Teaching the Hand Target

Oh hey, thought I’d publish a little dog trick how-to.

Hand targeting, or, “touch,” is the first trick I taught Betsy. It’s one of her favourites.

It’s also useful! I use it as…

  • A fun alternative to recall, so I don’t overuse my recall word.
  • A way to grab my dog’s attention when something distracting is going on.
  • A way to say, “please,” when we’re playing fetch (my hand is like a button – she touches my hand with her nose, I reward her by throwing the ball.)
  • A confidence booster when we’re in a situation that makes Betsy nervous (the fun/familiar action of doing one of her favourite tricks brings her spirits up, and it also keeps her attention on me, instead of on whatever it is that’s making her nervous.)
  • A way to reposition her if I need her to move around my body.
  • A precursor to other skills that require nose targeting, like turning the lights on and off.
  • It’s also used in agility for ensuring dogs don’t leap prematurely off equipment, if you ever plan on doing agility.

Wow that list was way bigger than I expected, actually. Love dis trick.


The trick itself is simple:

  • You hold your palm up flat
  • Your dog pokes it with her nose

There is one rule: Never let your dog use her teeth, even if she’s super gentle and it’s just a light grazing of teeth. (More on that training mistake another day… 😊)

So how to teach it? Well, Internet, I got my husband to film me with an iPhone, so allow me to show you in super high resolution™:

By the way: Man, making videos is hard and I didn’t write a script beforehand and it was all a bit crazy filming on an iPhone. So I’m sorry about that. Will work on a better strategy for next time. (Imagine me running into the living room shouting “BEN I NEED MORE FOOTAGE AND THE SUN IS GOING DOWN HELP ME HELP ME NOW”) Also, I noticed that when I ask Betsy to sit during the last part of the video, I really lean into her, which = body pressure which = aversive which = not needed, Betsy would have sat anyway. So I’m sorry Betsy, and I’m sorry for being such a bad trainer! Need to work on not leaning so much on my dog when I ask her to sit!

Anyway, tangents aside….

If you’re not in the mood for a video, or if you just want some steps written down to go off of, here they are:

  1. Start off by wedging a tasty treat between your fingers and hold your palm up flat, with the treat poking out a little.
  2. Have another treat ready in your other hand.
  3. When your dog pushes their nose up to your hand to try to get the treat, give them a reward marker (I say “Yes!” some people use a clicker, etc.)
  4. Instead of letting them have the wedged treat, give them the treat from your other hand.
  5. Keep this up until your dog is readily pushing their nose onto your palm, and then looking expectantly at your other hand for the treat.
  6. Then, stop using the wedged treat as bait and hold up your palm with no wedged treat.
  7. Once your dog is pushing on your palm without a lure, you can start giving adding in a verbal cue. I use, “touch.”
  8. You can slowly make it a bit trickier, adding distance, moving your hand around, etc.

All these steps take time; don’t try to blast through them all at once. If you try to go too quick you’ll end up frustrating your dog and it will take longer.

If you practice for two minutes twice a day, you should see progress within a couple of days. I can really only give advice off of my own experience with Betsy. I remember she found it confusing the first day and then it all clicked for her on the second day. I swear I saw an, “ahah!” expression on her face and from that moment on she started touching with delight. I’m sure with different dogs the learning curve will vary.

One variation worth noting is how my agility class instructor taught this trick. Betsy already knew it when we started agility, and I taught it using the methods listed above. But my agility instructor mentioned, “feeding the palm,” to encourage more prolonged contact between nose and hand. This is up to you, and depends on what you’re looking for in the touch command. But if you do end up using this, instead of simply handing your dog the treat with your other hand, push the treat onto the palm in front of the dog’s nose as it is touching your hand. Slowly build up duration, so the dog learns it has to continuously push its nose insistently into your hand for 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 (…) seconds before getting a treat. The hand should become more valuable than the treat, so you can be holding the treat right next to your open palm and yet the dog ignores the treat and continues to push on the palm.

I’ve included a video of how this looks (sort of, we don’t practice this often so Betsy is definitely eyeing up that treat a little more than I’d like):


Troubleshooting:

If your dog is using teeth: Simply do not reward and wait for them to try again. When they do it without teeth, make sure you praise them copiously, so they know that teeth = “meh”, nose only = “wheeee treats and love!” (If they’re just using teeth to try and niggle that treat out of your hand in step one, you can be a little lenient to get them started on the right track)

If your dog can’t transition from treat-in-hand to no-treat-in-hand: You’re probably moving too fast for them, you can also try fading the treat out a little by moving it back further between the fingers, so the dog can smell the treat but not see it.

If in the treat-in-hand phase, the dog isn’t really touching, just mooshing their face into your hand: That’s OK to start, you can refine it once they get the basic idea.

After the dog knows this trick pretty well, they try their own variation where they start deking out at the last minute (flyby touch) No reward! Try again until they get it right, then have a little party for them.


Let me know if you end up teaching your dog this trick! I highly recommend it 😁

Related video: Betsy targeting some painter’s tape

Update

I recently found this old video of Betsy at 6 months old, 2 days after I had started teaching her the “touch” trick. She’s so small and cuuuuteeee! 💖:

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