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Doggie Dancers

Get your groove on…with your pooch

By Kris Hurley

IWhat do you get when you take a dog and a handler and throw in some music? Canine freestyle, of course! In this trendy sport, canines and people team up to create showstopping “dance” routines that combine obedience skills with athletic moves such as spins, weaves, and jumps. The result is a peppy performance that doesn’t just amuse audiences— it wows them.

Freestyle takes a lot of training, teamwork, and creativity. But many, if not most, dogs are smart enough to catch on, provided they have the right guidance. In fact, freestyle is becoming more widespread in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, as well as other countries such as Denmark, Japan, South Africa, and Australia. You may have seen it on TV shows such as “King of the Hill” or Animal Planet’s new series “Pet Star.” Many doggie-human freestyle teams also visit hospitals or nursing homes, entertaining old and young alike.

If you’re interested in hitting the dance floor with your dog, there are a few tips to keep in mind. One of the common misconceptions about freestyle is that you have to dance. The truth is that probably about 95% of all freestylers have not had any formal dance experience. Freestyle routines give the illusion of dance as the handler and dog move in rhythm to the music; the dog’s feats fall at key points in the choreography. The handler can enhance the illusion by doing something as simple as hooking his thumbs into belt loops (country music) or by hopping and twirling (swing music). Costumes also help to convey the music’s feel. For example, in “Theatrical” freestyle routines, the dog and handler each play a character from a play or musical; the routine may include more dramatic costumes and props. Add the appropriate “attitude,” and you and your dog will look like professional “dancers” even if there’s not an official dance step anywhere in the routine.

Even though there are no required moves in freestyle, some combinations—such as spins and weaves—seem to be standard. Other popular moves for the canine partner include paw kicks, walking backward, or jumping over/through the handler’s arms or legs. Additional techniques are often created from a dog’s natural behaviors, like “begging” or “rolling over.” But not all moves work well for all dogs—or all people. Freestyle encourages teams to highlight their natural skills. Some handlers create “signature” moves that make a lasting impression on audiences and judges alike.

In freestyle, the music should match the dog’s natural rhythm and personality, from country, to pop, to swing, to opera. You might be tempted to pick your favorite song, but it may not be the best choice. If the music’s tempo is too slow, the dog may look bored. If it’s too quick or overpowering, it may diminish the team’s moves and personality. Likewise, when creating choreography or selecting a costume, make sure it highlights the dog. Think about ballroom dancing or pairs ice-skating—it is very common for an audience to focus on the female partner. The man provides the foundation and support. This should be the balance you strive for: You help shine the spotlight on your dog.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, make sure you have a good, positive relationship with your furry pal. And don’t worry that your pooch might not be “cut out for it.” No particular age, breed, or size of dog seems to have an advantage in this sport. Dogs of all types—from Chihuahuas to Newfoundlands—have achieved success. Freestyle is also a great activity for senior dogs as an activity to keep them young and agile, or for younger dogs as a fun supplement to other training such as obedience or agility.

Whether you’re practicing in your living room, performing for a school or nursing home, or entering a competition, you’ll enjoy yourself and be amazed by your dog’s ability to learn new “tricks.” And your dog will have a great time pleasing you and mastering new skills. The most important thing a team can accomplish in freestyle is to have fun—whether you’re human or canine!

How to Get Started in Freestyle:

Seek knowledge: There are many wonderful resources, including online discussion groups. Yahoo! Groups has several. The Alternative Canine Freestyle group is one of the most active discussion groups with more than 1,600 members worldwide.

Find seminars and classes: Check out local freestyle groups to locate opportunities to train in your area. If there are not any formal classes offered, you can link up with other freestylers in your area to share ideas and receive feedback on your routines.

Purchase training videos: The Musical Dog Sport Association

(www.MusicalDogSport.org) has several videos by Richard Curtis, Attila Szkukalek, and Mary Ray that are all great. Sandra Davis also offers a series of training videos that can be ordered at www.CanineFreestyle.com.

Competition:

Several organizations offer competitions. You will need to research each one’s philosophy and rules to decide which you’d like to join.

They include:

• Canine Freestyle Federation, www.CanineFreestyle.com

• Paws To Dance, www.BCFirst.com/paws

• World Canine Freestyle Organization,

www.WorldCanineFreestyle.org

Explore other areas of dog training: Clicker training, basic obedience, rally obedience, trick training, and other forms of dog training can provide ideas for great skills that can be incorporated into your freestyle routine.

Explore other creative areas: Watch movies with dance themes, catch the reruns of the old musicals, go to dance recitals, and check the television schedule for events like ice-skating, gymnastics, and equestrian dressage. All these venues can help spark creative ideas.

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