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Having your dog understand a nose touch is a powerful tool that can be used to accomplish a variety of things. It is particularly useful with fearful, reactive and rambunctious dogs because it gives you a way to safely interact with the dog to remove them from furniture or get them out of undesirable situations, to distract them in stressful environments and to help them meet dogs or people in an appropriate manner. Many agility competitors will also teach their dogs to do a nose touch to a “dot” which is typically a plastic lid from a yogurt container or something similar. This makes for excellent contact training on the A-Frame, Teeter and Dog Walk. If your dog is reactive and/or aggressive, please see a reputable trainer who understands clicker training for help with your dog.
Your goal with the nose touch is to have your dog touch the palm of your hand with their nose. To accomplish this simply hold your hand a few inches away from your dog’s nose. Most dogs will have a natural inclination to reach their head forward and sniff your hand. When they sniff your hand, click and give a treat with your other hand. Once your dog consistently reaches out and touches your hand with their nose after you have clicked and treated a few times, begin moving your hand and getting your dog to follow it, eventually ending with a touch.
If your dog begins mouthing your hand, it means you are clicking and rewarding too late and your dog is becoming frustrated as a result. If your dog begins to do “phantom touches” where they do not quite touch your hand, you are clicking too soon and should wait until your dog accurately touches your hand before you click. The fussier you are with this exercise, the more accurate your dog will be with their nose touch! You can even get specific as to what part of your hand you want touched.
Once your dog can easily follow your random hand movements, you can label your dog’s action. We simply call it “touch” but as with any verbal cue you can call it whatever you would like. You can also give it different labels when you use it in different situations. You can use it to get your dog into “heel” position next to you and to help teach them to walk next to you by holding your hand at your hip and getting your dog to follow it as you walk, clicking and rewarding when your dog is nice and close. You can also use it to safely get feisty fidos off furniture. To do so, first get the dog to follow your hand up onto the furniture, click and reward, then get them to follow your hand target off the furniture, click and reward. If your dog enjoys guarding the furniture, this will be effective but you must make sure you have built up a significant reward history with the nose touch before introducing it in these situations because it will have to outweigh the value of the comfy couch, bed or chair. You should spend at least three weeks working on developing a solid nose touch before using it in this type of situation.
The nose touch is also effective when dealing with reactive dogs who do not like encountering strangers (people and other dogs) on their walks. Once you have built significant value for the nose touch in a low distraction environment, you can take your show on the road and start to use it to distract your dog from incoming strangers if they have a tendency to meltdown. To do so, simply ask your dog to touch your hand the instant they see an incoming stranger, before they have a chance to react and then calmly get them to follow your hand target in the opposite direction, across the street or up a nearby driveway to create distance between your dog and the offensive passer-by so your dog will be more comfortable. You can then continue to ask for a nose touch as the person and/or dog is passing by to help keep your dog happy and calm. If your dog does have a meltdown they are simply too close to the thing they don’t like and the next time you will know to provide them with more distance. Gradually you should be able to get closer to the stranger and your dog should be able to stay calm because they will associate the stranger with a fun game of hand targeting.
If your dog is a bit shy with strange people or dogs but not reactive, you can use the nose touch to help boost their confidence by giving them a new way to interact with strangers. You can label the nose touch as “go say hi” and instruct approaching strangers to present their open hand to your dog. Your dog should approach, touch the stranger’s hand with their nose and when you click, come back to you for their reward. You can also experiment and see if they will take the reward from the stranger so your dog will develop even more of a positive association with their new friend. When you are dealing with a new dog, preferably one who is confident and calm, you can instruct your dog to “go say hi” and then place your hand near the hind end of the dog to help your dog perform a polite meet and greet. Again, once you click your dog will likely come back to you for a reward so if your dog presents some lovely greeting rituals on their own, do not interrupt it with your clicker. Eventually, you can fade your hand target out of the situation and simply ask your dog to “go say hi.”
If you are interested in learning more about why targets are so effective, there is an excellent section in Karen Pryor’s recent book “Reaching the Animal Mind” that discusses in detail why targets work to help animals cope with stressful situations.