On Target Training

Teach your dog to touch his nose or paw (or other body part) to something on cue, and you will find that there are countless fun and useful applications for this easy-to-learn "trick".


There’s a behavior that we never used to teach in old-fashioned training classes that is now one of my absolute favorites; I can’t wait to introduce my students to “targeting” – teaching their dogs to touch a designated part of their bodies to a specified object or place. It is not only an amazingly useful behavior, but also fun and easy to teach and most dogs love it. I can’t imagine how we ever got along without it!


We usually start with nose targeting, because dogs tend to investigate with their noses, making a “nose touch” an easy behavior to prompt and capture. If you offer the palm of your hand to your dog with your fingers pointed toward the floor, most dogs will stretch forward and sniff it. Mark (click a clicker or use a verbal marker, such as the word “Yes!”) and give your dog a treat, and you’re on your way! If your dog needs a little encouragement, you can rub a bit of a tasty treat on your hand, and when she sniffs it, mark and treat. Most dogs learn to touch the proffered palm within just a few tries.

As with all behaviors we teach, as soon as you can predict that your dog is going to touch your palm with his nose when you offer it, begin using the verbal cue; I use “Touch!” Note that if she already thinks an open palm is the cue to offer her paw to you for a “Shake,” then you can offer a closed fist or two fingers in place of the open palm.


If you happen to have a dog who is very “pawsy” (likes to use her feet), teaching her to step on a talking button is likely going to be a breeze; she might just smack that button with her paw when you put it on the floor and you can just “capture” this foot targeting, by marking and reinforcing her randomly offered paw at the button. 

The training technique known as “shaping” often works best to teach your dog to target with other body parts. To shape a behavior, you mark and reinforce progressively closer approximations of the behavior you actually want. 

To shape a dog to touch a talking button with her paw, you would set the button on the floor, and mark and reinforce (feed her a treat) each time she takes a step toward it – or even if she merely moves a front foot! As she begins to realize she’s getting reinforced for foot movement, she’ll start to move her paw on purpose and you’ll be able to shape her to touch her foot to the button, or anything else you have in mind. 

 If you want her to target with other body parts – say, a shoulder or hip – shape it the same way: Mark and treat any movement with that body part until she’s deliberately moving it, then shape for targeting. (See “Shaping Your Dog’s Behavior,” Feb. 2017.)


Here are just a few of the things you can do with your dog’s targeting behavior:


Teaching your dog to touch his nose to the end of a target stick enables you to maneuver him (without force or touching him) over or around obstacles. The CLIX Target Stick seen her costs $6 from JeffersPet.com

 *Positioning your dog. You can use nose targeting to invite your dog onto the walk-on scale at your veterinary clinic, into your vehicle, through a doorway, out of your path, onto the sofa – the list is endless.

*Teach tricks. Kai, our Kelpie, will leap five feet into the air to target to my hand, and weave through my legs, targeting to a hand on each side as he passes through. I also used a hand target to teach my dog Bonnie to open a picnic basket with her nose.

*Perform household behaviors. Your dog can close or open drawers with her nose and use touch-on/touch-off features of lamps or push-button dial 911 in an emergency. 

*Decrease fear. If your dog is worried about something but loves targeting, you can ask her to touch your hand as you move past or away from the aversive object or person. This focuses her attention toward you and helps the emotional part of her brain shift from “Oh, scary person!” to “Yay, targeting!”

*Call your dog to you. If your dog loves targeting but is a little “meh” about her recall cue, try asking her to “Touch!” when you want her to come to you. She has to come to you to touch your palm!

*Move your dog away from you. Teach her to target to a cottage cheese lid, then tape the lid to a wall and ask her to target to it. Gradually send her across the room to her lid-target from farther and farther away. 

Polite leash walking. (See “Moving Target,” page 5, for instructions on how to teach this.)


Since the popularity of Stella, Bunny and other dogs who have been taught to press buttons to “talk”, it’s possible to buy the buttons from many online sources. Search for “talking buttons for dog.”

*Touching buttons. Your dog can foot-target to talking buttons as part of a fun routine. There are also light buttons that she can turn on and off with a tap of her paw.

*Communication. My Corgi, Lucy, used a paw touch to my foot to signal me she had found an odor (her “alert”) when we were doing scent work. Your dog could touch you with a paw as her cue to ask to go outside, or use her paw (or nose) to ring a bell or a buzzer as her bathroom “ask.” 

*Agility. An important skill in the sport of agility is making sure your dog hits the contact zones at the end of obstacles. This is often accomplished by teaching the dog to hind-foot target to the contact zone.

* Targeting with Other Body Parts 

*Target an ear toward you or your veterinarian for a physical examination or for an application of ear cleaner or medication.

*Target an open mouth to a metal bar for mouth exam or tooth cleaning (I saw a bear who was taught to do this at the Taronga Zoo in Australia!).

*Target the chin to a rolled-up towel on a chair for cooperative care procedures.

*Target a hip to a target stick to teach a pivot.

These examples just scratch the surface of the versatility and variety of potential applications for targeting. Do you have examples of other targeting behaviors you’ve taught your dog? Please share! 

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.


  1. Remember me? Your old student from Chattanooga, TN. David has passed and Bekki and I live in Colorado now and of course still have a Collie and a Standard Poodle. So glad to know you are well and still doing what you do so well. Your articles are delightful! Thank you!

  2. Really enjoy the articals the info has helped fill in many gaps in my knowledge of dogs and dog training. My health has declined in the last 4 years and the knowledge has helped me recognize when I needed to get help from a trainer with my puppy.