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Teaching a dog "touch" training is one of the first behaviors I focus on with almost every dog as a certified dog trainer.
Why? Because it's one of the most useful foundation behaviors you can use to set your dog up for success in a variety of scenarios.
Let's jump into what "touch"/hand targeting is and how you can teach it to your dog in 5 simple steps.
If your dog already knows "touch," this is a good opportunity to review and refresh the behavior - and just go back to basics for relaxing learning, fun, and building your dog's confidence with an easy success!
What is "touch" or hand targeting?
The hand target is a simple behavior in dog training that teaches your dog to touch your hand with your dog's nose. Once your dog masters this basic concept that his/her nose touches your target hand, you can begin to use it in a variety of ways. Everything from helping your dog understand positioning cues to teaching your dog to come when called!
Why is "touch" so universally useful in dog training?
The hand target or "touch" is both a fun game and a foundational part of your dog's learning process you can apply in a multitude of situations.
"Touch" training has many uses including:
- Teaching mouthy puppies that hands are for more than biting
- Teaching dogs to orient toward you and setting you up to reliably get your dog's attention
- Teaching a frustrated or reactive dog an alternative behavior when seeing potential triggers
- Helping communicate where you want your dog positioned with more precision
- Facilitating cooperative care behaviors: standing on a scale or grooming table, standing still for vet procedures
- Coming when called - giving dogs a place to target can be extremely useful when teaching a fast, reliable recall, especially when distracted
What you will need to teach your dog to hand target:
- Some small, yummy treats (or soft, easily breakable-into-pieces treats)
- Treat pouch
- A clicker or verbal marker word your dog associates with rewards (YES/GOOD)
- A few minutes in a quiet space
5 steps to teaching hand targeting - "touch!"
Work at your own pace - and more importantly, your dog's pace - as you build your dog's focus and ability to orient to you and touch your palm with his or her nose with these 5 steps:
Step 1: present your hand close to your dog's face
With your dog standing or sitting in front of you, present your flat, outstretched hand a few inches away from your dog's face. Click/mark & reward with a treat as soon as your dog moves toward your hand with his/her nose.
Pro tip troubleshooting: if your dog tries to "shake/give paw," try using a closed fist rather than an open palm or orienting your hand in a different position.
- Repeat, working to encourage your dog to touch your hand with his/her nose by clicking and rewarding for closer approximations. (Some dogs will immediately touch your hand, most dogs need a bit more time.)
- Repeat in short dog training sessions (1-2 minutes) until your dog touches your hand consistently when presented.
- Remember to keep your hand at a short distance from your dog's face at this stage, just a few inches away.
Pro tip troubleshooting: If your dog is resistant to touch your hand, try rubbing a treat on your palm to entice him/her with the smell. Licking is ok at this stage too!
Step 2: begin to move your hand target to different positions
Once your dog's nose is reliably touching your hand when presented, begin to move your hand to different positions, still remaining close to your dogs face. This will help with generalization to the behavior early on.
- Repeat this for a few short training sessions to ensure your dog understands the behavior when you change your hand position slightly.
Step 3: add the cue word "touch"
Immediately before presenting your hand say, "touch," and present your hand target. Click & reward with a treat for a correct response when your dog's nose makes contact with your hand target.
- If your dog doesn't respond he/she isn't ready for the word yet. We wait to add in words until your dog is performing the behavior solidly as words can cause confusion. Dogs need time to associate this new verbal cue with a behavior they understand. If the behavior isn't understood, adding a word too quickly can ruin the behavior. Go back to steps 1-2 for a few more training sessions if needed.
- If your dog responds, great! Repeat with your hand target staying in the same position. Always saying the word BEFORE you present your hand. This will ensure your dog can associate it to the hand targeting behavior.
- Practice with short training sessions until your dog is responding well with the cue word at least 8/10 repetitions in a row.
Step 4: Add distance and movement
Once we have a solid base behavior and cue word, it's time to get your dog up and moving!
Start by standing in front of your dog and giving the "touch" cue with hand out from only about 1 foot away. Click & reward with a treat for correct response.
- If your dog looks at you confused, you've asked for too much. Move a bit closer by half and try from there.
- Once you've found a distance that works for your dog, begin to slowly take small steps to move a bit farther away from your dog at that approximate distance, giving the "touch" cue each time you take a step back. Click & reward with a treat for correct responses.
- If your dog gets stuck, make it easier! We want this behavior to be extremely reliable and there is no need to repeat the cue or get frustrated if your dog isn't responding. This is just information your dog doesn't understand or is too distracted in the environment.
- Practice short sessions of moving around a quiet room, slowly increasing distance between you and your dog as he/she is successful with repetitions.
Pro tip troubleshooting: make sure you're not moving too quickly & confusing your dog.
Trying to move too fast will leave your dog confused. Take it slow. Ensure your dog is continuing to target your hand and not just moving toward you. Timing of your click will be very important. Remember to click at the exact moment you feel that wet nose on your hand and immediately treat your dog for successfully hand targeting. Mix in some stationary touches as well to continue to help generalize the behavior.
Step 5: start over in a new environment (with distractions)
Now you and your dog are probably ready to take "touch" to a new environment and make this training a bit harder. When adding distractions, we need to be patient and work at our dog's level. Start with minor distractions and be prepared to go back to step 1 if needed.
Pro tip watch-out: don't repeat verbal cues
With just about every behavioral cue, it's SO tempting to keep repeating the cue word over and over again when your dog isn't responding. (Who among us hasn't done that at some point!) But saying "touch" a million times because your dog is distracted is doing you and your dog a disservice. In fact, it's the surest way to "poison" a cue - meaning the word loses all meaning (except knowing it's ignorable) and you'll have to switch to a new word as your cue and start fresh solidifying the hand targeting behavior.
Why teaching your dog to hand target is worth it
The good news is, hand targeting is such a versatile and useful behavior that it's worth the effort of taking some extra time to really solidify it. Hang in there, be patient with your pup, and enjoy all the benefits this training will provide.
This is a great exercise for teaching your dog how to focus around distractions and will also give you a reliable way to get your dog's attention quickly in any situation.
Some other great benefits of hand targeting:
- Use it as an alternative behavior to jumping up when people come to your door or approach you on walks
- Use it to help a shy or fearful dog build confidence and trust around new people
- Use it to teach tricks like "high five" or "spin"
- Help a dog who is reactive or frustrated around other dogs learn an alternative behavior to barking and lunging
- Use it to ask a dog to "go to your mat" or "go to your bed"
The possibilities are endless, so get out there and teach your dog to hand target!
Learn how to effectively teach your dog the 'touch' behavior in 5 simple steps.
Next up in the Manners Channel on Dogly
Woohoo! Your dog now has solid hand target. Teaching your dog this verbal cue is a great behavior to know and crucial for a following guide to teach your dog not to jump when greeting people at your door. Get started on that guide now or hop over to other guides in the Manners Channel like how to teach your dog to not steal food or go to a bed or mat on cue.