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The Many Faces of Targeting

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Broaden the view

At a recent ClickerExpo in Europe, after my concept training Lab, one of the attendees approached me with a problem. She wanted to try an exercise that I suggested that required her to use targeting and prompting, but she was concerned because she had been taught that “shaping is the only real way to train; using a target is sloppy and the sign of a weak trainer.”

Trainers sometimes become very proficient at using certain training tools more than others. They can become so passionate about their preferred tools that they push the other tools aside or even claim that the other tools are unacceptable choices. Shaping is an excellent tool, but it is only one of the many ways of teaching behavior. You can shape, capture, lure, target, mold, or set the environment up in ways that assist the learner in achieving a desired training goal.

Having a full grasp of targeting principles allows a trainer to teach new behaviors to an animal in one or two training sessions.
In my work with concept training, I have used targeting as an indicator behavior as well as a method for teaching new behaviors quickly. I’ve used targeting in training medical behaviors to help an animal learn to work with new equipment and participate in new procedures in just a few sessions. Having a full grasp of targeting principles allows a trainer to teach new behaviors to an animal in one or two training sessions.

In this Letter, I will outline the various ways in which I like to use targeting.

Enlarge the tool set

For targeting to be a truly versatile tool, I like the animals I train to acquire a large targeting tool set.

Basic Targeting – The first type of targeting I teach is touching an animal’s nose to a hand or a buoy on the end of a stick. The object being touched is referred to as a target. This simple form of touching an object is the foundation for each of the other targeting skills.

Follow Targeting – The next natural step is to teach the animal to follow the presented object. I use a target to guide the animal from place to place, for example into a kennel, onto a scale, or through an obstacle course.

Variety of Targets – Next, I teach the animal that the target can take on a variety of forms, colors, or textures. This instruction allows me to transfer the touching behavior to other objects: an X-ray plate, a harness, or any selected object. It is also useful if the behavior can be cued in ways other than presenting the object in front of the animal, such as pointing at the object or giving a verbal cue. In concept training, it is useful if the animal can target to any object when indicated.

Another creative type of targeting is the use of the light from a laser pointer as the indicator for what the animal is supposed to touch. The light can be used to indicate a particular target from a distance, especially with animals trained in protected contact.

Varied Body Parts – Once the animal has grasped some of the more basic forms of targeting, I like to teach animals to touch different body parts to an object: a hip, the chin, the rear feet, or any other body part requested. This behavior has always been essential to my training, whether it is getting my dog to target her feet (stand) on a platform, putting her chin in my hand for eye drops, or targeting her head into a harness.

Extended Targeting – For some behaviors, especially medical behaviors, an animal may need to remain in contact with an object for extended periods of time. Extended targeting can be used for radiographs, ultrasound exams, nail clipping, applying a bandage, and many other procedures. I have always considered lying on a mat, sitting on a platform, and standing on a perch forms of extended targeting. Trimming a dog’s nails can be handled more easily if the dog targets her paw to your hand for an extended period of time.

A to B Targeting – An animal can be taught to transfer its focus from one target to a new target. This type of targeting helps move the animal from one trainer to another or from one location to another.

Multiple Targets – Finally, an animal can be asked to touch two different targets, or two different body parts, at the same time. This is an advanced type of targeting and, in my experience, one of the most difficult types of targeting to teach. For example, it is challenging to guide a dog’s back feet to one location and her front feet to another location. At The Ranch, I am currently training a mini-donkey to target her left side (hip and shoulder) against a fence in order to keep her stationary while targeting her lower jaw to my hand for administration of a deworming paste in her mouth.

Targeting strategies can become a set of building blocks for developing many different behaviors.
The creative trainer can find other ways to put targeting to use. It is a helpful tool that I encourage trainers not to overlook. Targeting is more than simply touching an object or using an object to prompt a behavior. When trained correctly, targeting strategies can become a set of building blocks for developing many different behaviors.

Happy Training!




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