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Hand Targeting for Dogs: Right on Target!

Tricks By Andrea Carter 21 min read May 24, 2021 1 Comment

teaching dogs to hand target

Do you wish your dog could greet people politely, shut the door behind you, and tell you when he needs to go outside for a potty break? If so, you may want to teach your dog a skill called hand targeting!

Hand-targeting is a great foundation behavior which can help increase your dog’s confidence, speed his comprehension of complex behaviors, and so much more! 

We will explain what hand targeting is, discuss why it’s a useful skill, and outline how to teach it to your dog below.  

Hand Targeting for Dogs: Key Takeaways

  • Hand targeting involves teaching your dog to touch his nose to your hand. It’s a very useful skill that will help boost your dog’s confidence, give you a way to check on your dog’s emotional state, and serve as the foundation for a variety of more complicated skills.
  • Hand targeting is pretty easy to teach dogs and doesn’t require a lot of tools or supplies. Essentially, you’ll just need some treats and a good place to practice. A clicker is also very helpful, but not mandatory.
  • There are a few common problems that may occur when teaching your dog to hand target, but we’ll help you avoid these. For example, some dogs simply aren’t interested in learning this skill, while other may try to bite the target.

What Is Hand Targeting?

A successful hand target is defined as a dog making contact between his nose and a person’s hand on cue

benefits of hand targeting

“Targeting” in general means that an animal will touch a specific part of his body to a designated location.

Since our hands are conveniently “handy” targets when we’re hanging out with or training our dogs, they make the perfect location or target for doggos to touch.

Many people give this behavior a verbal cue of “Touch,” though some folks may name it “Boop” or “Nudge.” No matter what you call it, this behavior is excellent for helping dogs quickly learn more complex behaviors, which require them to interact with a person or object. 

Hand targeting is also great for social situations when your dog may get overwhelmed or distracted. Asking for a quick, easy behavior like a hand target can help you touch base with your pooch. And figuring out whether your dog is focused or distracted can be quite useful from a training standpoint. 

Asking your dog to touch your hand can also help him focus on you long enough that he will hear or see other cues that he might have otherwise been too distracted to acknowledge. 

What Are the Benefits of Hand Targeting for Dogs?

Dogs that learn how to hand target enjoy quite a few benefits from this quick and useful behavior. We’ll discuss some of the most notable benefits below!

  • Most dogs enjoy learning hand targeting. Since this skill is taught using positive reinforcement training techniques, it is a behavior that most dogs will love to learn. This can help your dog build confidence.
  • It will add another skill to your dog’s repertoire. The more good things your dog knows how to do, the easier it is for him to make good choices and spend his days doing things that you prefer. In fact, every good activity that your dog learns can replace or prevent undesirable behaviors. 
  • It supports the bonding process. Teaching hand targeting can help you and your dog nurture the loving bond between you even more. And that’s always something worth doing!
  • Teaching your dog to hand target can help him learn how to be a better student. Every skill your dog learns will help him learn additional skills in the future. It’ll also help him pick up skills faster and remember things longer too.
  • Hand targeting is a great way to find out how distracted your dog is in the presence of a trigger. This is especially true of dogs who are reactive or fearful. With practice, it can help get your dog’s focus back to you when his attention is elsewhere. 
  • Hand targeting is a great management tool. When it’s nail trimming or grooming time, hand targeting is a great way to help move your dog closer to you and get him positioned properly. Adding duration — meaning that he will keep his nose in contact with your hand for a few seconds — to your dog’s target cue can also help him focus on succeeding at targeting for a little while, rather than the experience of being groomed. 
  • You can use it to help move your dog from place to place. If, for example, your dog is on the furniture and you’d like him to move elsewhere, you can use hand targeting to relocate him. This way, you won’t have to physically move him from here to there. 
  • It can help you teach one of the most important skills: a reliable recall. Teaching a speedy, reliable recall (aka teaching your dog to come when called) is much easier when your dog knows how to hand target. 

Finally, it is also important to understand that hand-targeting is a great “base” behavior. In other words, it will work as a “jumping off point” for actions that involve your dog making contact or interacting with other people or objects.

If you are teaching new behaviors that require your dog to be in a particular location relative to you or other objects, such as a “front” position for obedience trials, hand targeting can help you move your dog into the correct location or body position so he can learn the new behavior much faster. 

Complex, service dog tasks are also easier to teach by starting with a hand target. For example, when teaching a dog to turn the lights on and off, you can begin by teaching the dog a hand target so he can focus his attention and interaction on the correct object.

Once your dog learns to hand target, it will speed up the learning process for these more complex behaviors a bunch. 

What Do You Need to Teach Hand Targeting?

Hand targeting sounds like the handiest behavior of all time, doesn’t it? 

funny dog laughing

It’s not rocket science to teach your dog how to hand target correctly. But before you begin, it’s a good idea to have the necessary items on hand so you and your doggo can enjoy a successful practice. 

A Clicker (or Simply a Marker Word)

Have you been using a clicker to teach your dog, or are you interested in adding this handy training tool to your dog’s learning skill set? If so, grab your training clicker before you get started!

If you’re not interested in using a clicker, you can always use a marker word like “Yes” or “Good” to let your dog know when he is getting it just right. Clickers have been found to help dogs learn even faster than verbal markers since they always sound exactly the same. 

Trainer Pro-Tip

You certainly don’t need a clicker to teach hand targeting, but it will definitely help.

In fact, many trainers feel that clickers help dogs learn even faster than verbal markers, since they always sound exactly the same.

Treats, Treats, and More Treats

Also, you will need a bunch of small, very tasty training treats to reward your dog with as he learns. Pinky nail-size treats are great, and having a variety of treat flavors or types can keep your dog from getting bored with receiving many of the exact same treat. 

Consider grabbing a treat pouch too so you have a place to store those stinky noms!

A Good Time and Place

Think about when and how long your training sessions will be – regular, short practice sessions (rather than haphazardly scheduled marathon sessions) can help a dog learn faster.

You’ll also want to pick a place without distractions. Many owners assume their dogs are being stubborn when they won’t listen outside, but this is largely due to dogs simply being overstimulated in an outdoor environment.

To increase your chances of success, always start out new training practices indoors, then familiar outdoor settings (like a backyard) before even attempting commands in an exciting outdoor location like a park.

Consider your time of day too. My favorite time to teach is just before feeding a meal. Five minutes of practice is plenty of time to warm up, add difficulty gradually, improve a bit more, and end on a good note. 

How to Teach Your Dog to Hand Target

Teaching your dog to hand target entails a few simple steps and a little practice. Read on to find out how to get started teaching this handy cue!

Step 1. Start Out Simple & Easy

To teach a great hand target, you want to set your dog up to be as successful as he can possibly be. Make sure he’s had some playtime or exercise already that day and that he hasn’t just eaten a meal (he won’t be as food motivated when he’s full). 

Set aside 20 to 30 tasty, bite-sized, high-value treats nearby or in a treat pouch, and grab your clicker if you’re using one. This amount of treats and five to ten minutes of time are plenty for one training session.

When you initially start each training session, give your dog a few “freebies.” Click (or mark verbally — “Yes!”) then give him a treat three to five times in quick succession to get him excited about learning. 

Next, hold your palm out toward your dog with the fingers pointing toward the ground.  

You could point your fingers up, but lots of people like to save that hand orientation to teach things  like “High-Five” and “Wave!”

Since your dog can see the difference, the hand orientation matters, and showing your dog your hand with the fingers pointing down will be easier for you to do if you’re standing or walking.

hand position for targeting

Hold your hand out near your dog’s face, a couple inches from his nose. When he stretches forward to sniff your hand and you feel his nose make contact with your skin, click (or verbally mark) and give him one treat as you move your target hand away from your dog. 

You can either feed the treat to your pooch from your other hand or drop it on the ground at this point. It’s actually wise to let him practice receiving treats in both of these ways. 

Repeat holding your hand out toward your dog using the same hand targeting shape, clicking when his nose makes contact with your hand, and giving him a treat until they’re all in his belly. 

Struggling? Try Some Peanut Butter!

If your dog isn’t showing any interest in your hand, try rubbing a tiny bit of hot dog juice or peanut butter into your palm.

This should get your pooch in the palm-touching mood! Continue to click and reward with the help of peanut butter, and eventually your dog will get the hang of the behavior, even without the peanut butter for encouragement.

Step 2. Make Things a Little Bit Harder

Once your dog has figured out that all he has to do is bonk your hand with his nose, start to add a few tiny variables.

Try, for example, offering your other hand as the target. You could also hold your hand target a little higher or lower than before, or offer it a bit to the left or right of your dog’s nose. 

The goal of this step of the training is that you can hold your hand out with your palm facing your dog, click and reward when his nose makes contact with your hand, and be fairly certain that he will attempt to touch your hand target again each time you offer it. 

If he’s still pretty good at succeeding while you’re making things a bit tougher, you’ll know he’s figuring out this new fun game!

Step 3. Moving Your Hand Target

Once your doggo is doing well at the previous step, try adding some movement.

Begin tossing your reward treat instead of handing it to him. Make sure you toss it far enough from him that he has to stand up and move a step or two away from you in order to find and eat the treat.

As he finishes eating and looks at you, hold your hand out as your dog is moving closer to you. If he successfully makes contact with your hand again, click and toss his treat a short distance away, perhaps in a slightly different direction than before. 

When your dog is doing well moving himself around a little and heading back toward you purposefully to touch your hand, you can add some movement of your own. 

Start by just standing up, rather than sitting down. Make sure your dog is good at touching your hand target while you’re in that new body position. 

adding complexity to hand targeting

Then, when you’ve offered your hand for him to touch but he hasn’t touched it yet, take one small step back, away from your dog, bringing your target hand with you

If he moves toward you and touches your hand, click and treat! This will teach your dog to actively pursue an offered hand target even if it is moving some. 

This can also help dogs learn how to move and target at the same time, which can make hand targeting an easy way to help them learn to walk close to their people. It’s also a simple way to teach excellent recalls.

Step 4. Adding Verbal Cues to Hand Targeting

Adding a verbal cue to your hand target is a great idea, especially if you’d like to be able to cue it when your dog can’t see you, or isn’t oriented in your direction.

Once you are quite sure that your dog will attempt to make contact with your hand target each time you offer it to him, start adding your verbal cue during your practice sessions

Say your hand targeting cue (“Touch!”) one time just before offering your hand target to your dog. Click and treat for success. 

To teach your dog to respond quickly and consistently to his new verbal cue, it’s important that your dog has plenty of opportunities to successfully hear the cue and succeed.

Add a little distance and movement back in when your dog is doing well at hearing “Touch” and looking in your direction, trying to see where your hand target is. 

Keep in mind that practicing your hand target in lots of different places and near many unique distractions will be necessary before your dog will have mastered the skill.

Also, watch out for situations in which your pupper has trouble succeeding and be sure to practice in these scenarios. Consider these great training opportunities for building consistency. 

Adding New Targets: Teaching Your Dog to Target an Object

Once your dog has a handle on hand targeting, consider moving on to different objects.

No matter what new objects you want your dog to interact with, adding a new target object to your dog’s repertoire will be easier when he already knows how to hand target. 

A target stick — essentially a long stick with a “target” on one end — works wonderfully in this context. Target sticks are especially useful when standing up and working with small dogs, since bending down to offer the dog a hand target many times may be uncomfortable. 

A target stick can be as simple as a dowel rod with a small area of contrasting color on one end, or as fancy as a telescoping stick with a target ball on the end made specifically for this purpose. 

Start by holding the stick with the target area in front of your palm when your hand is in hand target orientation. This should encourage your dog to attempt to make contact with your target hand. You can also say “Touch” once if he seems unsure about what he’s being asked to do. 

Click and treat if he makes any contact with the stick, and practice this step until he is doing so every time. 

Then, slowly add length to the stick so its target end is increasingly further from your palm. Once your dog seems to understand that idea and is making contact with the stick regularly, get pickier — only click and treat for nose touches that happen on the target area of the stick. 

When your dog is consistently making contact with the target area of the stick, you can add a new verbal cue to differentiate targeting this new object.

Saying “Stick, Touch” can help your dog understand what you want him to do with this new object, and you can fade the “Touch” part as soon as your dog is correctly responding to “Stick” and the nonverbal cue of you holding the stick out. 

Once he understands how to target the stick, you can start moving it. Try placing the stick near or behind all sorts of other things, like potty bells or a new friend’s hand.

Adding a new verbal cue once your dog is making good contact with new target objects can add those targets to your dog’s training vocabulary.

Troubleshooting: Common Hand Targeting Missteps 

Teaching your pooch to hand target is usually pretty straightforward, but owners occasionally run into issues. We’ll tackle a few of the most common struggles below. 

My Dog Isn’t Interested in Hand Targeting 

If your pooch is too distracted or energized to focus on a hand target training session, try to get your pooch excited about the training game! 

You can offer a bit more mental or physical exercise, treats that the dog considers higher value, or a potty break before starting to train.

If your dog just isn’t in the right headspace to learn, don’t worry. Give him some extra enrichment or exercise and try starting a training session again a little later in the day.

My Dog Won’t Make Actual Contact

If your dog looks at your hand but isn’t making contact, click and treat him for glancing at your hand, and try holding your hand a little bit closer to your dog’s nose next time.

If he sniffs near your hand but doesn’t make contact after 3 seconds, touch one of your treats or rub one on your palm, and try offering your hand out to him again. 

If he’s still not interested enough to touch your hand on his own, try holding a treat between your thumb and your palm, or wedging the treat between a couple of your fingers near the knuckles. 

When you hold a treat lure like this, you can give your dog the lure treat the first few times, but try to switch to giving him a different treat from your pouch (not the treat you’re holding in your hand) as soon as possible.

It can be the same type of treat, just not the specific treat you were luring with by holding it in your target hand. 

Doing this will help encourage your dog to believe that you have plenty of treats to give him when he successfully completes a hand target, even if you aren’t holding one in your target hand.

Giving him a treat from your pouch instead will help your dog realize that the treat you’re holding in your target hand matters less than the action your dog is performing. 

Fading away the treat you hold in your target hand should be done gradually, as soon as your dog no longer needs you to hold it there for him to succeed.

Help! My Dog Is Trying to Bite the Target!

If your dog is trying to bite the target object, try to click and treat when the dog is looking or moving toward it, but hasn’t made contact or bitten it yet. Do not click if your dog mouths, licks, or chews the target object. Remove the target and wait a moment before offering it to him again.

Pet-Trainer Pro Tip

If your dog isn’t easily making contact with your hand using his nose, do not bonk him on the nose by moving your hand to make that contact happen yourself.

If your dog doesn’t like being bonked, he may decide your treats aren’t worth it, and he may leave to find something more pleasant to do by himself.

Just let him initiate the contact.

Taking Things Further: Advanced Hand Targeting Skills

Using your hand or a target stick as your dog’s target, many useful behaviors can be taught to your dog with much less confusion on his part – and yours!

Here are a few common behaviors that many people want their dogs to know that can be taught more easily using targeting.

  • Polite Greetings – Your dog can learn to target other people’s hands instead of jumping during greetings. 
  • Heeling/Leash Manners – Holding a target stick near your leg so your dog will walk in a good position for heeling or loose leash walking can speed training and reduce confusion.
  • Potty BellsTeaching your dog to ring bells before going outside to potty is a great skill that is very helpful during potty training.
  • Recall – Once your dog is successfully moving toward you and hand targeting as you take a few steps away from him, continuing to practice while adding distance gradually is a great way to improve your dog’s recall.
  • Move Somewhere Specific – If your dog is learning how to go to his mat on cue, or isn’t easily moving onto your vet’s scale, inside a crate, or into the car, using a hand target can help him focus on his targeting task rather than his unease in a new location.
  • Move Off Furniture – Offering a hand target a short distance away from where your dog is resting is an easy way to ask him to move himself without a fuss.
  • Turn Lights On or Off – This behavior is complex, but service dogs often learn how to do it to help their human partners with mobility issues. Essentially, you’ll begin by teaching him to target the switch or extension sticks attached to the switches, and then move on to teaching him to flip it one way or the other. 
  • Shut Doors and Drawers – This is useful for your dog to know so he can close them when your hands are full. It also gives him something fun to do, which is incompatible with running out the door.
  • Add Duration for Grooming & Medical Care – Teaching your dog to hold his nose on a target for a short time while he is cared for can reduce everyone’s stress.

These advanced targeting behaviors are fun to teach and useful so you can communicate with your dog easier and enjoy your time with him that much more!

Plus, dogs love to be helpful, and teaching them tasks that improve our lives together is fun for everyone.

Dog Hand Targeting FAQs 

Owners occasionally have questions about hand targeting, so we’ll try to answer a few of the most common ones below! 

Why teach your dog to hand-target or touch things? 

Dogs benefit greatly from learning how to interact with specific objects on cue. Since our hands are always nearby when we interact with our dogs, teaching this behavior can help your pet something specific and relatively easy to do if he’s nervous.

Hand targeting is also great when you want your pooch to interact with a particular object with less fear. If a dog is uneasy about having people’s hands near him, hand targeting is a good way to counter-condition those feelings and help him feel better about hands in general.

Using hand targeting to help a dog accomplish movement or body positions, like learning “Heel,” can speed training and improve his interest in learning. Incorporating hand targeting as you teach your dog to interact with novel items like potty bells and help him understand the desired behaviors faster with less confusion.

Are there any touch or hand-targeting games you can play with your dog?

Playing “Ping-Pong” with your dog by having at least two people call him back and forth so he can hand target and earn a treat with each person is a great way to improve his recall and use up some extra energy at the same time!

Hand targeting can also be used to teach your dog fun behaviors like weaving through your legs when you walk, or nodding and shaking his head on cue.

Is hand targeting hard for dogs to learn?

Most dogs can learn to hand target quickly and easily. If your dog is afraid or uneasy about being close to human hands, it can take a bit more time but is worth the effort since the counter conditioning involved helps such dogs feel safer having hands near them.

When should you teach your dog hand targeting? 

Dogs of any age and experience level can learn how to hand target. It is also a great behavior to teach dogs since so many other behaviors can be taught faster and easier once dogs know how to hand target.

***

While it may not be one of the first behaviors that people think about teaching their dog, modern trainers have found that hand targeting is one of the most useful cues for our dogs to learn.

Teaching your dog to hand target is a great way to improve his skill set and prepare him to learn all sorts of other handy behaviors and tricks!

When do you like to ask your dog to hand target? How old was your dog when he learned to hand target? What sorts of other behaviors were easier to teach your dog because you had already taught him to hand target? 

Share your experiences (and any questions you may have) in the comments below!

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Written by

Andrea Carter

Andrea writes training content for K9 Of Mine and has been helping dogs and their people learn to live happily together for over a dozen years. She is currently helping special dogs work their way through the shelter system and continually draws on the knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of learning, a myriad of creature-centric jobs, and the daily care of her own quirky pets.

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Lillian Lunt

I taught my dog this: in the beginning, when he was trying to understand booping my hand, I gave him treats. But once he had a vague understanding, I would reward him with going outside. So now if he has to use the bathroom or simply just play outside, he has a way to tell me beside just staring at me and crying because that usually meant either: Outside, walk, play, food, etc. So now if he wants it to go outside, he’ll come find me wherever I am and boop my hand.

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