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Target Stick Basics

By Gary Wilkes  Copyright 1997

( NOTE: I will be adding to this in the next week or so -- I should have some photos to go with the article. 4/17/97)


Now that you have your Magic Wand, what the heck do you do with it?

 Many of the behaviors that we want our dogs to perform require the ability to get the dog to focus his attention on a particular location or object. A very versatile tool for controlling these types of behaviors is a  "target stick." While the actual stick can be anything from an apple wand to a laser pointer, the process is the same. First, teach the dog to recognize the target and then learn to control the targeting behavior. Once  you have a "target trained" dog, the applications are almost endless. You can use targeting to teach an  off-lead heel, a go-out, "finish", directed movements for herding and field work, and object recognition. One  of the best uses for a target stick is to "click start" a dog that has been traditionally trained and needs to learn to offer behaviors to you.  Here are some simple instructions to help you get started. For more  specific information and some good action shots, both the On Target and Click & Treat Training Kit videos  show applications for the target stick, such as directed jumps, drop on recall and heeling.

Teaching Targeting.

 A simple way to target train your dog is to get the dog's attention, then place your finger in front of your dog's nose. If the dog investigates your finger, click and treat. (C&T) Gradually start offering your finger at  greater distances, to the left, right, above and below the dog's nose. When the behavior is happening with regularity, start giving the cue "Touch", just before you offer your finger.

 Holding a Target Stick:

With your dominant hand, circle your thumb and forefinger into a classic "OK" symbol. Put the clicker  between your thumb and forefinger, while leaving your other three fingers extended. Grasp the stick with your remaining three fingers. This allows you to hold the clicker and stick in the same hand. Now pretend  that the stick is a spoon and you are stirring a cake. Rotate your wrist so that the tip of the stick is pointing, vertically downward.

Transferring to the Target Stick:

 Offer the tip of the stick, slightly above the dog's nose. Give the cue, "Touch". If the dog touches the stick, C&T. Repeat the training process that you used for teaching the dog to touch your finger.

 If the dog is afraid of the stick:

A percentage of dogs will be leery of the stick. Place the stick on the ground and put a treat underneath the  tip. As the dog grabs the treat, click the clicker. Next, place a treat on the ground and put the tip of the stick in front if it. Force the dog to brush against the stick to get the treat. Rub some hot-dog on the stick and see if  the dog will investigate it.

Goals for targeting:

1) The dog will touch the stick when it is on the ground.

2) The dog will touch the stationary stick in your hand.

 3) The dog will follow the stick through movements such as circles, left and right, and figure eights.

4) The dog will touch any object that you have identified with the Target Stick.

 Transferring targets outdoors.

The best target to use for outdoor work is a plastic practice golf ball on an arrow shaft. The ball has holes in  it that allow you to slide it onto a target arrow . Adjust the ball to the height of your dog's nose. This can easily facilitate directed movements such as "left", "right" and "straight'.

Teaching a straight "go out"

1. Place the target arrow in the ground, standing upright.

2. Practice getting the dog to touch the Target Stick several times.

 3. Touch the stick to the golf ball and say "touch". If the dog touches the ball, click and treat (C&T). Repeat this until the dog is touching the ball consistently.

 4. Next, hide the Target Stick behind your leg and command "touch" -- the only target available is the ball on the stick. If the dog makes any effort to touch the ball, click and treat.

 5. Ask for the behavior again. AS the dog touches the ball, click. Wait for the dog to return to you to give the treat. Now take a step away from the target ball, and say "touch." The dog must now go an extra step to  touch the ball. Over a series of repetitions, gradually increase the distance the dog must go to bump the ball. Once the dog will go about 10 feet, in a straight line, begin adding the cue "go" or whichever command you  prefer, instead of "Touch".

6. Place the stick in a setting that approximates an obedience ring. Practice getting several repetitions in  between reinforcements. Occasionally offer big jackpots as a surprise reinforcement.

7. If the behavior weakens or decays, review steps 1-6. Don't be afraid to review, even with an experienced dog.

 "Finish" :

Start with the dog in a "front" position.

1. Hold the stick out to your side, and command "touch". The dog should leave its seated position and take  a couple of steps toward the stick.

2. If the dog bumps the stick, click and treat. If not, say "wrong" in a neutral tone of voice and move the stick a little closer for the next repetition.

 3. Once the command "Touch" will consistently draw the animal to take a few steps forward, start moving the stick in a curve around your back. Continue until the dog will move in a rough approximation of a  "finish".

4. Gradually move the tip of the stick closer to your hand. This is like a baseball player "choking up" on a  bat. Over a series of repetitions, the tip of the stick will "fade" as the target. Your hand movement will become the signal for "finish".

 5. As the dog gets better at the behavior, start reinforcing the most accurate and enthusiastic performances, while ignoring sloppy finishes. Try to get several finishes in a row, between reinforcements.


1. Hold the Target Stick across your belt buckle so the tip is at your dog's nose level. Turn slightly away  from the dog so that he is lagging, just a bit. Say "touch" and wait for the dog to move to the stick.

2. As the dog moves toward the stick, take a step forward. If the dog follows even one step to touch the  stick, click and treat. If not, say "wrong" and drop your standards a little.

3. Try to get the dog to follow the stick in a shallow right hand turn. Change the shape of the circle to a rounded square.

 4. Add "left about turn" to the equation.

5. Practice sharp turns left and right.

6. Add stops to the process. (You can use the stick to lead the dog into a sit, just before he stops.)

 Gradually shorten the stick in your hand and start using the word "heel", instead of "touch".

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 Copyright 1997 by Gary Wilkes -- No portion of this web page may be reproduced without permission.