What the Heck is Target Training?

A Tapir learns to touch a target in a zoo

A Tapir learns to touch a target in a zoo

By Christine Mallar

We just brought in some nifty extendable target training sticks to the store, and so I thought I should write up a description of what it’s used for, as targeting is such a fun and really easy activity to do with your pets, no matter what species – I’ve even taught a fish to target. No, seriously! This isn’t an indication of what a good trainer I am, it’s just an illustration of how easy it is to teach and learn. (In fact, I have to laugh as I just Googled “Target Training a Fish” and came up with lots of results! Here’s one).

To ask an animal to target, you are asking the animal to deliberately touch an object, and you are marking the moment with a sound (like a click from a training clicker). The animal knows this sound means that a treat is coming their way, and allows them to pinpoint the exact thing the trainer wants them to do to earn that treat.  This clever concept was created by dolphin trainers. Dolphins are very smart, but slippery. Trainers couldn’t possibly have used traditional methods of training that required physical domination of the animals (like cowboys did with horses, or dog trainers did with leashes and choke collars) – it just isn’t possible. With a whistle and a bucket of fish, dolphins participated voluntarily in their own training (and if they weren’t having fun they could easily swim away).

Picture this: a dolphin trainer wants the dolphin to jump out of the water and touch a ball that is suspended way up high. First, the trainer might toss the ball onto the water and wait until the dolphin investigates it. The trainer is watching for the moment the dolphin touches the ball with its nose, and they mark that moment exactly with a whistle. This noise means a piece of fish, which the dolphin happily goes to collect from the trainer. When the dolphin happens to touch the ball again and hears that whistle, it starts to become quite clear to the dolphindolphin that she can touch that ball on purpose to make that trainer give her another fish. Now that the intent is clear that the behavior is to touch the ball with her nose, the trainer can introduce a hand signal or word right before she touches it, which becomes the command. The trainer might suspend the ball from a rope right at water level, and ask for and whistle/reward touches to the ball. Then the ball can be raised a little at a time and the dolphin must now stretch to reach it, and then jump to reach it, etc. Targeting can also be used to teach her to touch other parts of he body to objects or even trainer’s hand, allowing the trainer to perhaps shake a flipper (first a “trick”) and then this trick is used to slowly shape a far more difficult behavior, like allowing a vet to take blood from a vein on that flipper – all with voluntary participation from that dolphin. It removes the fear of that procedure as it’s taught gradually, and is certainly easier and much less risky for everyone involved than corralling that dolphin and herding her into some sort of restraint device that would enable them to get that blood sample forcefully, and good luck getting that done a second time! With positive reinforcement training, it became possible for trainers to get voluntary participation from the dolphins for complex behaviors like veterinary procedures, helping to greatly lower the stress for the dolphins if they needed care.

When I first became a zookeeper, very little training was done in the zoo setting, outside of captive dolphins and sea lions. The amazing marine mammal trainer, Karen Pryor, realized that these same techniques could be applied to other animals, and she developed “clicker training”. We trainers are all eternally grateful to her.  I was lucky to be a part of some of the early pioneering of this sort of positive reinforcement training in the zoo setting. We were zookeepers who realized that these same kind of training might benefit our animals, that training could enable keepers to make animals easier to manage, more easily asking them to move them from exhibits into holding areas, for example, and even to participate in their own medical care. We wanted to avoid stress for the animals above anything else, and we knew we could make it happen. At Zoo Atlanta, we orangutan keepers had heard about the amazing things that were being done with orangutans at the Brookfield Zoo. There were two diabetic orangutans in need of insulin injections. They brought in their marine mammal trainers, and worked with them to set up a similar program to shape behaviors like approaching the mesh and hanging onto it, letting their forearms be touched, and then touched and held for a period of time, then touching the arm with an empty barrel of a syringe, then building up to little injections of sterile water. They also worked on getting a little blood sample to be able to monitor their blood sugar, just like humans do. Before this time, an orangutan might have had to to be darted, or made to enter a small “squeeze cage” that would hold them in a position that would enable a vet to poke them with a needle. Stressful, and certainly not practical for something so tiny that needed to be done every day. They were soon able to successfully give these small injections daily as needed. It wasn’t stressful for the orangutans and was easy for the staff to maintain their health. As soon as we heard about this, we orangutan keepers at Zoo Atlanta were so happy. We had already been teaching our orangutans simple behaviors like presenting different body parts to the mesh of their enclosure (their ear, their open mouth, their fingernails, etc) and we had already started teaching them to put their upper arm against the mesh for us to touch, with the vision of injection training in the future. With their success we knew we were on the right track. We had to battle some pretty hard preconceptions against training from our supervisors and some of the old school keepers (we appeared to be having a good time and “playing” with our animals instead spending our time doing more scrubbing and sweeping) but as we were quickly able to ask the orangutans to open their mouths on command so we could see their teeth and gums, and able to take their temperature with an ear thermometer, trim toenails easily, and even to convince the vets to allow us to give them their flu shots ourselves with no muss, no fuss, no fear – we started to get people to pay attention. We set up a training committee for keepers from all areas of the zoo to come and share ideas for how positive reinforcement training could be used and we worked together to achieve it.

Soon, otters or lemurs could easily be taught to jump into a crate and moved to another exhibit – no nets, no gloves, no risk, no stress. Just fish for the otters or bananas for the lemurs and a little bit of time and everything becomes easier! Giraffe keepers were moving giraffes easily through a narrow hallway that they had previously been frightened of using, which happened to be the only way out onto the exhibit. The rhinos were already comfortable with being touched on their heads and hand fed, but were soon able to be positioned easily to present different areas of their body to be inspected and touched, leading to keepers being able to file their toenails or even treat and bandage a serious tail wound that the keepers and vets would never have had access to otherwise. They avoided a likely tail amputation by way of a risky immobilization and were instead easily able to ask Rosie the rhino to present her tail to the vet techs and keepers at the bars of her holding area and stay still for daily cleaning and bandaging of the tail, all for the price of a few pieces of fruit. The animals really benefited from the enriching mental stimulation, and reduction of stress in their lives, as did the vets and the keepers.

With every species, this sort of training almost universally started with target training. Target training is an easy way to teach an animal that when they touch a target, they’ll hear a noise (like a whistle or a clicker), and they’ll get a treat. They quickly learn this and are happy to participate over and over. We can then maybe teach them to travel to a new location to touch the target, or to touch other areas of their body to the target. It helps to build trust in the keepers, become fond of these easy training sessions (which are also mentally stimulating for them). Then we could begin to build on these simple behaviors and slowly move towards behaviors that were more challenging.

Each species had a target that suited the situation – with the orangutans we started with a wooden paint stir-stick and moved on to metal carabiners that we could move around and clip to the wire mesh of their holding area caging that they could hold onto while we taught them to let us touch their belly or toes, etc. The giraffes had a long pole with a plastic ball on the end (with keepers on ladders), and for the rhinos whose sight wasn’t their strongest point, and who were a bit frightened of sticks or poles, we made a flat, square target with a handle on the back for the keeper to hold and painted bright yellow and black diagonal lines on the front for visibility.   Look at this link to see lots of zoo animals across the country learning to target. It makes my heart swell to think about the change that we envisioned becoming standard practice for keepers now, developing their positive relationships, enriching the animals’ lives, reducing potential sources of stress, and reducing the need for immobilizations. Keepers are drawing blood from veins, using ultrasound to check for heart disease or to monitor a pregnancy, asking for a urine sample to do a pregnancy test, etc. It’s a beautiful thing.

For dogs and cats, any household item can be used – the eraser end of a pencil, a wooden spoon, or even your hand. The clicker can be “loaded” – a trainer term that means you click the clicker and give them a treat, several times until you start to see them understand that the noise means treat, and that it is a good noise. If they happen to know a few behaviors, like sit, you can ask for a sit and mark the moment their butt touches the floor with a click, following it with a treat. Then present your hand or your target object right in front of them and see if they’ll investigate it. If they touch dogtargetit with their nose (or whatever you’d like them to touch things with, like their paw. The nose is generally an easy place to start though), try to click the clicker at exactly the moment their nose touches the object, and give a treat. Do that a few times, and then do the same thing but stop an inch or two short of where you had it before, so that they have to move towards it slightly to touch it. You should, in a short time (short for a dog, probably longer for a fish) you’ll see what we like to call the AHA! moment where they tentatively stretch towards it – you’ll click and treat and next they’ll really seem to “get it” and touch the target with more intention. Yippee! Now you can start adding a word like “touch” as you present the target, and since they already know what you want when you present it, they’ll quickly come to associate that word with the behavior. Congratulations! You have now trained a new behavior and put it on command! Now see if they’ll move towards the target in another way, to the left or to the right, eventually being able to walk towards a target to touch it. I wanted to show you just how easy this is by teaching my cat Otis to target and filming it for you. I’m using a clicker, holding the treats in the palm of my clicker hand and using the handle of a wooden spoon as my target. I don’t use the word touch until I see him “getting it”. I keep my session short so as to keep his interest, I use good treats he’s willing to work for, and I end on a good note with tricks he already knows. When I was really impressed with one of his touches, I gave him two treats. Notice: the first nose touch was just because I showed him something new – essentially an accident. Then he doesn’t know what we’re doing but knows it’s something good, so he weaves around happily, and because he’s a cat and he’s happy, the next thing he does is rub his face on the spoon handle, which I catch with a click at the moment he first makes contact. The 4th click is that tentative try with intention. Now we’re in business. See him in action here.

So what now? Dogs can take this sort of behavior to really great levels. Perhaps start teaching your dog to touch a yogurt lid with her foot. Then the lid can be moved gradually farther away – what fun indoor exercise to run to the lid, touch it with her foot, hear the click and run back to you!

The cat can hop up onto other surfaces to follow the target to touch it – up to the couch and onto his cat tree and up to the mantle and back down to the couch and then to the floor. Exercise in disguise of fun tricks!

Teach your pet to target a variety of objects and use it as a way to name them: “Touch ball” “Touch Frisbee” – make your dog have to think about which one you’re asking for once they’ve learned two of them. How many can she distinguish over time? They can learn to touch a colored sticker, and you can stick that to places in the house – a sticker on a drawer that’s slightly open has a dog targeting and learning to close the drawer, or the fridge, or turn on a light, etc.Targeting is a great way to teach “Heal” as they have to be behind the target for it to work! Lots of tricks are possible, and there might even be a few that are useful to you. Just remember, whether a behavior is “useful” or not is irrelevant – the points are to challenge an animal’s mind, create fun, build your relationship, and make you a better trainer by teaching you to have good timing (clicking at the right moment) and watching for ideal moments where you can catch the behavior, or even a very small version of that behavior over time. Target training can be a great confidence builder in a shy dog, and can even face their fears by slowly targeting closer and closer to something that makes them uncomfortable. There are oodles of links out there about clicker and target training. Here’s a good video I stumbled upon that shows someone teaching a trick to a dog (to turn in a circle) using only the clicker and the target.
There’s lots of good info on this site about the process of training to “Bow”.

No matter what your pet is, if it has a spinal chord, it can be trained using these methods. (For you local folks, ask Doug Duncan at Doggy Business about his visit to “chicken camp” where new dog trainers have to clicker train a chicken as part of their animal training lessons.) What a fun thing to try with your dog, and how useful when it’s nasty weather outside, or when your dog needs surgery and has to stay on bed rest – they can still be learning and challenged and having a good time, right from their bed. Keep it short, keep it fun, and if they seem frustrated, ask for something easier and end on that high note. Then think of possible smaller steps you can take towards your goal, so that they are more easily understanding what it is you’re going for. Now you’re a trainer.

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