Teaching new skills using targeting

Targeting is a great way to teach a horse or a dog (or a goldfish!) new skills or tricks. The animal learns to follow a hand, a stick, or any other sort of object where ever the object might lead. (For the horses, I usually use an empty plastic water bottle duct taped on the end of a wooden dowel.) Since the animal learns to follow the target, she learns exactly where to go and exactly what she should be doing. At the same time, the animal has to be aware of the trainer’s cues and body language.

What can you teach with targeting? Many dog agility trainers rely on targeting to teach most of the agility obstacles. You can use a target to direct a dog over a jump, onto a see-saw or table, through a set of weave poles or over most other agility obstacles. For horses, you can use a target to introduce a horse to head lowering, trailer loading, leading, flexion, steering, ground patterns/obstacles and even bridleless riding. Targeting is also a fairly easy first task to teach when introducing an animal to clicker training.

Targeting and clicker training  are low-stress ways of teaching. There’s no force or make involved, especially if the animal is not on a leash or leadrope. The animal is participating entirely because it is interested and willing.  This is incredibly beneficial, because since the animal has a choice whether or not to participate, it’s easier to tell when the animal becomes anxious, stressed, or worried, in which case the trainer needs to slow down or go back to an easier task. Also, if the animal becomes distracted and bored, it’s easy to tell that it’s time to move on to a different task!

When targeting is used effectively, the animal participates purely because she wants to do the behavior, not because she fears or dreads the consequences if she does not comply. Of course, the target is merely a bridge used in teaching, it is ususally not part of the final behavior. Once the animal understands the task, you can add a cue to the behavior (often a verbal cue or a hand signal) and gradually use the target less and less, until eventually, it does not have to be used at all.

Here are a few videos to see targeting in action:
Shaping a dog to stick her head in a flower pot
Using targeting to teach a horse figure-eights
A fish learns to follow a target stick around his tank and through a hoop
Teaching my dog to follow my hand or a target stick
Teaching a dog to target her shoulder to the trainer’s hand
Using targeting to teach manners to a young horse

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