The Target Game Progressions for Marking Skill Foundations for Directed Retrieve and Go Outs, Distraction Resistance, and Command Discrimination

    These are games I play with puppies to teach a lot of skills; but they are not just for puppies, folks! So let’s review the installation and use of these games, and remember that when things break down in advanced exercises, this is the Square One to return to. 

The prerequisite skills for starting the target games are:

  1. Canine fluency at the sit command, including an understanding of the collar pressure conversation when the sit fails.
  2. At least a 10 or 15 second stay with a couple of feet of distance between  you and the dog.
  3. A rudimentary recall, on leash, even if you are still having to lure a bit. 
  4. Several sessions worth of experience with the Ex-pen game in which you let the dog stay in the pen, and reward for VOLUNTARY  attention…no luring, no chirping noises, just quiet watching and quick rewarding when  you get eye contact, even when it’s accidental. 

First Game: Get it / leave it

   The purpose of this game is to teach the dog that “leave it” is a cue to look back at you. It also is an opportunity for the foundation skills for marking something you point at, as you will need for go outs and the directed retrieve.

   Start with the dog on a sit, and if the stay is weak, just use one hand on the dog’s chest to keep him in place while you place a target a few feet in front of the dog, and let him see that you have placed a treat there. If the dog is quite busy visually and not really paying attention, try tapping the treat on the target, praise when the dog looks, and actually bring the treat to the dog. When the dog shows sustained interest in the treat on the target, place the treat, and step back to heel position. It’s fine if the dog keeps looking at the target for this stage.

   Hold the leash and a second treat in your right hand.  Use your left hand to point at the loaded target as for a directed retrieve, on the dog’s level. When he looks (or continues to look) at the target, tell him to get it. Allow him to eat the treat, and he’ll likely swallow and check the target again. When he does, tell him “leave it” . Since the target is empty, he will look back at you pretty soon. When he turns, praise and hand him the second treat to reward the attention to you. Repeat several times, looking for quicker return of attention to you as the dog realizes that when he hears “leave it” looking back to you is the thing that pays off. 

Second phase of game 1: Leave it/ get it

   Our goal is to show the dog that “leave it” means look at you in spite of the fact that there is food out in front of you. This is a critical psych that will affect a great deal of your advanced training, so don’t cheat, don’t put this off, and practice it often throughout your dog’s career!

   As above, sit the dog and load the target, then return to heel position. If the stay is a bit weak, take the time to reward it. Allow the dog to look out at the target, give him a few seconds, and then say “leave it” ONCE! And wait….Wait as long as it takes for the dog to look back at you, even if it’s accidental. Praise immediately and reward from your hand. He’ll probably look back at the loaded target after eating that treat, so repeat the leave it cue, and wait…reward returned focus, and repeat until the dog decides to keep looking at you rather than shifting his focus back to the target after you reward attention. At that point, you can signal him to look at the target and send him out to get that treat too. Join him out there and have a little party; or do a recall after he eats his snack, and reward the recall, too. 

Game 2, Phase 1: Looking Away from Food to Earn Access

   The purpose of this game is multidimensional. For a youngster, the foundation lesson is that motivators belong to you, and the dog needs to learn to look at you and do what you say to get access to it, as opposed to diving directly for it the way any sensible dog would do ordinarily. It is also the set up for teaching directional signals as for directed jumping, and for use of placed rewards to randomize your recall sequences, reward options, and solidify stays. You should approach this with the assumption that your dog will cheat, and manage your leash use and distance from your dog accordingly. This is often the place where a young dog first realizes that “stay” is a serious command. Remember that your dog should have at least a 30 second stay at 6 feet away, and must understand the collar pressure conversation for sit, so that when cheating happens, you can tell the dog, “No! Sit!”, and use the collar to stop access to the target and then get the dog back into the sit. 

   For this game, you need two targets. Face the dog directly on a sit stay. Keep one hand with the leash elevated, no pressure, but ready to stop the dog when he moves. With the other, reach down and place a target about 2 feet away from the dog’s right side, and repeat to the dog’s left side. Any motion from you that causes the dog to move should be repeated with an additional stay command after you get him back into the sit. PUPPIES WILL FAIL THIS several times before getting the idea, so be patient, and relax. It’s a learning experience, not a real failure. When the dog succeeds at holding the sit and you have both targets on the ground and loaded, reward the dog in place for the stay, and then face him calmly. 

   WAIT for eye contact. He may look back and forth at both targets in turn, or choose one to obsess on a bit, but eventually he will look at you. Any breaks from the stay should be physically stopped and the dog guided back into position as quickly as possible. When you get eye contact and a stay, reward from your hands a few times. Then when the dog is giving you good focus, you have the option to either leave him in the stay and pick up the treats from the target to deliver during the stay; or you can use a directional signal to send the dog to the target of your choice (preferably the one he did NOT look at last), and then call him to you. Watch for cheating and diving for the other target at first. Use the leash for guidance as needed. Repeat until the dog easily stays for the set up, quickly gives you sustained eye contact, and easily responds to your signal and release to targets followed by a good recall without further cheating. 

Game 2, Phase 2: Recall Away from Loaded Targets

   This game further demonstrates  your control over motivators, requiring the dog to make the choice (with guidance) to move away from obvious treats in order to earn  your admiration and access to rewards after all. It is also an opportunity to make sure your dog understands that his name is NOT a command to move, but a command to pay attention and do what he is told after the name.

   Set this up as you did for the previous game, facing the dog on leash, with a loaded target on each side of the dog. Take the time to praise and reward the dog for eye contact. Say his name, count to 1 or 2, and then call him and back up. He may dive for a target on the first step, so make sure your leash is in position to prevent access and guide the dog forward. Praise lavishly and reward when the dog gets to you. Then try again, repeating until the dog does it correctly without needing help. (Be aware that some dogs will freeze as a means of coping with the knowledge that you want the dog to NOT dive for the target in conflict with his desire to do just exactly that when he moves. Use directional collar pressure to encourage the dog to move the right way.)

   When the dog masters this and seems confident, then vary the game to include the option of saying the name, pausing and then directing the dog to one of the targets before the recall. Alternatively,  you can praise and reward the recall, then go stand near one of the targets and release the dog to go back to it. And once in a while, say the dog’s name, count to three, and then release the dog to the target of your choice, and meet him out there for a party.

Game 2, Phase 3: Varied Commands Between Loaded Targets

   While the main purpose of this game is concentration and impulse control, it also helps condition your dog to do the down, sit and perhaps even the stand behaviors without forward motion, since the rewards are next to him rather than in your hand most of the time. This stage requires that your dog  be fluent on the skills you wish to ask for, or at least at the point for each one that he will understand the collar pressure conversation if you need to use it to help him through any uncertainty. (Stand from in front of you is optional, but very useful down the road for randomization if you can teach it!)

   Place the dog on a sit stay, and then place loaded targets a couple of feet out on either side of the dog, and even with his rib cage or hips, so that when you decide to release him to a target he will have to turn away from you rather than move forward. 

   With the targets and the dog in place, face the dog and begin by waiting for voluntary eye contact. Reward it a few times from your hand, and then reward it by releasing the dog to the target of your choice, followed by a recall back to you. Re-place the dog and target, and then try your signals and/or commands. If you’re working on one in particular, do repetitions to build speed and confidence, but be sure that you also reward the dog for remaining still and attentive and not just anticipating the action to get to the release faster. 

   Note that you can do this exercise with just one target placed behind the dog, and that is my choice as I build a lot more distance on the signal exercise. But initially using two targets seems to help most dogs decide it’s easier to look at their handlers than to try to look at two targets at once, whereas with one target they have a tough time deciding between the target and the handler.

   These links take you to videos on the covered target games:   and . (I’m sorry to say that the metal building echoes affects the sound quality in places. I battled with iMovie over this, but you may need to just turn up the volume and listen a couple of times.)


Advanced phase 1: Marking to single target and building time

   The purpose of this game is to teach the dog to look where you point, and ultimately to hold that gaze for some duration. 5 seconds would be a good goal that most dogs are capable and willing to do, but remember that some dogs naturally lock (usually good, but can be problematic at times…), while others are inclined to look and then scan, or look and then look back at you and say, “Yes, I saw it; now what?” Remember: The hand and arm signal pointing is a signal to LOOK, NOT TO MOVE. The verbal “get it” cue is the one that directs motion.


   Begin this game with the target no more than 3 or 4 feet in front of you, less if you are working a very young puppy. As in the first target game, gently restrain the dog and let him watch you load the target, even tapping the treat on the target to make sure he looks there. Praise the glance, and return to heel position. In this first phase of marking, allow the dog to keep gazing at the target if he wants to. Use your left hand and arm to point at the target, count to one when the dog looks at it, and immediately tell him to get it. Praise as he eats and call him back. 

   Repeat the sequence 2 or 3 times at least, or until you see the dog anticipating and looking at the target with intensity. Then add a second to your silent count after your mark signal and before your “get it” command. With a dog who visually locks on with intensity, you may be able to work up to 5 seconds of marking in one session. For a dog who is looser about the mark, stick with the one second for several sessions, and then try adding another second. Some dogs may never be great at holding the mark for more than 2 or 3 seconds, but that is enough as long as they are accurate. 

   When  you feel that the dog has the idea, and is doing well on the “leave it” games and will give you attention on cue, start asking him to leave it after he watches you load the target. Praise and reward that focus; then give the mark signal and send when the dog looks at the target, gradually building up the time again from one second to 5. This stage will tell you if the dog is actually understanding your signal as a directional cue, or if he was depending upon  seeing you place the food to tell him where to look. 

Advanced phase 2: Marking to single target and building distance


   The purpose of this game is to condition the dog to take your mark signal and look out further as will be needed for gloves and go outs. You will be playing the same time duration of the mark game with each new distance increment. A decent stay is a pre-requisite for this game, as the dog needs to wait and watch you place the target from greater distances. If you feel the dog is ready to do this, but isn’t good at stay yet (although you should get busy on that!), you could tie the dog or have somebody hold him for you.

   If your dog is good at the 3 to 5 second mark from 2 to 4 feet from the target, move the target to 5 or 6 feet. Let him see you load it, return to heel, ask for attention (his name, “ready”, or “leave it”) and praise the attention. Then mark to the target with  your signal, and release him to get it as soon as you are sure he has oriented on it. Consider using a mirror out in front of you when you work this so you can see what the dog’s eyes are doing. At that new distance interval, work through the incremental time increase before releasing. When  you have worked back up to your dog’s maximum time, add another foot or two of distance, drop the mark time back down to 1 second, and build the time back up at that distance interval. Over time, and perhaps with an extra large target for some dogs, work up to 50 feet. If you are training a puppy, this will be several weeks or a couple of months worth of work. For an adult dog with good stay training and mature eye sight, this might be accomplished over 3 or 4 training sessions; but don’t rush. Quality of the mark and duration of it is of higher priority than pushing distance.

Advanced phase 3: Marking a Target The Dog Has NOT Seen You Load

   This is important, because when it comes to gloves and go outs in the ring, the dog will not see you place the gloves or load targets the way he often sees those activities during training.  Many trainers don’t pay nearly enough attention to just how much their dogs depend upon those precursory activities and sights to succeed, and when those cues are gone, so is the desired behavior. For those of us who train alone most of the time, we have no choice but to place our own gloves and load our own targets; so we must control what our dogs see that will NOT be helpful to us in the end.   

   This game begins at very short range. With your dog crated and draped to limit his view, or confined outside of your training area altogether, place several targets around the edges of your training area, and load them. Then bring the dog in, and in the middle of the area, do some recalls or signals or heeling. Then heel the dog up to about 3 feet away from a target, mark the target with your left hand signal, and send the dog as soon as he spots it. Call him back after he eats the treat, and go back out to the middle and do some other stuff. Heel to another target, and repeat until you have worked all of your targets. (And be ready to work through your dog beginning to cast his eyes around for targets while  you are working other exercises. Deal with the attention gaps as necessary, and don’t do another target mark and send until your dog is working with focus again.)

   Gradually stop a bit farther away from the targets so your dog has to take the mark signal and look out a bit longer, and add a second or two delay between the mark signal and the command to go get the treat. Remember that at any distance interval you add, you drop the time the dog waits first, and build it back up when the dog is accurate about looking out correctly. Eventually, you might be able to place your targets around the perimeter of your area, and send your dog to the target from where you are working in the center as part of how you reward the skills you are working on between target sends.