course, only works under threshold.
I wouldn't think it fair to ask a noise sensitive dog to target the running vacuum cleaner. That's ludicrous. But bringing a dog into the same room on the opposite side, with the vacuum turned off and laying on the floor sideways would probably work. Then slowly over time, target the dog closer and closer using a ping-pong methodology (randomizing the distance: 2 feet, then 6 feet, then 4 feet, then 3 feet, etc) to the vacuum. Once the dog is fairly close to the vacuum and comfortable, relax the criteria (in this case, distance) and stand it up, turn it on, etc. I would advise against turning the vacuum on once the dog gets right up to it. That's learning how to drive successfully in a parking lot and then forced onto the main interstate during rush hour in a rain storm. Increasing criteria too fast will make it too difficult and the dog will fail. Never underestimate the power of fear and the ability it has to trump.
In the beginning, I never cue the target behavior. I present a known target item like my hand or a target stick, and see what the dog does. Why? Because you need to be able to gauge the dog's willingness to perform around something that scares him. I can not caution you enough that training is a science, an art, and loads of common sense. And even though we humans are supposed to be the smarter of the two species, we can do some really dumb things to see just how far we can push our dogs. Which in turn always bites us in the rear and back slides our training plan? Being realistic with your criteria to obtain your training goals is key with any behavior modification plan. Just because a dog loves to target doesn't mean he will in all situations. And just because a dog complies with a cue doesn't mean he is enjoying himself. I see this a lot with “down.” For whatever reason, people think just because a dog is performing a down, means he's relaxed. Not so. And there's a huge difference between tolerance and enjoyment. Know that difference.
Set your dog up to succeed under threshold. You will see over time the fear will subside around that particular stimulus, in this case the vacuum, because of the reinforcement history around it. The dog's focus will shift from cautiously watching the scary stimulus to wondering if there is something to target so they can get a reward. Lots of reinforcement at a “safe” distance practiced over time will start the counter conditioning process to change the underlying emotional response to seeing the stimulus.
Another way to use targeting to help overcome fear is when socializing a puppy. Encourage the puppy to investigate new things with targeting. It can be the bridge shy puppies crave so they learn how to interact with the world. Other uses in which targeting can help reduce fear are: navigating through a stressful environment, passing something unpleasant, and redirecting a dog's focus.
Think outside the box the next time you're problem solving. Target training could potentially help with your training plan to achieve your desired behavior goals. Remember, most dogs find it less stressful for them to approach the stimulus rather than the stimulus approaching them. Pave the road to success with reinforcement for your dog. If targeting pays well, it's a job your dog will gladly accept.