When I first taught my dogs to recognize their various body parts, I tried to test that they knew a body part before using that body part in a training situation. After I was satisfied that my dog was aware of a body part, I would give a single verbal 'cue' for that part to 'test' the dog's comprehension, i.e. "hip," "shoulder," "cheek," etc. But, then I realized that a body part is difficult to test with just one word -- unless you are also using that word as a cue to do that behavior. Any test I tried turned into a behavior because there was always movement involved -- which there had to be for the dog to show me they knew the requested body part. Just naming the body part did not tell the dog what to do with that part. For instance, if I say "hip" and the dog moves her hip to my hand, "hip" turns into a cue meaning "move your hip over and touch my hand." 

More about BodyTargets

By Charlene Dunlap
June 2004

Marine mammal parks have used bridges and targets for many years to train and manage animals in their care. Some zoos are also using them for animal management and training. Since this technique has not been widely applied in the past to training dogs, there is a paucity of experienced dog trainers to whom we can turn for guidance; however, more and more dog trainers are interested in these techniques and discussions and exchange of information can better help us all.

Training with targets has many facets, but my purpose in this article is to present a few insights I have gleaned from teaching body targets to my dogs, and to show some examples of the ways I'm teaching behaviors using the dogs' knowledge of different parts of their body. Using body targets allows me to communicate with my dogs more straightforwardly. I hope this information will help others who might be struggling with how and where to use body targets in working with their dogs.

Think of your own body parts -- your hand, for example. How do you show someone that you know what your hand is if that person does not speak your language? Of course you get a mental picture of a hand, but in order for you to show your hand to someone else, you have to draw attention to the hand in some way. You do something with your hand; you thrust it out, hold it up, or you point to it. Then, that movement, whatever it is, becomes a named behavior, i.e. thrusting, waving, pointing.

Similarly, I found that my dogs could not show me they knew what their foot was by me merely saying to them, "foot." They probably thought, "Yes, I have a foot. What do you want me to do with it?" I had to give them more information, "Lift your foot," "Touch" (a target with your foot), "Shake hands," etc. -- all trained by using a verbal, a visual or a tactile cue giving the dog information about what to do with the foot. My dogs know the concept of the word "foot" if they correctly use that foot in the movement I have requested. I have found that if my dogs know the concept of their body parts -- then whatever I teach them to do using that body part becomes a trained behavior. The moment I realized that I didn't have to 'proof' the dogs for a single 'concept' cue (foot, hip, shoulder, etc.), training with body parts became not only more fun but a highly communicative interaction between me and the dogs.

Depending on the behavior I'm training, I will use a verbal cue with a target, or a verbal cue and a tactile cue together with one or more targets. Once my dogs know a movement, or a chain of movements that create a behavior, then I will use a cue for that behavior or sequence and will no longer need to prompt body parts with their verbal or tactile cues.

Francoise (Sassie) Joiris is a professional trainer who uses targeting to train her dog for movie and commercial work (as well as for dog sports). In this type work, the dog has to be able to take all cues from a distance. Stamp has been trained with bridges (intermediate and terminal) and targets from the time Francoise got him as a puppy and is fluent in understanding his body parts. Stamp has done movies, TV and print commercials.  Sometimes a director will have to change a shot that a trainer had prepared the dog for.  Using body part cues, Sassie can often verbally tell her dog (as the shoot is in progress) to isolate and move a particular body part in a direction other than where he had originally been trained to put it.  

An example is when Stamp was hired for a print commercial. For the shot, he was supposed to lie on his back with all four feet in the air. Sassie used bridges and targets to train Stamp to do this behavior, then, when the production company was shooting the shot, the director suddenly noticed that Stamp was an intact male and that the cute tummy-up pose notably displayed this. Sassie was able to verbally direct Stamp to twist his hips to one side, thereby neatly hiding his gender - and the director got the shot without having to wait for the behavior to be retrained.  

I also name body parts in non-training situations using much the same process that mothers use to teach language to their babies. That is by talking directly to and pointedly focusing on my dog with loving attention. I talk slowly and address the dog in such a way that there is no doubt I'm talking to that dog and to no one else.

An example might be as follows:  While looking at my dog with a friendly expression, I put my hand on his ear (drawing attention to this body part) and say, (slowly and with a somewhat exaggerated facial expression), "What an adorable EAR you have!  I'm going to look in your EAR now.  Good boy to let me look in your EAR."  I'm gently handling the ear as I speak so there is no doubt in the dog's mind about which body part I'm discussing.

Along with body parts, I also name things in my dogs' environment.  I use words to identify activities and objects.  This does not teach cognition directly, but most dogs can learn to identify the word with the object or activity by association.

It is no more likely that my dogs can learn the intricacies of the human language than it is for me to duplicate the workings of their marvelous olfactory senses.  However, what I think my dogs can do is understand the tone and the intent of what I'm saying and I think they can learn a significant number of words by how I associate these words within their natural world.  

We as humans have a responsibility to understand and respond to the verbal and body language of the dogs with whom we share our lives.  Similarly, the more we can teach our dogs to understand human terms, the more comfortable and rewarding is their relationship with us.  

Finished "prayers" behavior held with the intermediate bridge.

Jy targets his cheek to my hand.

My left hand is held chest high as a focus point for Sydney's eyes. I'm tapping/leading her left hip with a target stick as we side step to her left. I'm also giving Sydney an intermediate bridge as we move.

RIGHT -- Here, Jyah and I are doing the finished trained sidepass to his right.  This is a move often used in musical canine freestyle.

THREE MORE FOOT TARGETS -- shots taken from Jy's movie, "The Wizard."
Also notice Jy's head position which is taught by having him focus his 'look' on an object.

LEFT Jyah is beginning to move towards my right hand which is tapping his left shoulder. I am also giving an intermediate bridge.
MIDDLE -- Jyah continues to moves towards my hand -- targeting his shoulder to my hand.
RIGHT -- Jyah comes to the wall which becomes his new target.

For the finished behavior with the cue of "Lean against the wall, put your head down, cross your ankle", see photoBridge and Target

SHOULDER TARGET -- I'm tapping Sydney's shoulder and 'leading' her into a flat position.
As long as she's moving towards my hand (target), I give her an intermediate bridge.
She gets a terminal bridge when her shoulder is flat on the floor.

FOOT TARGETS -- Here Jyah is to step on each circular target. I give him
a "Wait" signal after each step.

CHEST TARGET -- Sydney moves her chest towards my hand as I give her an intermediate bridge.

OBJECT TARGET -- Sydney is to continue looking at a target (object) I've shown her. I hold her on the target object by using an intermediate bridge.

It is easy to teach a dog  to "say her prayers" by using the "feet" and "nose" body targets.

Click on Stamp's picture to see body targeting VIDEO

UPDATED -- April 2008

Scroll down to middle of page to see two VIDEO CLIPS about body targeting.

Among other things, I use body targets to teach musical canine freestyle moves.  I use a target stick (or my hand) to touch the part of my dog's body that I want to engage.  I don't say the name of the body part because I'm only using it to form a new move; instead, I name the newly created behavior.  For instance, instead of saying "hip" (while touching the hip with a target stick) when I have the dog pivot on her front feet and move her hind feet (hips) around to one side and then the other, I name the move "swing."             

Click on Sydney's picture 
to see body targeting VIDEO