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(Note: I phrased this question after reading the help file. It is intended to be "constructive subjective", "[inviting the] sharing [of] experiences over opinions" and soliciting only "opinion [that is] backed up with facts and references".)

Target sticks are used in many zoos when e.g. moving lions from room to room, and they are also used by some dog trainers who use the clicker approach and do not use lures of an edible kind.

What are the pros and cons of using a target stick together with a clicker when training a dog, for example in the shaping of behaviour? I am not quite sure how the target fits in with the theory. After all, it is all the same and unlike a cue such as a verbal cue it is not different for every behaviour. It is akin to the clicker itself in that regard, and yet it does not have the function of unconditionally promising a reward.

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Any target in training is exactly that: a target that the trainee is supposed to interact with.

The basic forms a target can have are:

  • Target stick (the actual target is usually with a ball or similar at the end). The trainee is supposed to touch the target.
  • Target spot (like a mat or blanket). The trainee is supposed to be on / inside the target spot.
  • Target passage (like a hoop or tunnel). The trainee is supposed to move through the target passage.

I'm sure you could come up with more different forms, but those are the basic ones.

The meaning of a target is not to replace the clicker as a promise of a reward, but to guide the trainee into movements and positions.

  • The target is part of the training and draws the focus of the trainee. The trainee is supposed to actively interact with the target, which promises a reward, but not unconditionally so (prolonged interaction might be required to get a reward).
  • The clicker signals the successful end of a training unit and releases the trainee (physically and mentally) from a training situation or position. The trainee is not supposed to interact with the clicker, but to indirectly try getting a reaction from it by executing the desired behavior. It's tied to an immediate reward.

In case of trainees that resist training or have dificulties recognising the desired behavior, a target can aid by making the training easier and make the trainee having a positive experience by getting more rewards.

A simple example, often employed in zoos:

  • For medical procedures an animals needs to hold still and let a vet examine them.
  • Having an animal recognize that "staying still" is followed by a reward is very hard, especially for animals with lower mental capabilities.
  • Having an animal recognize that touching a target stick is followed by a reward is easier. Most mammals, birds, reptiles and even fish are intelligent enough to recognize the pattern.
  • Once the animal follows and touches the target stick, you can extend the time between touch and reward. That makes it easier for the animal to learn that staying still earns them a reward.
  • When the vet has to examine the animal, a trainer with a target stick can aid by making the animal stay or roll onto its back or get into any number of useful positions without having to train each one individually.

The same principel can be applied to dog training. Many standard commands like "sit" can be trained by guiding the dog into position with a treat, but if you don't want to use food as a lure, you can use a target instead. If the desired behavior is too complicated to be learned in one movement, you can start by guiding the dog into the desired behavior with a target stick while repeating the command. Once the whole movement is learned with the aid of the target stick and connected with the verbal command, you can remove the target stick and the learned behavior will be executed without aid on command.


Summary:
The target does not replace the clicker, but focuses and guides the trainee.

Pros:

  • Can achieve different behaviors with one mental connection (follow the target).
  • Can make training easier by demonstrating the desired behavior instead of rewarding coincidental actions.

Cons:

  • Can divert the trainee from the actual training unit if the trainee is too focused on the target.
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In Karen Pryor's terms, the movement of a target stick is a cue. It is more general than a specific verbal cue but it still has some specificity insofar as the stick is moved in different ways to cue different behaviours.

During initial training it also functions as a lure to elicit the behaviour that is then marked.

The drawback is that not so much active thinking is required as when a verbal cue is used to name a behaviour after a few instances of clicking and rewarding, since even if the target is moved in several different ways the lesson is still the simple one of "follow the target".

I am not convinced - although open to persuasion - that a target stick is of great utility with dogs except when teaching behaviours such as weaving under the trainer's legs and other complicated (and often very impressive to watch) heelwork show types of tricks.

The advantage is that the alternative of capturing required behaviours without luring can for some types of behaviour be difficult or slow.

A target mat too is a physical cue.

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