Right on Target!

Right on Target: Ways to Use a Hand Target Behaviour

by Kelsey Merritt


If you’ve been taking classes with us, you may have heard of something called a Hand Target. A hand target in its simplest form is when a dog touches the palm of your hand when you hold it out.


While this may seem initially like a very simple and basic behavior, the uses of the hand target are well-documented and plentiful. This month we wanted to share with you all a little about hand targets, their uses, and a few targeting skills you can work on at home with your pups.


So, why is a hand target useful and why should you teach it to your dog? Hand targets are the foundations for a lot of more complex skills and behaviors. Lets talk a little bit about what some of those are!


Handler skills: Teaching a hand target to your dog gives you a chance to practice your timing for marking and rewarding behaviors. When rewarding a hand target, timing is important because you want to mark the exact moment the dog makes contact with your hand. If you mark too late, the dog might think the behavior is to approach the hand then back away. If you mark too early, the dog might not think they have to make contact with your hand at all.


Gaining focus in training: Once your dog knows the hand target skill really well, it is a great exercise to add to training in moments where you (or the dog) are getting frustrated, you’re working on a more difficult skill, there are a lot of distractions around, or you want to keep your dogs focus on you. This is because it is a very easy way for your dog to earn a reward, increasing their willingness to work with you.


Heel Skills: Hand targets are great for getting a longer duration on your heel. Hold your hand target beside your leg and have the dog follow it as you walk together.


Greeting: A hand target can be a handy skill for greetings with your dog. You can teach them to target a persons hand on cue as a way to say hello. For dogs who are shy or hesitant to approach others, a hand target is an easy low pressure way to practice greetings and a great alternative to petting or more intense interaction.


Handling: A hand target is great to teach to practice handling with your dog. Help them learn that when hands reach towards them, gentle behavior is rewarded, instead of nipping.


Retrieve Training: A hand target can be used to train your dog to deliver an object into your hand.


Agility: Running an agility course, especially at an intro level, relies on a dogs ability to follow a hand target around the obstacles.


Moving your dog: This is probably my favorite use for a hand target. If your dog has a very solid moving hand target you can use it to move them anywhere they will follow it. If you need to reposition them from one spot to another, or are teaching a trick that involves movement, a hand target is a great foundation skill to assist you.


Three hand target skills you can teach your dog at home:


1. Basic Nose to Hand Target:


This is the simplest form of the hand target involving the dog touching their nose to your open palm.

  • Hold out your palm a few inches from your dogs face.

  • Wait for them to investigate. At the exact moment their nose makes contact with your hand, mark the behavior with “YES!” and reward them with a treat.

  • Continue to practice this until your dog targets your hand immediately when you hold out your palm. Once this happens you are ready to add a verbal cue like “Touch!”














2. Chin Rest Target

In this version of a hand target, your dog learns to rest their head in your hand. This can be useful for grooming, inspecting ears and eyes, and can help build your bond.

  • Hold out your hand to the dog, this time with your palm facing up.

  • Mark any instance of your dog approaching the hand with their chin. When rewarding, feed the treat in a position where your dogs head is resting on your hand.

  • Repeat this until the dog puts their chin on top of your palm every time you hold it out.

  • You can continue to increase the criteria for this by waiting to mark until the dog is resting the weight of their head on your hand.


3. Nose Bridge Target

In this version, the dog learns to put the bridge of their nose into an arch you make with your hand. This is great for brushing your dogs teeth, looking at mouth injuries, or for the kennel cough vaccine that is administered by nose.

  • Make an arch with your hand and hold it out in front of your dogs face.

  • Mark any effort your dog makes to move towards that hand with “YES” and reward them with a treat delivered through the arch.

  • As the dog gets more and more comfortable approaching the arch wait for them to put their nose in independently before marking and rewarding the behavior.

  • Once the dog will put their nose through the arch independently you can add duration to it by feeding more treats for staying there, and begin to accustom them to looking at their teeth while in the position.

  • Go slow with this to ensure it is a positive experience for your dog!


Try these hand target skills with your dog at home and let us know how you make out. Regardless of what you use them for now, there is no doubt that developing a solid hand target will likely be useful in the future!



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