“There is an At Large Prohibited ordinance in Truckee, which means that you must have both immediate voice and visual control over your dog. Dogs roaming the neighborhood would be an At Large Prohibited violation, in which a citation may be issued.”

This wording is taken directly from the Town of Truckee website. The rules vary by city or town, but the term “voice control” is frequently used in places where dogs are allowed off leash. What exactly is “voice control?” Humans and animals learn through repetition and experience where specific visual or auditory signals have meaning. In the world of dog training, we commonly call such signals “cues.” A cue can be a word, sound, hand-signal, or body signal. A dog does not fluently understand a cue until it can identify and consistently react to the cue in any setting with significant distractions. Furthermore, dogs learn non-verbal cues more easily than verbal ones. When I pick up my dog’s bowl, she knows it is mealtime even if I do it in the middle of the night or at someone else’s house.

Even the best-trained dogs I know have trouble consistently responding to some cues in certain situations. For one dog, this may be when there are other dogs around, while another may have trouble in the pet store with buckets of treats within nose reach. These hurdles can often be overcome with intensive training; behaviors that are more challenging to modify are instinctual ones. Such behaviors are called fixed action patterns or FAPs. A FAP is any behavior that an animal performs automatically without prior training. Have you even noticed a dog circling a few times before lying down or digging in the yard? These are FAPs. The natural instinct to hunt and kill prey for food is a FAP, which is more evident in some breeds than in others, mostly due to centuries of selective breeding. Hunting dogs are bred to abort the prey sequence before catching and killing, while terriers are bred to hunt and kill rodents, thus completing the prey sequence.

So how do you achieve voice control over your dog? You must start by teaching both verbal and non-verbal cues in a consistent way. Voice control implies coming when called, but if you have a dog that charges other dogs, “Halt,” “Leave it,” and “Come” may be equally important. Once your dog learns the meaning of a cue, you must then practice the cue in as many different ways as possible. Variables might include location, your body position, tone of voice, with other people or dogs present, outside with wildlife, or after a sharp or sudden noise. Lastly, you must be able to prove cue-discrimination. This means that the dog will always perform the behavior on cue and won’t perform the behavior if given another cue.

If this sounds difficult that’s because it is. Dogs are not robots and do not always perform exactly on cue. They may be stressed, distracted, in pain, or may not feel like doing something. Figure out what motivates your dog and focus on building a strong relationship. Be a consistent and kind leader and, above all, have fun together.

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Carla Brown
Carla Brown is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who owns The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. She started as a volunteer dog trainer with the San Francisco SPCA 20-plus years ago and has lived in Truckee for 17 years. Brown enjoys hiking (with dogs, of course) and spending time with her husband, Mike, and 13-year old daughter, Sarah. Her furry family includes rescued animals Kaya, Pounce, Ditto, and Tux.

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