The target is one of the best tools a trainer could have in their toolbox. We use targeting, in many different ways, all the time. The most common one we see is the stick with a ball on the end, but a scale, platform or station is essentially a ’target’ as well. Often we add a variety of criteria to a target behaviour, some trainers want a nose or beak to touch the target, some trainers want the animal to hold on the target until the bridge is given. While others are conditioned to be a start or stop behaviour, but in the end a target behaviour is simply an animal orientating a particular body part to an object, the rest is up to you as the trainer to set the criteria.
Let’s talk about how a target is established.
From the start, a target pole is a novel object for the animal. In theory it would be a new novel object, unfortunately it’s not always that easy, what if the animal was never presented with a stick? Or worse still, the stick means something else, something aversive to that animal, maybe it resembles a blowpipe. How the animal sees the target makes you either choose to counter condition the target or desensitise the target. We can use a simple strategy for either, first we put the target in an area where the animal can see it but is still comfortable enough where it doesn’t respond, slowly we get the target closer pairing it with reinforcement.
Remember we want the animal to experience the target positively. If the animal shows undesirable behaviour from just seeing the target, it could mean it has a negative association somewhere in its past, immediately introducing the target becomes a lot harder, so choose wisely and observe the animals behaviour.
Once you are at a point where the animal doesn’t care about the target or better yet it sees it in a positive way, you then have the target with you and show the animal the target and any movement towards the target (capturing behaviour) we bridge and reinforce this movement. This can be a look or with some animals their whiskers moving towards the target. You can achieve this behaviour by feeding next to the target or moving the target closer to the animal. At one point the animal will show some interest but you have to be quick, because it might start with just a look. You then get the animal as far as moving towards the target, this is the moment you start to use differential reinforcement, by reinforcing more when the animal touches compared to when they simply move towards the target.
Next step is to add a signal to the behaviour, adding signals to certain behaviours is not too challenging, but often this is one behaviour that gets overlooked or isn’t as well trained as it could be. Usually we chose the vocal command ’target’ as our cue. Begin by showing the animal the target, most likely the animal touches the target. So now it becomes tricky, because is it the vocal cue ’target’ that instructs the animal to touch the target or is it the action of showing the target? This is the moment where we start to train off cue simultaneously.
Start by placing the target somewhere it can stand on its own. At this point the trainer doesn’t touch the target, but the target is within the animals reach. We reinforce when the animal doesn’t touch the target. When we say “target” and the animal touches the target we reinforce again. If the animal doesn’t understand this idea yet, we can prompt the animal to touch the target by pointing at it or moving our bodies towards it. Slowly we take away our prompt (training cue).
The difficult part is targeting another body part but it works essentially the same. Teaching an animal to move their hips to the target is challenging but the first step we need to take is the same as the target for the nose, reinforce any movement towards the target, it doesn’t matter what type of movement. When we have the movement we slowly, with differential reinforcement, teach the animal which direction it has to move its hips. When the animal understands this you are 80% ready.
Targeting a foot is fairly straightforward, we ask the animal to either move forward or climb against a fence. Whenever the animal starts moving the foot, we introduce a target. We reinforce when the animal starts moving the foot towards the target. It will help you if the animal already knows a nose target. One tip we can give you, is always present the ’nose target’ before the ’body part target‘. The reason is so the animal won’t just try to touch the wrong target from the start and also doesn’t go from one target to the other. There is a high chance that you need to teach the animal duration with the ‘nose target’ and to ignore whatever happens around them. This way the animal learns not to go with its nose to the ’body part target’.
Now we have to work on the duration, duration in many behaviours is the challenge. Read about how to train duration. Here are a couple different ways to increase duration on a target.
- We ask the target, the animal touches the target for 1 second. We wait and the animal touches again for 1 second. The time between both touches might be 2 seconds. We can now slowly decrease this time by catching the animal doing it right. This technique is very successful.
- Another one is to feed next to the target all the time. This will eventually and slowly end up in a longer duration.
- When the animal stops the target, we don’t want to pull the target away but give the animal a chance to think. If the animal then touches again we want to take this moment and from here the animal will start touching a longer period of time.
- Take the tiniest steps, sometimes this is 0.2 seconds longer.
- If the animal understands the keep on going signal well enough, then this is a good strategy to use as well. Read more about the KGS here.
The last thing we want the animal to have a clear understanding of, is the bridge. We can use a target by testing if the animal really understands the bridge. We ask the animal to target and bridge when the animal reaches criteria, what many of us do is pull the target away immediately but what we should do is leave the target and see if the animal breaks the behaviour of targeting after the bridge is given. If this is the case the target behaviour will only get stronger from here.
It becomes difficult when the target is finished and trainers start using this behaviour for a variety of other behaviours. Lets say I’ve just finished a spin around, the animal understands the signal and criteria. The next trainer starts training a new behaviour with the target you used. This time the trainer wants the animal to jump but everytime the trainer shows the target the animal spins around.
What we shouldn’t forget is to get the basic criteria back, so that the target is easily used for the next behaviour to be trained. While working with a dolphin we received from a park in Spain, we wanted to teach a straight jump with one of the animals. But we didn’t know the target history of the dolphin. We started to train this behaviour, but the moment we slapped the water for the animal to understand where to jump, it quickly took off and swam in a fast pace, to the place we slapped the water, and did a beautiful front flip. We were at first surprised, but later we understood that the last behaviour trained using the target was a front flip and that was still the history on the target of the animal.
Targeting is an important behaviour in the repertoire for the animal, but shouldn’t be under estimated. When an animal knows the target, the animal should understand the signal to touch the target and the length of time it has to touch the target. We need a strong bridge for the animal to understand when the animal reached criteria.
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