Please check your firearms at the door.
I’m talking about training targeting behavior in dogs. Basically, it is teaching your dog to touch a specific body part to an object. Spanky knows “Touch” means to touch an object with his nose, and “Hit it” means to touch it with his paw.
Why is this more than just a fancy party trick?
Target training is an excellent skill for dogs to learn, for so many reasons. For shy dogs, it can be a great way to build confidence. If they learn to enjoy (read: expect lots and lots of treats and praise for) touching their noses or paws to different things, this can be transferred to a new or even a potentially scary object to help them to overcome their nervousness. I will often encourage Spanky to target to an new and unfamiliar object, whether or not he displays signs of nervousness. Best to get ahead of it and don’t give him a chance to develop a negative impression (however innocuous you may think the new object is). I can’t tell you how many dogs I know who don’t like plastic bags floating along with the wind (so silly!).
For big dogs, this is also great way to help them to maneuver in tight spaces when they don’t yet have great body awareness. As a therapy dog, there is often limited space to move around on visits, and even less if you are working with another therapy team. In my experience mastiffs fall into one of two categories when it comes to body awareness. The “Operation Game” mastiff: one who is verrrry careful not to touch anything with any part of his body. And may even spook if his rear or back touches something he doesn’t see coming. Or the “Bull in a China Shop” mastiff: one who doesn’t care what he bumps into or knocks over in the process of moving around. Spanky is the latter. But neither is good. (Picture expensive medical equipment falling to the ground!). Playing target games are a great way to move his head while you steer him like a big truck. Imagine gaining 150-200 pounds in less than 2 years. You might underestimate your size too!
Another very useful way to use targeting is for “Busy Work.” I know there are dogs out there who have a fantastic default sit or down, when they are bored. I have seen them. I have even met them. Unfortunately, Spanky is not one of those dogs. The good news is that Spanky and I can pretty much play a game of “Touch” and “Hit it” anywhere. And that’s the best part. It IS a game to Spanky and he loves to play it!
Finally, for the Smartie Pants dogs out there, it can potentially be a way to help you out. Think of all those times your hands were too full to shut the door behind you. Wouldn’t it be nice to say, “Fido, close door” and stand there proudly watching as your buddy pushed the door shut behind you! Needless to say, Spanky and I aren’t in the Smartie Pants Club yet, but don’t worry… when and if it ever happens, there will be Youtube videos galore.