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What Is Dog Target Training & How Do You Do It?

6 min read
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Dog target training may not be something that you’ve thought about when thinking about training your dog, but there are some great benefits to adding this to your dog’s training repertoire. 

It is the starting point for all kinds of cool tricks – and it also has some really useful applications for improving behaviours such as walking on a loose lead, recall, and focus. It can also give your dog something easy to do to distract them from other things that may be going on around them.

Target stick dog training is a great technique to teach your dog, but what exactly is it and how do you begin to train your dog with this method? In this article, we explore all the questions you may have about target training and the benefits.


What is dog target training?

Target training takes in a wide range of behaviours where you teach your dog to react to objects in a certain way. Most commonly, target training is about your dog touching their nose to an item you place in their environment. 

This could be your hand, a ball on the end of a stick, a plastic lid taped to a wall or a door – and this object could be close to them or at a distance.

Once your dog becomes an expert at this, you can introduce other objects and other ways of behaving. This could be ‘go to a mat and lie down on it’ – or it could be ‘putyour paw on something’, or ‘rest your chin on something’. Suddenly you have a whole range of new behaviours you can teach your dog to deepen your relationship and have more fun together.

You can see why dog target training is so popular: it gives you the skills to teach your dog new things and gets them to use their brain and concentration skills. It can build confidence as you can teach them to go away from you to touch an object and so be happy working further away from you. It can also be very useful if you want to train them to close doors, tidy up their toys or shut the refrigerator! 

Target training – specifically getting a dog to touch your hand with their nose – can be one of the very best ways of giving a dog who is worried about touch or doesn’t know that your hands are a good thing, a way to discover that your hand is safe and rewarding. You are training them that they are in control of how they approach and touch your hand, and that instigating that contact is rewarding. Dogs who have come from an uncertain background or who are new rescues, have no idea that you are a safe person or that touch from you is a good thing. This is a great way to teach them that and build their confidence and your relationship.


How do you start target training?

To start target training, all you need is some really tasty treats that you know your dog loves. If you use a clicker for your training, this is an easy exercise to clicker train but if not, have a marker word that you will always use to reward your dog and to signal “well done, a treat is on its way”. It doesn’t matter what word you choose, as long as it is one you can say in an upbeat enthusiastic way! If your dog is nervous or worried, a clicker can sometimes just be too loud, and a word is better. If your dog is more confident or already clicker-wise, then it is entirely your preference. 

  1. Start off in an area with no distractions that your dog knows and is comfortable in – and that is safe and enclosed. 
  2. Have your dog treats ready and at hand (either in a pouch or an easily accessible pocket)
  3. If it is safe to do so, you can kneel on the floor, or else sit on the edge of a chair. If you have a large dog, you can do it standing. To start with, you don’t want your dog to have to either stretch up or down to be able to touch your hand (and you don’t want to have to lean over them). 
  4. Use your dog’s name to get their attention, and then hold your hand out flat, palm towards them. 
  5. Most dogs will immediately investigate something new in their environment and their natural instinct is to use their nose to do that – so you can expect your dog to come and have a sniff of your hand.
  6. The moment they do, say your reward word and drop a treat on the floor from your other hand.
  7. When they’ve finished the treat, repeat. 
  8. Soon your dog will realise that touching your hand is what is earning them the treat.
  9.  When you know they will do this every time you hold out your hand, you can add the cue word as they touch it (“touch” is a good one!).

Once your dog is reliably doing this, you can start to move your hand around so they follow it for a few steps before you let them touch it and get their treat. You can start to do this with either hand, when you are moving, or even at different heights.

You can start to do this in lots of different places and at lots of different times.

What is target stick dog training?

A target training stick is a special stick with a handle for you at one end and an object on the end -usually a brightly coloured ball, (often yellow as it is a colour that dogs see easily).  Most target sticks are extending – so you can have them short and close to you or stretch them out further.

You can buy these online or at most larger pet stores that stock training equipment. If you are using a clicker for training, you can even find ones that have a clicker in the handle – which makes holding everything in your hand easier!

You can also make your own target stick if you do not want to buy one. Simply attach a safe, easy-to-see object to the end of a stick, such as a tennis ball or a stuffed sock (a better choice if your dog is ball-obsessed!). Make sure the object is firmly attached though and does not fall off!  This, however, won’t have a clicker – and also won’t extend so it’s not ideal but is a more budget-friendly option.

Start training this exactly the same way as you taught your dog to touch your hand. Prepare as before, hold the stick close to the object you want your dog to touch and introduce it to them – holding it 30cm(ish) from your dog’s nose. When they investigate it with their nose, say your reward word (or click) and drop a treat.  

Be quick with the treat as you need to reward your dog for touching it, and not grabbing it! 

Once they get the hang of this, you can slowly extend the stick – and move it around.

This means that you can use a target stick to train tricks such as spins and twists, and even walk close beside you (this can be great for small dogs as it saves your back and also means you aren’t bending over them). 

As your dog gains confidence, you can get target sticks that have a base. You can place these at a distance, send your dog to touch them, give your reward word the moment they do, and then drop a treat on the floor beside you so they come back to get their reward. This is a great way to teach confidence and also focus on you. This is a fun, active exercise that improves your dog’s recall too as they learn that coming back to you is rewarding! 

Target stick training with other targets

Using the same method, you can teach your dog to touch something like those plastic covers you can buy to put on the top of open tin cans. Once they can do that, you can tape it onto doors – and then train your dog to shut doors. Start by rewarding every touch, then only touches that are hard enough to move the door.

8 Benefits of dog target training

This kind of dog training can be so beneficial for your canine companion. Here, we outline five benefits you can expect from target stick dog training.

It builds confidence

Target training can teach your dog that your hands are great things (one of the best ways to build a trusting relationship) and also that they can get rewards by moving away from you, 

It gives you a starting point for other training and tricks

Target training gives you a way to start new exercises and tricks without having to always lure your dog with food. 

It can be a great distraction

Often if your dog loses focus or is distracted by something in their environment, giving them something to do that is easy and that focuses them back on you can be invaluable. A hand touch is the perfect thing as it’s easy and low pressure.

It can make it easier to move your dog from one place to another

If you want your dog to move onto weighing scales at the vets, or into the back of a car, asking them to target either your hand or a target stick, gives them the option to get rewarded for moving where you want, rather than you having to manhandle them about – which can break down trust or just be an unpleasant experience for your dog.

It can help teach loose lead walking

It’s important that your dog can walk beside you on a loose lead so that they can get the exercise they need safely – and for your comfort. Nothing is worse than getting dragged around every single walk – and it can cause injury to both your dog and to you. 

Learning how to walk on a loose lead, however, is really boring for a dog. And for us, it is very easy to focus on what we don’t want (pulling) rather than rewarding what we do walk (walking nicely on a loose lead). Using a target stick, and rewarding every few steps, makes loose lead training both rewarding and fun for both. It also means you can introduce some fun spins and twists, if you have the ambition to ever do some heelwork to music!

It can improve recall

By having a way to send your dog away from you to touch something, and then come back to you for their treat, reinforces that coming back to you is rewarding. This will help both your bond and your recall.

It’s fun!

Not only is your pooch having a great time, it’s also a fabulous way to strengthen the bond between you. 


We hope this guide on dog target training was helpful. See our other guides on dog training here for more information.

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