We recently looked at how to teach a hand target to our dogs. Let's take a look at just some of the many ways we can use this useful behavior!
1. A way to cheat when calling your dog.
Have you struggled to teach a recall to your dog? Does your dog sort of grasp the concept, but doesn’t come back within reach for you to actually grab them? A hand target can help solve these problems. The hand target gives dogs a nice, clear cue of what to do, rather than the sometimes ambiguous “come back in my vicinity, close enough for me to grab you” that we sometimes struggle to teach. When your dog touches their nose to your palm, you have the perfect opportunity to grab them with your other hand.
A few cautions with hand targets and recalls - make sure you don’t over-use the behavior and make sure your dog is truly comfortable with being grabbed. If you always finish your recall hand targets by grabbing the collar of a dog who doesn’t like to be grabbed, you can “poison” your cue and your dog might start avoiding it, since they associate it with an aversive event. Avoid over-using it to the point that your dog starts to not want to respond to the cue. Just as with good recall training, we should ALWAYS make recalls to a hand target fun and exciting and rewarding if we want them to continue.
2. A way to move your dog around your home.
Maybe you struggle with getting your dog where you need them to be, whether it’s out of the way of the refrigerator door, or off of the bed when you’re trying to make it (or crawl under the covers yourself!). Once your dog has been taught a hand target, you can easily ask your dog to move out of your way in your home by having them target to the place you want them to be.
It’s also extremely helpful for dogs who don’t understand “on” and “off” cues for furniture. Especially if your dog might be protective of the couch or bed, asking them to jump off and come touch your hand can reduce conflict. It’s never a good idea to try and force a growling or otherwise upset dog off of a piece of furniture, because there’s the possibility they’ll escalate their feelings to a bite. Utilizing a hand target takes away the stress of having a human forcibly moving you off of your comfy place! It’s also a way you can invite your dog up to snuggle and get them in a place on the couch that’s comfy for the both of you.
3. An easy way to teach loose leash walking!
If your dog is tall enough to touch your hand while standing (or willing to bounce up to touch your hand) you can use it as an easy guide for loose leash walking! What I love about using the hand target for teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash is that it gives your dog a very specific place to be. In the beginning, you should be asking your dog to touch your hand often to keep them occupied and in place. From there, you should lengthen the time between hand touches.
It’s also a wonderful way to guide your dog past something on your walk. If your dog normally has wonderful loose leash walking behavior, but there’s a distraction coming up that you know will be difficult for them, you can ask them to hand target past the distraction. This is another point where rapid hand targets can help instead of spaced out hand targets.
4. A simple way to occupy your dog during downtime.
Let’s imagine that you ran into a friend that you haven’t seen for awhile when you are out walking your dog. Of course you want to stop and catch up! However, what’s your dog likely to do during this interaction?
If you have a dog who can’t hold a stay in that situation, or a dog that is likely to be overly excited and want to jump on your friend, you can use hand targets to occupy your dog. I often utilize hand targets when I am giving a presentation or talk and my demo dog isn’t fully capable of sitting still for that long while I’m talking.
The best way I’ve found to make use of hand targets in this situation is to have your dog target back and forth between both palms. Your dog gets to keep moving, which is helpful for excited or worried greeters to avoid the building stress that can happen when they are asked to sit still. Tossing them a reward every so often helps too - don’t just continue the behavior too long without a break or reward if your dog might become overly frustrated.
5. A way to prevent jumping.
Dogs jump up on us because they have a desire to be closer to us, and especially to our faces. What if we could change that focus? We can shift their attention downwards, with the use of a hand target!
If you’re trying to prevent jumping on yourself, just ask your dog to touch your hand (lowered at your side) instead when they approach you. You can then use this time to bend over, or ask for an alternate behavior, or even scatter feed. If you are consistent, you can make your hand target an easy alternative and default behavior for your dog to use when greeting you!
If your goal is to prevent jumping on others, you can either instruct other people on how to greet your dog following the approach above, or you can take matters into your own training hands. Sometimes, it’s easiest to just work with your dog instead of trying to teach other people, too! In that case, you’ll want to watch your dog closely to know what behavior they display right before they jump on someone. If you suspect they might jump, just call your dog back to you with a hand target and release them back to greet. This helps take the pressure off of greetings for worried dogs, too, since they are given breaks in the greeting process and a way of leaving the person with minimal conflict.
What ways will you start using hand targets with your own dogs?
This useful behavior is one of the first we usually teach here at MESSY Dog Training. Get a head start with your dog by following along below!
1. Capture the “Touch” behavior.
First, you’ll want to capture this behavior from your dog. Many dogs will naturally gravitate towards our open palms when presented, we just need to catch them and reward them for doing so! I usually keep my fingers together and have my hand turned sideways, to differentiate from “shake,” but you can choose an alternate presentation as long as you’re consistent.
Present your hand to your dog and when they show interest, such as reaching their neck to sniff, you will mark the behavior (with either a “yes!” or a click, if you are using a clicker) and follow with a reward from your other hand. At this point, it doesn’t matter if the dog is truly touching your hand since we want to start with approximations that we can build upon.
Repeat this process until your dog is reliably poking their nose at your hand when it is presented. For dogs who are clicker training savvy, this usually does not take very long. If your dog is new to offering behaviors and training, you might split this into a few sessions until you see significant direction from your dog.
If your dog absolutely doesn’t want anything to do with your hands, even when you’re waving it around and holding it relatively close to their face, you can try luring for 2-3 times. To lure a hand target, put a treat between your fingers (like your index and middle finger) and hold it just pinched between those two fingers. If you are doing this correctly, your hand should have the same open palm look to it that is our goal. Pinch the treat between knuckles on adjacent fingers, rather than holding with your finger tips. After showing your dog the treat and luring it 2-3 times in quick succession, present your hand the same way. Your dog will likely assume the pattern is the same and will look again for the treat. At this point, you want to mark the behavior and throw a little party to show your dog that you love that they continued the fun new game, and that treats will come afterwards, even if they weren’t presently in your hand.
2. Add Your Cue!
Now that are dog is excited about offering the targeting behavior, we want to add our verbal cue to the process as well. This will help us be able to call our dogs away from things or use it in many of the situations described above.
To add the verbal cue, first you need to decide which word you will be using. Touch, target, hand, nose, boop, and palm are some options, but the choice is up to you! One of my favorite aspects of training dogs is that they don’t know our verbal languages, and I can assign whatever word I like to whatever behavior I am training. Using ones that make sense definitely help with our understanding and remembrance of our cues, though!
You will want to say this new verbal cue right before you present your hand. If you start adding the verbal cue at the same time as you present your hand, you risk overshadowing your new cue and your old cue (the presentation of your hand). Dogs rely heavily on body language, so we need to help them realize the verbal cue by stating it separately and before the physical cue of presenting your hand.
The process then looks like: saying “touch!” followed by presenting your hand, followed by the dog touching your hand, followed by you marking the touch and giving a reward. We want to continue to mark and reward at this stage of adding the new verbal cue.
3. Create Fluency in Your Hand Touch.
Finally, we want to create fluency in the hand touch so that the dog learns to touch your hand from anywhere and in many situations. Some ideas to consider practicing include:
Keep practicing with your dog to create a fluent touch that you can take on the road and use to create your well-behaved dog in a variety of situations. What kinds of behaviors can you think of that would be easier with a hand target?
(PSST - we did some of the work for you! Visit this post for ideas on how to use hand targets!)
The "stay" cue is something most of us teach our dogs, and for good reason! It's super useful. Your dog can learn to:
Because it is such a versatile cue for our dogs to learn, it's important that we teach it to the best of our ability to make sure it's as useful as possible. In my years of teaching classes, I've come across 3 common mistakes owners make that can hinder their ability to teach an even better "stay" cue.
1. Repeating the Cue
When we ask for a "stay" we should teach our dogs to stay in that place until we say otherwise. It can be really tempting, however, to keep your hand help up like a stop sign and say "stay....stay....stay..." the entire time. We want our dog to succeed and stay even longer, right? That might feel like the best way to lengthen your stays.
However, think to some of the scenarios mentioned above. Wouldn't it be nice to ask for a "stay" one time, and then answer the door and greet your guests? Practice training *yourself* to say stay a single time, and slowly raise criteria and time as the dog is able, rather than continually saying the cue. This will give you a more useful stay for various life situations in the future.
2. Not Using a Release Word
A release word is critical when teaching your dog to stay. Your release word means "the stay is over now, you can move." Having a clearly defined release word, and only rewarding when your dog remains in place until they hear the release word, will help your dog understand what stay truly means.
Sometimes owners are in the habit of saying "come here!" or just simply clicking and rewarding when their dog is done with their stay. However, we should always train that release word so that your dog can easily be released without a clicker, or if you don't actually need to call your dog but just want to let them explore, or retrieve the ball they've been waiting to fetch! "OK" is a common choice, but we tend to say it often in our daily lives. More unique choices include "break," "free," and "all done!"
3. Always Calling the Dog
Finally, it can be really exciting as you being to add distance to your training to be in the habit of always calling your dog to you. You ask for a stay, walk away, and in the excitement of your dog staying in place, we call our dogs to us, adding in a recall practice at the same time.
While it is important to practice recalls often, in fun situations like this, we want to make it clear to our dogs that stay is not *always* a pattern of:
Happy training! What areas of "stay" do you and your dog struggle with the most? What parts go well?