Ask a Trainer: “Why are we teaching our dogs to tap their noses on our hands?”

Our group classes at “I Said Sit!” School for Dogs, often start with a few minutes of practicing “Hand Targeting.” This looks like a simple game in which your dog taps her nose on your hand. While learning how to teach hand targeting is quite simple, we are often asked why we teach it.

If I could only teach a dog to do two things on cue, one of them would be “Wait” and the other would be hand targeting. Here are three general areas where “targeting” can make dog training easier, safer and more fun.

1 Easy movement. Easy positioning. If your dog is tapping her nose on your hand, she is also moving her body to wherever you present your hand. When this is taught with positive reinforcement, the dog will happily scoot over, run or bounce toward your hand. It can be used to get her into and out of the car, or off the couch; to move over just a bit if she’s in the way; to move into heel position while practicing loose leash walking; or to line up with you for whatever angle is needed for trick training or photography. I especially love to use it as an alternative to “come when called” for the humans who have ruined their “Come” cue by either over using it or pairing it with something boring or punishing.

2 Give your dog a job. This is especially helpful when helping him to overcome fear, reactivity or to break out of an unwanted behavior pattern. This is similar to giving a human a crossword puzzle, or cell phone, in the waiting room of a dentist office. It focuses us on something easy, rather than allowing us to multiply fear in our minds. Puppies and under-socialized adult dogs are more apt to explore the unknown if it is paired in baby steps with the simple job of hand targeting. A puppy might be afraid of traffic at 20 feet away, but perhaps won’t be afraid of hand targeting at 35 feet away. Get him excited about this “job” and gradually move closer to the traffic

Fun jobs help form new, positive associations. Here’s another human example: I love skateboarding, but I can’t stand even the background noise of that show, “The Real Housewives of Orange County”. However, if I were given the “job” of skateboarding at a reasonable distance from the television where my wife is watching that horrible show, I’d gradually become desensitized to it, and might even come to associate it with fun times.

3 Use it as a “sorbet” for the animal mind, or to build up excitement. If I have been training a dog to do something challenging, or something that requires lots of self-control (like “Stay”, for example), a few rounds of hand targeting can be a dynamic, much needed break. It can cleanse the mental pallet, like sorbet. Similarly, if your dog needs to build up some enthusiasm before moving into a challenging task, hand targeting can provide that boost. I often use hand targeting between rounds of teaching new tricks.

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