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Your dog's capacity to understand pointing is one of many things that is almost unique to dogs, when it comes to animal-human interaction. Most puppies intuitively understand pointing in so far as they will follow your finger's direction and look a short way further in the direction you are pointing. Your dog, however, may seem not have picked up on it as easily, and just looks from your pointing finger to your face in confusion. Even if your dog seems oblivious to the meaning of pointing, you can teach her basic pointing very easily. Teaching your dog to follow the direction of your finger for a longer distance, or to keep going in that direction until she reaches the reward, requires slightly more training but is very achievable for most dogs.
Teaching your dog to understand pointing relies on first getting her to pay attention to you, to look to you for help in achieving a reward, and finally to understand the physical meaning of pointing. Desirable rewards and novel stimuli are both extremely useful in motivating your dog to work towards understanding your meaning. Pointing is a great foundation activity to teach your dog to focus on you and look to you for all sorts of behaviors in the future. It also will make your life with your dog easier, as you can easily communicate the location of all sorts of interesting things. This behavior, once learned, will continuously reinforce itself. It is a lifelong skill worth teaching to any dog.
Gather all sorts of delicious treats, fun and new toys, and novel stimuli. It is a good idea to have lots of sizes, shapes, and colors of reward, so that you can increase the difficulty for your dog by giving objects that are easy to see and find and those that are more difficult. Some dogs benefit from having an extension to your pointing, like a pointer or a stick, at the initial training. For all techniques, it is best to begin training in a distraction free environment before progressing to more natural training locations.
The Close First Method
Teach your dog to watch you by asking for her to watch you and then rewarding. Practice this until your dog is reliably looking at you.
Look at what you can see
Wait until your dog is looking at you, then toss a reward a short distance and say, "look" while pointing at the treat. When your dog gets the treat and looks at you, do it again.
Look at what you can't see
Cover your dog's eyes or wait until she isn't looking, then toss a reward a short distance. Say "look" and point at the reward. If your dog doesn't understand, keep pointing until she stumbles onto the reward.
Keep practicing until your dog is following your finger the short distance to the reward every time.
Increase the distance that the reward is tossed until your dog is following your finger a long way to the goal. It is helpful to use big, obvious rewards when beginning to train at a distance.
The Steady Point Method
Look what I've got
Show your dog that you have a desirable treat, then prevent her from seeing what you do with it by covering her eyes or putting a barrier in front of her.
Toss the reward
Toss the reward a short distance, uncover your dog's eyes, and point steadily at the treat.
Your dog will look at you first, since she thinks you have the reward. Don't look at her, but stare and point unflinchingly at the reward.
Let her look
Stay still as your dog looks for the reward. As soon as she finds it, verbally praise her and call her back to play again.
Practice and increase distance
Keep practicing throwing the reward different distances and directions until it is clear that your dog is following your finger and not just seeking out the reward on her own.
The Accomplice Method
Choose an accomplice
Choose a patient person or a dog who understands pointing.
Point for accomplice
While restraining your dog, toss a reward, point to it, and allow your accomplice to get it.
Point for your dog
Release your dog and have your accomplice wait while your dog finds the reward. She may not follow your point at this time, but that's ok.
Keep practicing, taking turns and covering your dog's eyes when you toss the treat. In time she will realize that the accomplice is getting the treat much faster than she is, will look for what the accomplice is doing, and will understand to follow the point.
Remove your accomplice and have your dog practice on her own, increasing distance and distractions.
Written by Coral Drake
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 01/24/2018, edited: 01/08/2021