How to Effectively Teach a Hand Target


The ‘Foundation’ Game


Hand feeding your dog is an excellent way to bond with your dog, to teach your dog that hands are good, and to prevent food dish guarding and aggression.  It is also a great way to set yourself up for success for hand targeting. 

Hand targetTo hand feed your dog, take your dog’s empty food dish and set it on the ground.  Now place your dog’s food in your hand and hold it above the dish.  The dog eats directly out of your hand above his dish. 

The next meal, let some food fall into the dish.  Gradually build up to having more food in the dog’s dish, and less in your hand. Once you have all the food in the dog’s dish, make sure you can take food out and drop food back in while the dog is eating.  If you can’t, back up one or two training steps.  Find the step where your dog is successful, start there, and build up. 

If at any point your dog is growling, shows stress or even snaps, STOP the games and contact your local DogSmith Dog Behavior Consultant. 

Next, start messing with the food dish while your dog eats. Pick up the dish.  Move the dish to different locations. 

For the life of your dog, periodically, like once a month, hand feed your dog.  This will help ensure that the dog maintains a happy attitude about people around his food dish.

If you at any point during this hand feeding training have problems, contact your local DogSmith. 

Some problems are:

  • Dog growls
  • Dog snaps
  • Dog lowers head
  • Dog gets stiff
  • Dog seems tense
  • Dog refuses to eat


For safety reasons STOP hand feeding if you encounter any of the problems listed above and ask your instructor for additional help.

‘Hand Targeting’ Game

Most dog bites occur to human hands.  To help prevent that, we want our dogs to understand that hands are good.  Human hands should always indicate something pleasurable to your dog. If your dog is fearful of human hands, please tell your instructor so your dog can be evaluated and you can receive proper coaching to prevent your dog from possibly biting a human hand. 

Hand targeting is a fun game for your dog to learn that hands are a source of good things. You can prompt hand targeting by hiding your closed hand behind your back and then quickly opening your hand and flashing it in front of your dog’s nose. Most dogs will sniff your hand or move toward your hand; click and reinforce this. Quickly begin requiring that your dog touch his nose to your hand. Once you consistently get your dog to touch his nose to your hand, begin presenting your hand from a variety of angles. When your dog is consistently successful from a variety of angles, you can name the behavior ‘nose.’ 

If you are not successful, speak to your DogSmith. Your dog may be afraid of hands, which is a potentially serious issue. 


‘Hands Are Good’ Maintenance Game

Object Exchange

To start playing this game, whenever your dog picks up an object with his mouth give him attention. You want to teach your dog that picking things up is a good idea. When your dog picks up objects, you are setting the foundation for playing fetch and teaching your dog useful tricks like picking up objects you have dropped. If you scold a dog for using his mouth it is possible to destroy the retrieving behavior. 

If your dog grabs an object you do not want him to have, resist the temptation to chase him. Being chased is a usually a huge reinforcement to dogs. The behavior of grabbing objects you don’t want your dog to touch will actually increase!

However it is a great idea to chase your dog when he is playing with one of his own toys. That way you are reinforcing him for playing with his own toys - that is excellent training! 

So back to the object exchange. When your dog has a toy or object in his mouth, gently approach and give your dog food or another toy that is of HIGHER value to the dog. When your dog drops the toy, click and reinforce.  When your dog understand to drop the toy or object you can add the cue of ‘give’ or ‘drop’.  Next, have him ‘give’ toy A, and click and reinforce with toy B or food. This is object exchange. From the dog’s perspective, giving up the toy A is not a big deal, because you are giving him toy B or food that is of greater value. Win/Win!

‘Collar Handling’ Games

 Another way to create a dog that is unhappy about hands is to quickly grab your dog’s collar. So instead make collar grabbing a game. 

  • Gently reach for your dog’s collar and toss a cookie on the floor, repeat five times. You are creating an association between reaching for your dog’s collar and food. This should result in a ‘yippee’ effect reaction to you reaching for the dog’s collar
  • Next touch the collar and toss a cookie on the floor, repeat 5 times
  • Finally, grab your dog’s collar and toss a cookie on the floor.  As before, repeat 5 times. 

Do the same thing with a body harness if your dog wears both. If you ever have to grab your dog roughly by the collar because it is an emergency, be sure to do some ‘collar-cookie’ games afterwards to undo any fear you may have triggered. Be aware that small dogs are much more likely to have a fearful response of having their collar grabbed. Also dogs with reactivity issues that are consistent with poor impulse control can get fearful or angry if their collar is grabbed. Do not work with dogs outside of your range of experience or capability. Dog reactivity is a very serious issue and needs to be coached very carefully by experienced dog behavior consultants or by a trainer working under the supervision of a dog behavior consultant.

‘Body Handling’ Games

Just like collar grabbing the following should be trained to elicit a happy response from dogs:

  1. Being picked up off the ground
  2. Having feet handled
  3. Having all body parts handled
  4. Being bent over
  5. Being groomed
  6. Being playfully slapped – to be over prepared for handling
  7. Being playfully touched with a foot – to prevent a fear response if you accidentally kick your dog
  8. Heavy pressure restraining hug – to prepare for vet visits


Nail trimming and bathing can be in the category of tolerated. Most dogs dislike both so much that it can be a significant challenge to counter condition both behaviors. This goes beyond the capabilities of many pet owners.

Happy Hand Targeting Training!