Training Tips Tuesday – Hand Touch
January 15, 2019
Welcome to our second Training Tip Tuesday of January 2019! This week we will talk about a deceptively simple skill that is one of the first things I like to teach for all new dogs and puppies: The hand touch (sometimes called simply touch, hand target, or targeted touch). The name says everything: This is simply your dog touching your hand with its nose.
One of the reasons I like touch so much is that while the skill itself is simple, it can be helpful in a wide variety of circumstances. For example:
- As a backup recall (what I call sneaky recall): In circumstances where dogs may not want to “come,” they often still respond to a distance “touch” instead without recognizing it as a recall.
- As a way to non-physically move a dog from one spot to another. In my multi-large dog household, I often find this useful when, for example, my dogs are excitedly milling around the door in anticipation of going outside. It is also helpful for new dogs who may have come with some fears or sensitivity to having their collar touched or grabbed.
- Speaking of dogs who don’t like their collars touched or grabbed, it can be used as part of a plan to desensitize dogs to collar touches.
- When addressing behavior problems such as resource guarding, it can be incorporated into a behavior modification plan by providing a conflict-free way to manage getting a dog, say, off the couch.
- It can be used to focus a dog’s attention on you in a variety of circumstances:
- If your reactive dog has alerted to its trigger but has not yet reacted
- When your dog is distracted at a training class or on a walk
- As a warm up to engage your dog before practicing training any other skill
- It can relax and add confidence to a dog who is slightly nervous in a situation such as a vet visit or car ride
- It can be used as a lure to encourage dogs to try new things or things that they are wary of: For example, learning to go up or down stairs, getting in the car, walking on a surface they don’t like or with new boots on.
- It is a good skill to use to introduce your dog to a type of training called free shaping.
- For dogs who are wiggly during routine grooming such as brushing or nail trims, adding duration to a touch can be used to focus their attention elsewhere and keep them still.
- As a tool to help teach other skills. For example, if you want to teach your dog how to weave through your legs, you can use touch to help guide them where you want them to go.
Hopefully you’re convinced a touch is useful, now let’s learn how to teach it!
I like to teach this skill using a technique called free shaping. This means I set up the circumstances needed for the dog to do the skill without specifically asking, luring, guiding, or otherwise trying to communicate to them what I want. I simply wait for the dog to do the skill, then mark (this can be a word or clicker) and reward. Dogs are very, very good at figuring out what gets them what they want, so it usually doesn’t take them long to figure it out and start to do the skill on purpose.
Let’s watch Dr. Brownlee’s grand-dog, Dory, go through the process of learning a hand touch for the first time. Unfortunately the audio did not record properly, but every time she touches my hand with her nose I say “yes!” and give her a treat. (When I am first teaching this skill I usually try to give the treat with the opposite hand the dog touched to avoid them thinking I am just luring or teasing them with the treat, so without the audio in some cases during these videos this ends up looking like I am doing two hand touches in a row with opposite hands.)
This is the first video and is very typical for a dog learning a skill via shaping for the first time. I’m just standing with my hand available and I’m not saying anything to her. Initially she touches my hand almost by accident because she doesn’t really know why I’m standing there or what we’re doing but hey, my hand is there. She’s also demonstrating how it’s very common for dogs who have learned “watch me” to look at you, waiting for some direction before they start to experiment with offering something.
The hardest part at this early stage is being patient and waiting for it to occur to the dog to touch your hand just because it’s there. Watching this video, I can see how I was unconsciously fidgeting and moving my hand even though it wasn’t my intention to draw her attention to it.
Here is Dory a little farther along where sometimes she is intentionally touching my hand but she’s not fully sure of what we’re doing or what I want.
In this third video, Dory is clearly acting with more intention and confidence. She’s more focused on me and quickly orients to the hand that is presented her rather than the hand she knows has a treat in it – because she is starting to understand how to get the treat.
When a dog is consistently acting with this level of intention, I add the verbal cue: Right before I present my hand, I say “touch” (or whatever cue you want to use). At this stage the word doesn’t mean anything yet, but through repetition she will start to associate it with the skill.
For the purposes of getting video, I worked with Dory for about four or five minutes. However, when you are working on this at home I recommend practicing no more than 5-10 repetitions at a time, no more than 2-3 times per day. As humans, practicing “just one more time” consecutively can help us learn, but this can be counterproductive for dogs. Rather, they benefit from short, spaced sessions with time between for what is called latent learning (“letting it sink in”).
Once your dog understands the verbal cue, you can start to add distance. Don’t be surprised if at first your dog doesn’t seem to understand, as dogs are very situational learners; until we teach them otherwise, walking across a room to touch is very different from touching a hand right next to them. Start by taking just a step or two away from your dog, present your hand, and give your verbal cue. If your dog isn’t understand, move closer. As your dog masters each slight increase in distance, you can add more.
If you decide to teach “touch,” let us know how it’s going! And as always, if you have any questions at all feel free to call the clinic and ask to speak to a doctor.
Karen Christopherson DVM