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Dancing With Your Dog

Canine musical freestyle is a hard sport to explain, let alone to do. Often it’s referred to as dog dancing, but that tends to call up images of dogs up on their hind legs, looking something like the dog version of a partner on Dancing with the Stars. I find it more helpful to talk about canine musical freestyle as choreographed routines to music — with dogs. These routines could look like skits, or like graceful movement in which a canine and human team move seemingly as one, or as a whole lot of things in between.

Unlike most dog sports in which the dog and human perform a prescribed set of exercises or run a set course, musical freestyle is limited only by the imagination and abilities of the human/dog team. You can showcase your dog’s natural gifts, whether that be athleticism, intelligence, or charm — I’ve been known to claim that freestyle is the only sport in which you can get points just for being cute. You can also avoid doing anything that is uncomfortable for a dog that is older or has physical limitations or that would be unsafe for a growing puppy.

What does it take to put together a musical freestyle routine? In addition to choosing music that suits the pace and style of your dog, you need to train your dog to move with you in a variety of positions. Beginning level routines usually feature the dog working on the left side, right side, and in front of the handler, but more advanced routines might also have the dog working behind the handler, perpendicular to the handler, in front facing away or pretty much any other position you can imagine. But learning to stay focused on the handler while moving together is a crucial foundation skill. In addition to that, well, pretty much any trick you can think of can be worked into a freestyle routine. Crawl, roll over, weave between the handlers’ legs, spin, sit pretty, walk on the hind legs, go around or on or over props — the sky is the limit! For instance, one of my dogs is currently working on a routine to the music “Here for the Party.” The routine begins with her going over and picking up a plastic drink cup, setting it down in a holder in front of a mini beer keg, and then holding her nose to the tap of the keg as if she were filling the cup.

If you’re someone who loves to teach tricks and new behaviors, freestyle is a great way to show off what your dog can do. If you’re someone who wants to do agility with your puppy, and you want great foundations before your dog is old enough to jump safely, freestyle is a great way to teach a dog to learn to watch you and follow what you do with your body. If you’ve done obedience with your dog, and would like something new and fun to do that incorporates the skills you’ve already taught, freestyle is a great way to branch out. If you and your dog love to work together, figuring things out and building an ever-closer relationship, there’s nothing better than freestyle. (And I say that as someone who actively competes in obedience, agility, and rally obedience as well as musical freestyle.)

Musical freestyle is a wonderful thing to incorporate into therapy dog visits, or to show off to your friends, but there are also organizations that hold competitions and grant titles. You can check out the websites for World Canine Freestyle Organization (WorldCanineFreestyle.org) or Rally Freestyle Elements (RallyFree.com) to find out more about rules and titles.

If you want to see what this freestyle thing is all about, go to YouTube and search on “Crufts freestyle” and you will find routines from some of the best teams around the world who compete at Crufts, the world’s largest dog show, held in London each year. Just remember that these are very advanced routines, so you’ll be starting your dog with something far less complicated. But maybe you’ll be inspired to put on some music, try some moves with your best buddy, and find out just how much fun it can be to dance with your dog!

Lynn Ungar teaches obedience classes in San Lorenzo and San Jose, and teaches freestyle and obedience on an individual basis. She shares her life with two Australian shepherds who compete in a variety of dogs sports. She can be reached at LynnUngar@gmail.com.

Main article photo by: Video stills courtesy of the Freestyle & HTM World Championship