As a career animal nerd, I will admit that I love going to zoos and aquariums.
While others might want to see some fun new creature from far, far away, I’m making a beeline right for the animal training shows. (I did mention I was a geek.)
I love watching the shows because whether you’re training a seal or a Labrador Retriever, the principles are the same: reinforce behaviors that you wish would occur more often and punish behaviors that you want to diminish.
There’s one exercise I always see in every trained species, from the giant elephant to the tiny parrot: targeting.
In zoos, you may notice a seal touching his nose to a ball while his trainer guides him across the exhibit, a tiger standing with his front feet stationed on a platform while his handler cleans the exhibit, or an elephant with her trunk touching the elephant in front of her while coasting through a crowd.
Their trainers are using “target”, or “touch,” which means that an animal should touch a predetermined body part to a particular object.
We also use this for our dogs, typically asking them to touch either their nose or paw to our hand. In fact, it is also an important component of the SpotOn training programs. As for why— I’ve got five suggestions on how to use “touch” in real-life scenarios:
As part of recall:
Your dog might be one of those that comes to you almost all the way, but then does a snatch and run when he sees the treat. Train a “touch” so he has to physically make contact with your hand before getting his reward.
To redirect them from distractions on a walk:
Or perhaps your dog must visit with other dogs and people on walks, or maybe he lunges at bikes and skateboards. Perhaps he can’t stop sniffing. Use the touch cue any time you want to focus them on you instead of distractions, or as a means to turn them to face the other direction for a quick change.
To take their mind off of the scary things:
I doubt that anyone has a dog that actually likes to get their shots or have their nails clipped. I sure don’t. Give them something else to think about by asking them to do a touch for a treat every time they are stressed out about having husbandry behaviors performed.
Greet someone politely:
Sometimes the key to getting through an exciting moment is occupying your time with a completely different activity. If your dog is too excited to think constructively about keeping four paws on the floor, practicing an alternative--touching his nose to the visitor’s hand to redirect that energy.
Ring a bell to go outside:
Your dog can’t talk, but if you teach him to ring a bell with his nose, he will have a new way to tell you that it’s time to go outside! Just be careful that he doesn’t get so excited about his newfound communication skills that he starts the vicious cycle of “let dog in-let dog out-let dog in-let dog out-repeat: ad nauseam”.
Next time you’re at the zoo, see if they have a training show. As your dog learns more, you may see that your dog might have more in common with that elephant than you think!