A Groomer’s Guide to Target Training

By Melissa Viera

Training for veterinary care, grooming, and handling procedures can greatly reduce stress, and make the job easier for all involved. Target training is widely used in zoos, aquariums, and with domesticated animals of all species. Animals can learn to hold their nose to a target while having blood drawn, and during other veterinary procedures. This kind of training is useful across many species, large and small, including our dogs and cats. Animals can learn to willingly cooperate even for complex procedures.  Targeting can be used by pet groomers to improve behavior and create positive experiences.

There are many different types of targeting behaviors that can be taught, for example: nose, paw, and even shoulder targeting. The nose target tends to be the easiest to train and can be used in a number of ways. With this target the animal touches their nose to an object, or a person’s hand. In just one session, even animals with no training experience can usually get the concept down. Within a few more sessions, the behavior can be put on cue and cleaned up enough to make it useful for grooming purposes. An even more advanced “sustained target” can be trained where the animal holds their nose to the target for a longer period of time instead of just tapping it.

As a groomer/trainer, I use targeting on a daily basis. Targeting has been a useful tool for me across multiple species, including dogs, cats, and even rabbits. One example of how targeting helped transform the grooming experience for a dog is of a rescue dog estimated to be under two years old who had an unknown history, and was not able to tolerate any aspect of grooming. This particular dog would throw himself into a complete panic during grooming, and had a history of trying to bite groomers.

After being cleared by the vet, I began training him for grooming. Everything about the grooming process was a trigger, so I worked on the floor to start. It took a few minutes of play and getting to know each other before he would take food. Once he did, I went right into the target training.  He immediately took to the training, and seemed to be a different dog when he had the opportunity to earn rewards with his behavior. After a few times of hitting the target I would toss a toy and give him a break. I began lightly handling him while he touched the target. Next I put him up on the table and used the target. During each of his appointments, which lasted less than an hour total, I was able to do some basic grooming combined with the target training. Within just a few sessions he was willing to cooperate for all of his grooming.

The first step to teaching the nose target is simple. Most dogs will naturally want to investigate the target, which can be any object you choose to use. Hold the target or place it down when the dog is watching, and when they lean in for that first sniff, mark and reward right away. Some dogs will need some more encouragement, but be patient. Once they understand the targeting game, training moves along quite quickly. It might be surprising to find out just how fast dogs pick up on targeting even without much practice between grooming appointments.

Marker-reward training is the key to success with target training. Food rewards tend to work great for training the behavior quickly. Other types of rewards can be used as well, such as praise, toys, and play. But one of the benefits of using small bits of high value food is that the animal eats the treat and continues the training without having to take a lot of time with the reward. A marker can be a word, the click of a clicker, a whistle, or any consistent sound. The marker tells the animal exactly what they did to earn a reward. It will only be used for training purposes and it is always followed by a reward.

With target training, you want to mark the instant the dog’s nose makes contact with the target and follow with the treat reward. Without using a marker it would be difficult to communicate with the dog clearly so that they understand it is the behavior of their nose touching the target that earns the reward, and not when they are pulling their nose away to get a treat. In the beginning every successful touch to the target earns a reward, but the rewards can be random once the behavior is learned.

As a groomer, your time is limited with each animal. You have a job to get the pets in your care groomed and sent home quickly, so how would you find the time to also train them? Would it really be worth the time and effort? A groomer’s dream dog to groom enjoys the grooming process. They are flexible and relaxed on the table. They are not fearful or stressed. They lift their paws on cue, and relax on their side for brushing. Not only are they well behaved for grooming, but they are a pleasure to have in the salon.

You might have a handful of dogs who are already like this for you, and you look forward to their grooming appointments. But there are also dogs who barely tolerate grooming. Even very difficult dogs can be transformed with work, and when training is artfully combined with the grooming process, the time is not tacked on to the groom, but becomes a part of the process.

Some dogs won’t need much upkeep of the training at home, while others should get as much practice as possible. Many clients will appreciate the extra care and attention their pet is receiving when you tell them about the training. The target behavior has many uses outside of grooming, should they want to try it at home.  For example, a nose-to-hand target (trained just like a nose-to-object target) can be used as a recall to get dogs to come when called, or it can be used in training leash walking by holding the target where the dog is expected to walk.

Targeting is also great for trick training. If your clients are interested in using targeting, provide them with a simple, one page outline of instructions, or direct them to a video on the web with examples of targeting. You don’t have to give them an entire training lesson, just enough to get them inspired to try it on their own.

My goal is that every animal I groom will enjoy a stress-free experience and that they are willing participants, and with time, they become the ideal grooming clients. Taking a training approach with grooming allows me to achieve this one animal at a time. Not every animal I work on will be trained targeting, nor does every animal need to be, but many of them do learn it. Training might mean only five minutes of the total groom is spent working on a behavior, or it might mean an entire program is in order if the animal requires it.

If you are ready for a fun challenge, then why not give targeting a try? Start small by choosing just one or two dogs to begin experimenting with, or try it with your own dogs.  The training is fun and fairly simple, but it takes some trial and error to be able to incorporate it into normal grooming time without falling behind. Don’t get discouraged if it takes some practice to start being able to use the targeting for grooming purposes.  You can have a positive impact with target training by helping dogs build confidence, and become great grooming dogs.

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