Many dog owners find it difficult to maintain their dog's attention, particularly when out together on a walk. Considering how often most of us walk our dogs (daily), it can be surprising to many dog owners when their dog's ability to pay attention while on leash gets worse over time rather than better. In this blog I'd like to talk about teaching your dog how to do targetting, a brilliant way of gaining and maintaining your furry friend's attention anywhere - out on a walk, in the backyard, or even in the home, with or without the presence of distractions. It's simpler than you think, and when done correctly will represent a massive change in your dog's ability to pay attention to you in any scenario.
Start with your fist and second fingers of your left hand pressed together into a point. Smear a bit of peanut butter or spreadable cheese on your fingertips, and hold your hand out flat so that your dog can sniff it. Start in a location free of distractions, and place your hand just a few inches from your dog's nose. Once your dog touches your fingertips with his nose, remove the target (your hand) and reward your dog with a treat.
Repeat this approximately fifteen times in quick succession. My bet is your dog touches the target reliably, when placed within a few inches of his face, after ten repeats. Once you have this down pat, change the position of your hand. Remember! Start slow. Move your targetting hand just a foot away from your dog's face. Then two feet. Next, move the target hand far enough away from your dog that he has to step forward to touch it. Continue in this way, being sure to reward your dog at each successful target-touch.
If you find your dog is missing the mark, barking, or just looking at you with a confused gaze, go back to a closer position and repeat the above exercise until he knows exactly what it is you're asking for.
It is important to note at this juncture that you want to reinforce this targetting behavior from your dog, and very strictly avoid bribing your dog to give you the behavior you want. To do this, introduce a variable reward schedule to your targetting training once your dog is responding predictably and reliably to the target. Begin by removing the peanut butter or cheese lure from your fingertips. At this stage, do have a treat ready for delivery to your dog when he successfully touches your hand with his nose (targets). Once he responds quickly and correctly a number of times, increase your distance away from your dog and repeat the exercise.
Remember! If you leave your target hand out for your dog to touch whenever he feels like it, taking his time and blowing you off in the meanwhile, he will continue to do this instead of rapidly and sharply touching the target. The point here being that if you want to train your dog's attention, you will need to work this targetting exercise in such a way that your dog's attention is kept on, well, target!
Make your movements sharper by making your target hand appear and disappear, sort of like doing a karate chop Jackie Chan-style. Once your dog successfully touches it, make the target disappear behind your back while simultaneously giving your dog a treat for the excellent work.
Once your dog knows how to reliably target your hand, you can use this attention-training tool on walks, whenever your dog is noticeably distracted, or as a preventative to avoid becoming distracted altogether (but you do need to be quick and attentive for this one!).
What's more, targetting doesn't need only be done with your hand. While it's an excellent place to begin (since it's directly attached to your body and generally not going anywhere), you can use these same principles to teach your dog to target his favorite toy or ball as well. Finally, targetting is a wonderful way to bond with your dog, to keep him engaged, entertained, and focused on you.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.