One of the first things I will train any animal, whether I have met the animal before or not, is to touch a target. Target training is when you teach an animal to touch a predetermined body part to a particular object. For example, teaching a dog to sit is training it to target its bottom to the floor. I’m wanting to go a little deeper with this and in particular I will begin with teaching an animal to touch the end of a stick with its nose, beak, snout, etc. I train this behavior to birds, dogs, fish, pigs, raptors, alligators, rats, monkeys and more.
In my opinion, teaching an animal to target is a must. You may already be training it and not realize it. Here are some of the top reasons I teach it.
- It builds a baseline with that animal. By this I mean, it begins teaching the animal that each time it gives me a small approximation toward the behavior I am looking for, it will receive something of value in return.
- Target training is a great way to introduce a new form of communication with the animal. Many animals I work with come to be with a history. The animals are usually a few years old and with those years, they have learned that not all interactions with humans bring desired consequences. By teaching them to target to a stick, I am building a direct line of communication with them. I am teaching them each time they interact with me, awesome consequences happen for them.
- The sight of the target stick becomes a cue to them that awesomeness is getting ready to happen. After I teach people how to target train their animals, I tell them to put the stick away after their training sessions and only bring it out when they intent to teach their animal to touch it. This helps teach contingencies to both the animal and the person. When the animal and person understand contingencies, they both begin understanding “When I do this, THIS happens!” It teaching both animal and person that their behavior has the ability to bring desired consequences.
- It helps build strong relationships with the animal. Once the animal sees this target stick come out,
people begin seeing the animal move toward them. That’s key! The animals start moving toward you instead of moving away from you.
- It helps you build your list of reinforcers. When I begin helping people train their animals, one of the first things I will advise them is to build their list of positive reinforcers. When first beginning, try to identify and build a list of five positive reinforcers. Once they get the list filled with five, I then tell them to concentrate on building that list to ten. You will find yourself trying to deliver a positive reinforcer for a behavior and realize the animal doesn’t want it. If you want that awesome behavior to continue, you better find something of value to the animal and deliver it as soon as possible. The longer the list you have, the more fluent you will be in being able to consistently get the behaviors you are requesting from the animal.
- It helps ‘the one person animal’ develop relationships with others in the household or organization. If you live or work with an animal that is extremely bonded to you and only to you, teaching another person to target train and continually pair themselves with positive reinforcers will begin teaching that animal to build relationships with others. This is extremely important to me because it helps prevent anxiety issues with the animal when the preferred person cannot be around. I always tell people “The tough part is not getting the animal to begin interacting with others. The tough part is keeping that balance once they do.” Once the animal begins interacting with others through touching a target, be sure to put yourself back into the equation by then stepping in and training the target as well. Teaching the bonded animal to interact with others sets them up for a successful future and helps empower them through independence.
- It provides choice. Animals, ourselves included, prefer having choices in all that we do. There is a large, concerning list of behavior consequences when choices are taken away from animals such as frustration, fear, anxiety, aggression, withdraw, lethargy, and more. Studies show that when you give a person the choice between A and B, they tend to pick the one that offers more choices. The animal has the choice to touch the target or not. That choice is there. When we deliver the animal’s positive reinforcer for the requested behavior, we help them build their self confidence. Providing choice to the animal during training empowers that animal. Empowering animals helps take the stress out of their lives by eliminating lack of choices. It builds mental confidence. I like seeing empowered,
confident animals. It shows and the confidence shows through the relationship with the trainer as well. When I see an animal excited to interact with someone, that brings a smile to my face.
- It helps you get an animal to go where you need it to go. If you need an animal to go back into its enclosure, crate, to heel or follow you, you can put the target stick where you want the animal to go.
- It helps with the training of many other behaviors. If the animal knows how to touch it’s nose, beak or snout to a stick, you can hold that target stick inside a crate. As long as the animal doesn’t have an aversion to the crate, it will begin taking steps inside the crate to touch the target stick because it has learned that awesome things happen when it touches the stick. If you need the bird to fly down to you out of the rafters, you can show it the target stick. If you need your dog in the back of the car, you can hold the target stick in the back seat. If the animal does have an aversion to the crate, the back seat of the car, or flying down to you, you can change this behavior through a process called counter-conditioning. Pair very small approximations toward the desired behavior with highly valued positive reinforcers. You CAN teach an old dog, fish, zebra, parrot, or pig new tricks. See my caption in the photo of me target training the chickens above.
- It provides comfort through off-contact training. I’m going to refer back up to the photo of Katy target training Rico. Because Rico is overly bonded to me, he will bite anyone else that tries to put their fingers in his cage. Most people don’t feel comfortable having their hands in close proximity to Rico. The target stick allows others to interact and build that relationship through positive reinforcement training by not having to touch him. Some of the volunteer here can now pet Rico through the cage bars due to that clear line of communication through training via the target stick. Win Win for all!!!
- It’s associated with YOU!!! When you are continually pairing yourself with things of high value to the animal, you are continually pairing yourself with desirable consequences to the animal. You will begin to see that YOU become one of the animal’s positive reinforcers. The animal will begin giving you requested behaviors for the opportunity to be with you or interact with you.
I’m going to end this post with a target training video that warms my heart each time I watch it. I have recently taken on the position as Director of Animal Training at The Indian Creek Zoo in Lambertville, Michigan. I will be training and forming a training team for over three hundred animals ranging from lemurs, alligators, cranes, giraffes and more. One of the first things I am training each animal is to touch a target. Here is a video I took last week of my second training session with this macaque. I am currently keeping all training with him to off-contact until I can better understand his body language and he better understands mine. In this video not only are “we” (he and I) building a strong foundation for communicating and interacting with each other through positive reinforcement training, he is clearly understanding what I am asking of him. A few times you will see him give me behaviors communicating to me that he doesn’t want to touch the stick. The choice is his. I pull the stick and through contingency ‘if this, then this’ he quickly makes his choice to touch the target and earn reinforcement.