Rhythm is the beat of a dog’s heart, the sound of a puppy’s metronome snore, and the trot of a furry friend’s paws on the wooden floor. Rhythm keeps us all alive, and it brings us joy. We can use this natural beat to enhance any training, whether it’s for competition or for walking with our best four-footed friend.
The sport of canine freestyle is the “choreographed performance illustrating the training and relationship of a dog and handler team.” The dog and handler move rhythmically together to music, creating a dance that highlights the relationship and teamwork. But we don’t have to be competitors in freestyle to use rhythm.
The idea behind using rhythm in training is not new. French ring sport originated in the 1800s. A dog is required to jump a 1-meter hurdle, soar over a long jump, and climb a wall. Each agile behavior is set up so the dog has good cadence for take off and landing. In the sport of agility, a dog navigates a course based on the movement of the handler, going slowly when necessary to enable precision, and faster to encourage speed.
The first step in training, is to dress the part. Fill a pocket, trainer’s bag, or trainer’s vest with food. Your partner has to learn the steps, and your dog cannot resist you if the date is for dinner and dancing. Then, think about what you would like to train. In today’s world of dog sports, the sky is the limit. However, maybe start with simple behaviors your dog already knows how to perform: sit, down, shake, spin, etc.
In Dog Dynamics classes, we encourage our students to think of the beat of a waltz when they train the command to “heel.” The dog sits on the left side, facing the same direction as the handler. With a signal from the left hand that holds a piece of food, the dog is encouraged to begin moving while focusing on the left hand. When the dog team begins to move we count, “one two three, sit.” The dog is the dance partner, and when we tell our dance partner to “sit” on count two, our partner has time to prepare for the dance change and be ready to “sit” when we stop.
With the same idea in mind, we can use rhythm to teach a dog to come straight to us and sit. With food in both hands, we start with the “heel” dance and on count three, we shift our movement from walking forward to taking steps backward, encouraging the dog to make a U-turn and follow us as we move back. We place our hands on the front of our legs to help the dog be centered, and count “one, two, three, one, two, three” as we travel backwards, telling the dog “sit” on count two so the dog is seated on count three.
In honor of Chuck Berry, we could play a little “Johnny B. Goode” with a four-count beat. With a little food in both hands, move backward with your dog following you, front and center. With your hands at your dog’s head level, move your hands side to side so your dog’s head nods a “no” following the food. Then, do the same thing moving your hands slightly up and down to encourage a “yes” movement. Keep rhythm with the four count. With the food still at head level, spin your dog to circle left in front of you, reward. Spin your dog in a circle to the right in front of you, reward. “Go, go, Johnny, go!”
This life we have with our dogs, it’s all a dance. A trot to the left, a trot to the right, a smile of encouragement, and joy in our step. Keep the beat of the heart, and remember in dog training, if there’s rhythm, there are no blues.
Bonnie Brown-Cali has professionally trained dogs since 1990 and is the owner of Dog Dynamics Inc., which offers group lessons, private instruction, and board and train services in the Bay Area. She is an evaluator for the American Kennel Club, a field representative for Paws With a Cause training service dogs for people with disabilities, and trained and deployed dogs for conservation work for the University of Reno, Desert Research Institute, and Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation. To continue her education, she attends annual conferences, behavioral workshops, and training seminars in the United States and abroad. She achieved her French Ring I title with her Beauceron and is beginning her training with her Malinois. She and her family share their home in the East Bay hills with their pack of dogs and flock of chickens. To learn more, visit DogDynamics.org.
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Main article photo by: Abigail Post