Spring Training for Pets: Iowa Edition

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Spring has sprung here in Iowa! The sun is shining (ok, it's raining right now... but still!), the temperatures are steadily increasing, the cats are having a blast watching all the birds at the bird feeders, and baseball is back! All over the state, dog owners breathed a collective sigh of relief as they were finally able to spend time outside with their dogs and get them the exercise they desperately need. Hooray! Everything is happy and easy!

...or is it? If you’re anything like most of my clients, spring isn’t all sunshine and fun. The warm weather gives us more opportunities to exercise our pets, but it can also remind us of all the training they need to work on!

Your puppy that has been running eagerly to you when you called him in from his chilly potty break is suddenly running away from you as he chases the birds that migrated back to your yard!

Your 2 year old dog that was FINALLY rocking prolonged down stays at your feet all winter long? Once she gets a scent in her nose, she won’t even give you a sit for a split second on your walk!

Your kitten that was starting to learn leash walking last fall, now digs his claws in and won’t even move an inch once you put his harness on!


Don’t worry! Spring is just a reminder that we need to continue training our pets and proofing (practicing the behavior in different environments and varying levels of distraction until your pet can do the behavior any time, anywhere) their behaviors throughout their lives.


Try out some of these “Spring Training” tips to help get your pet ready for spring and summer activities:

Prepare for Your Walks with an Indoor “Practice Lap”

While you might be itching to get outside on long walks with your pet, she might not be ready for all the distractions you will encounter. Before you head out for your walk, take a practice lap around your house! Setting your expectations clearly when you are inside with limited distractions can help your pet to prepare for following through on those expectations outside. Use a quick tug on the leash like a tap on the shoulder to get your pet’s attention when she gets out of position. Reward your pet whenever the leash is loose and she is settled into the heel position at your side. Bust out the yummy treats, praise her, and pet her! Is your pet distracted by the sounds of dogs barking or birds singing? Find a video online with those noises and play it while you take your warm up lap! Are the smells on the spring breeze your pet’s biggest distraction? Crack the windows during your practice lap to slowly acclimate your pet to the outside smells. Is your pet just too revved up and energetic to focus at the beginning of your walk? Adding stairs or finding obstacles inside for your pet to jump over, crawl under, or walk along during your practice lap can help to burn off a little of that energy.

Slowly increase your distraction levels during your indoor practice by adding more smells, sounds, obstacles, treats, toys, etc. until your pet is able to ignore any distraction with ease!

Once you get outside, don’t forget to continue rewarding your pet when the leash is loose! Even if you left your treats at home, use praise and petting to show her that she is doing what you love!



Teach a “Tuck” Command

When you eat at home, you may use an “out” or “place” command to keep your pet out of the dining room and prevent him from begging, but if you’re eating on a pet-friendly patio, you’ll want to him to lay down quietly under our table while you eat. Practicing a “tuck” command this spring will have your pet ready to rock his restaurant visits this summer! “Tuck” is essentially a variation of “place”. While “place” means to lay calmly ON or IN something, “tuck” means to lay calmly UNDER something. You can practice “tuck” at home by directing your pet to lay down under a chair or table with your leash and hand cues while using your new vocal cue -- “Tuck”. Try giving your pet a toy or treat to keep him occupied while he is tucking. Once your pet is tucking perfectly inside your home, move your practice session out to your deck or patio. Make sure he’s able to stay calmly for an entire meal!


Drill Your Recall

Whether you are planning to head to an off leash dog park, take your pup out on the water, or you’re even just spending more time in your own backyard, recall is certainly a skill to drill this spring! Get your pet to come to you reliably when you call by practicing daily, practicing in a variety of distraction levels, and ALWAYS rewarding when your pet comes when called. You can proof your recall with a game of hide and seek! Tell your pet to stay in one room of your house and then walk into another room of your house and tell her to come! Once your pet finds you, celebrate with treats or a toy, praise, and petting. Just like your indoor leash walking practice, you can increase distraction levels by adding new sounds, smells, toys, and treats when you practice. Regular recall practice will condition the response you want from your pet! Make sure to use a leash or long line for safety when you do start to practice recall outside. Don’t use the leash to reel your pet in, but keep it attached to prevent your pet from running away. If your pet struggles with recall when dogs are nearby, try practicing recall on a leash or long line outside of the dog park fence while dogs play inside the park.


Once you and your pet have finished spring training, you can get out there and enjoy spring and summer activities together!

Here’s a list of some of my favorite things to do with the pets when the weather gets warmer:


Go Hiking!

Leashed pets are welcome on almost all hiking trails in Iowa State Parks, but it is always a good idea to call ahead to make sure the areas you are visiting are pet-friendly. We love walking along the Wapsi at Wapsipinicon State Park and can't wait for Palisades-Kepler State Park to reopen when they recover from the derecho.

For a less intense hike, the Cedar Valley Nature Trail offers over 50 miles of easy hiking from Hiawatha to Evansdale. Most of the path is paved, although some portions are crushed limestone.

To up the training challenge, head to Wanatee Park in Marion or Pinicon Ridge Park in Central City to work your dog in off leash exercise areas with no fences! Remember to leash up when you run into other dogs/people, for everyone's safety.


Go Out to Eat!

Does your favorite restaurant have a patio? Call ahead and ask if your dog or cat would be welcomed on the patio! One of our favorite breweries, Big Grove Brewery, has a dog friendly patio. Stop by and sample their delicious beers! Don’t forget to bring along a chew toy and some water for your pup to enjoy! Who knows? Your pup might even be featured on the @dogsofbiggrove Instagram!

If we’re more in the mood for delicious cocktails and tasty twists on street food, we’ll take the pups to the patio at Local Pour. Their patio is so dog-friendly that they even have special bowls for your pet!


Go Kayaking!

Iowa is full of waterways that are perfect for paddlers from novices to pros. The Iowa DNR even provides an interactive map to help you plan your route!




What are your favorite warm-weather activities to do with your pets? Let me know in the comments!


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