I spend a lot of time target training, looking at how a dog’s focus can get shifted from one thing to another. By considering this more general view of targeting it can be seen as a fundamental part of dog behaviour and training, more basic than most techniques which are essentially just a trick. Target training as it is commonly understood in the dog world is about teaching the dog to target something, anything, with its nose or perhaps foot. It is a very versatile trick and is common in clicker training as a starter exercise because it can be quite easy to understand when to click, helping co-ordination of click then treat, and gives a quick encouraging result. Different targets can easily be incorporated in the training. I remember one of my more extravagant purchases at Crufts one year being an Alley-oop, a freestanding, self-righting, target stick. Getting a dog to nudge your hand is a widely used training challenge, it being such a straightforward target to present and helps the dog orient to the handler. However, the conditioned skill isn’t necessarily going to work when confronted with the natural thrill of an exciting target.
The target training I use now is less mechanical, hopefully addresses something more fundamental and universal in the dog/handler relationship, and is closely linked to a retrieve although could also be seen as a dog on it’s bed. I’m trying to describe something incredibly simple, looking for the generic code, which is also endlessly able to elaborate and become more complex. Seeing the similarity between different targets enables us to practise training that can switch from one to another and include all of them. Targets are then multitudinous and various. To give a more identifiable form to this abstract idea the target could be a tennis ball, but could also be a bus or a squirrel. Anything the dog focuses on is potentially the target and being able to switch from one target to another, and deal with the target in different ways is all part of the training challenge.
The simplest arrangement of these targets is perhaps then a dog, a handler and a toy. The training challenge is then to be able to play through a number of patterns with these three in different orders. For example, with the toy being held by the handler can the dog chase, can the dog lie down? Now throw the toy to one side, can the handler still get the dog to chase or lie down, without being distracted by the toy? Then is it possible to direct the dog to chase the toy, and then get a down? And finally with the dog holding the toy will the handler be chased? These are the games to be playing with target training, and are only using simple options, chase or down, with the choice of handler or toy. From simple routines great complexity can be built, generating a wide variety of skills.