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 this behavior. (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, or even the word “Yes!”). 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 her body to objects or even a 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 earliest pioneering of this sort of positive reinforcement training in the zoo setting. We were a group of zookeepers at Zoo Atlanta who realized that these same kind of training might benefit our animals, that training could likely enable keepers to make animals easier to manage, more easily asking them to move from exhibits into holding areas, for example, and most importantly 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 Great Ape 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 at all for the orangutans and so it became very 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, and we were touching their arms with a variety of nonthreatening objects like a pen or a spoon handle with the vision of injection training in the future. With the Brookfield Zoo success we knew we were on the right track, and we began to use just the barrel of a syringe without a needle, and later “dummy” needles that had been blunted so the looked like the real thing but didn’t hurt to shape this behavior.

We had to battle some pretty hard preconceptions against training from our supervisos 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, get clean urine samples, and even to convince the vets to allow us to give them their annual flu shots ourselves with no muss, no fuss, no fear – we started to get others to pay attention and begin to support our efforts.
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 in their departments and we all worked together to achieve it.

Our shared goal was to change the way zookeepers interacted with the animals in their care, reducing stress, creating relationships that were based on trust, and enriching their lives in captivity. It was critical to us that the animals’ participation was completely voluntary, and that they would enjoy the activity.

Soon, otters or lemurs could easily be taught to jump right into a crate and moved to another exhibit – no nets, no gloves, no risk, no contact, and no stress. Just fish for the otters or bananas for the lemurs and a little bit of time, and everything became 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, and even to treat and bandage a serious tail wound that the keepers and vets would never have had access to otherwise. We avoided a likely tail amputation which would have required a risky immobilization and were instead easily able to ask Rosie the rhino to present her injured 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. What a big success!
The animals really benefited from the enriching mental stimulation, and reduction of stress in their lives, as did the vets and the keepers. Our vision of animals voluntarily participating in their own veterinary care had become a reality, and we worked to reach out to other zookeepers around the nation, both hosting and attending conferences to spread the word about positive reinforcement training in the zoo setting.

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 helped to build trust in the keepers, and they became fond of these easy training sessions (which are also fun and 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 we 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 fact that changes that we envisioned have truly become standard practice for keepers now across the country. Zookeepers are continuing to develop 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. and just thinking that it’s just the way that it’s normally done.  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 of course 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! My favorite trick of his is “Are you tired?” where he flops over on his side. See him in action here.

So what now? Dogs can take this sort of behavior to really great levels. Targeting is a great way to teach “Heel” as they have to be behind the target for it to work!
Perhaps start teaching your dog to touch a yogurt lid with her nose or foot. Then the lid can be moved gradually farther away – what fun indoor exercise to tell her to run to the lid, touch it, hear the click and run back to you!

Cats can hop up onto other surfaces to follow the target to touch it – up to the couch and onto their 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. 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”.

You also don’t have to use any sort of equipment. They can target your hand instead of a stick, etc and you can use a word like “Yes!” instead of a clicker. As a trainer of new trainers, I always liked to use a clicker as it makes the new trainers concentrate on their timing, making the click happen the instant the correct behavior happens, keeping signals very clear for the animal who can then easily replicate the behavior the next time. The clicker noise also remains the same no matter which trainer was conducting the session, again keeping consistency for the animal.

No matter what your pet is, if it has a spinal cord, 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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