When you’ve done canine freestyle as long as Kris Hurley of Oklahoma, you’re bound to have some funny stories. Most of them involve her seven-year-old Pug/Dachshund mix, Roxie, and her obsession with food.
“We were doing a demo in Memphis with an open ring, no gates,” recalls Hurley, who has danced with dogs since 1996. “On one side, there were high-rise bleachers. Roxie was next to me in left heel position, like she was supposed to be. We spin at the same time and she spins off to my left. At one point, she’s behind me, but then when I look down, I realize my dog’s not there anymore. She’s in the fourth row of bleachers in this guy’s lap, feet on his chest, and he’s holding a turkey leg up in the air out of reach.”
Canine freestyle is choreographed trick training set to music. You’ll recognize some traditional obedience moves, such as heel position, but the overall goal is to get creative and put your dog’s best paw forward. Fans of the sport love the freedom of choosing their own music, designing a routine based on their dog’s strengths and using verbal encouragement during a performance.
Joan Tennille, president and co-founder of the Canine Freestyle Federation (CFF), claims she defined canine freestyle as a competitive sport rather than as just entertainment. In 1993, four dog trainers approached Tennille, at the time, a professional dancer-choreographer, to help them create what would be the first canine freestyle demo. They wanted to showcase their dogs’ advanced obedience training by setting it to music and treating human and dog as equal partners. They showed her a video of a demonstration by a now-defunct Canadian organization.
“There was a woman in high heels and stockings doing ballet with a Golden Retriever,” says Tennille. “There were so many sequins and ruffles, you couldn’t even see the dog, and all the dog did was sit. Another woman had a well-trained Border Collie, but she had heavy sequins and balloons, so again, you couldn’t see the dog. I call that entertainment. That’s not what they wanted.”
Aside from the challenge of giving the dog equal stage presence, Tennille had to think about movement and flow. Four-footed dogs move very differently from two-footed people. Plus, a Border Collie is going to be more agile and light on his feet than a Bloodhound.
“Rhythm is a great organizer,” says Tennille. “Your heartbeat determines the rhythm of your body. You breathe relative to that heartbeat, and you move relative to the heartbeat. The dog does the same thing.”
The demo proved successful, and CFF was born two years later. It remains the oldest active canine freestyle organization, and is best known for what Tennille calls “performance attitude.”
In 1999, the World Canine Freestyle Organization (WCFO) made its debut and began offering worldwide competitions the following year. Two specialized divisions include “Sassy Seniors,” devoted to dogs over nine years old and/or handlers over 65 years, and “Handi-Dandi Dancers,” for the “creatively challenged” teams.
The Musical Dog Sport Association (MDSA) is a young organization, founded in 2002. Its website is a treasure trove for beginners, featuring resources such as a comprehensive (and ever-evolving) list of canine freestyle moves and advice on how to find a good freestyle trainer. MDSA also recognizes freestyle teams that perform at hospitals, schools and nursing homes through its Spirit of Sharing (SOS) program. Since freestyle classes are not yet available in some areas, its Circle of Friends program encourages members to meet and train with freestylers in their area.
Each organization promotes its own style and hallmarks of competition. Or, in the case of MDSA, the organization is so new that it’s still putting together titling competitions. In general, as you progress from one level to another, you’re required to perform longer, more challenging routines. Unlike dogs in many other sports, freestyle dogs must focus on their partner for a minimum of 90 seconds, and up to three minutes at the most advanced levels. The key is positive training using motivational methods.
“You can’t make a dog do freestyle,” says Hurley. “I don’t know how you could use correction to get the energy and teamwork. You can have all the technical precision in the world, but if you don’t have that connection, it won’t work.”
Although most of the top competition dogs are Border Collies and Golden Retrievers, all breeds and mixes are welcome to participate, no matter the organization. Karen Lewis of New Mexico competes in WCFO and MDFA with her six-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bryce. He earned his AKC conformation championship and also competes in agility.
“The bond is even more important in freestyle,” says Lewis. “In agility, you pretty much do those obstacles the same way. In freestyle, you’re always doing new moves. The dog has to pay attention to you constantly to get the cues, either verbal or physical. Since you’re supposed to keep up, you’re constantly thinking, What am I doing now? When am I going to say it? It’s amazing what can go on during a one-and-a-half-minute routine. It’s important for you to know what you’re doing.”
Of course, mistakes sometimes happen. Once, Bryce decided to get creative and change the order of the moves. “He’s lying down and he’s supposed to crawl toward me, then we roll over together in the same direction and he jumps over my back,” says Lewis. “When we performed this in live competition, he didn’t crawl, he walked, jumped my back, then lay down next to me. I had no idea what happened. We got an award for the best beginning move! So when you have a plan and it doesn’t go well, just keep on dancing.”