Canine freestyle dancing, also known as musical canine freestyle, is a dog sport that consists of handlers and their dogs performing choreographed routines to music. The sport originated in the 1990s and has grown in popularity over the years. It's an exciting way for handlers to bond with their dogs while having fun, being creative, and showing off their dog's talents and training.
In canine freestyle, the handler chooses music, choreographs a routine, and trains the dog to perform various heelwork, spins, jumps, weaves, and other movements to match the music. Routines are performed in a ring and are judged on elements like musical interpretation, choreography, handler's creativity, teamwork, and the dog's tricks, behaviors, and flow of movement.
If you want to get involved in this enjoyable dog sport with your canine companion, proper preparation and training is key. This article will provide tips and guidelines on how to select the right dog, choose music, choreograph routines, and train your dog effectively for canine freestyle competitions or just for fun.
Choosing a Dog for Canine Freestyle
Not all dogs are suited for canine freestyle. When selecting a dog, you'll want one that:
- Has plenty of energy and stamina
- Is focused, engaged, and eager to work
- Is athletic, coordinated, and graceful in movement
- Is motivated by praise, play, food rewards
- Enjoys learning new things and interacting with you
- Is healthy, not prone to joint issues or easily exhausted
- Has basic obedience training and knows cues like heel, sit, down, stay, come
Herding breeds like border collies, Australian shepherds, and German shepherds often excel at freestyle due to their athleticism, trainability, and natural "eye" for following cues and moving with handlers.
Other great options include poodles, spaniels, schnauzers, Shetland sheepdogs, and mixed breeds with these characteristics. Avoid brachycephalic (short-nosed) dogs like pugs and bulldogs, as well as heavy, clumsy, or highly stubborn breeds.
Start training dogs for freestyle when they're around a year old. Puppies under a year haven't finished growing and lack the focus needed. Older dogs can learn too, but may not have the energy or mobility for lots of demanding moves.
Choosing Music for Routines
Music selection is a vital part of choreographing freestyle routines. You want upbeat, lively music that complements your dog's movement style and personality. Avoid slow tempos which don't allow for many tricks or changes of direction.
When reviewing music choices, listen for:
- A lively, motivating rhythm and tempo (often 120-160 BPM)
- Clear musical phrases and sections
- Fun, engaging melodies and textures
- Uplifting, energetic mood that suits your dog's style
Also ensure there are no abrupt pauses, shifts in tempo, uneven accents, or jarring transitions that might throw off choreography timing. Look for seamless, steady rhythms.
Consider your dog's character too. Playful dogs suit peppy pop or rock music. Regal dogs match orchestral or classical genres. High energy dogs fit well with fast electronic dance or techno beats. Tracks with lyrics can inform choreography and storytelling elements.
Some great genres to explore include jazz, big band, swing, movie soundtracks, Latin, Celtic, and foreign folk music. Avoid anything too abrasive or harsh sounding. Ask any musicians you know for recommendations too!
Choreographing a Routine
Once you've selected appropriate music, it's time to choreograph a creative routine that showcases your dog's skills and personality. Follow these tips when planning choreography:
- Listen to the track many times and map out movement phrases, accents, and sequence of tricks that fit the music.
- Maximize use of available space by including moves across the ring, not just in center.
- Strike a balance between heelwork and standalone tricks. Too much of either can be boring.
- Showcase a variety of moves like spins, leg weaves, scalework, jumps through arms, circles, and backing up.
- Position exciting or challenging moves at musical climaxes for maximum impact.
- Use lyrics or melodies to guide the mood, theme, and movements.
- Develop transitions between moves that maintain an energetic, musical flow.
- Tell a "story" through your choreography, expressions, costumes if applicable.
- Ensure moves suit your dog's physical abilities. Don't overwhelm them.
- Time the routine to exactly fit the track length; no awkward endings.
- Include at least 50% of time with dog and handler connected, per rules.
- Practice the choreography yourself first before teaching the dog.
Start choreographing early so you have time to make changes. Video yourself performing the routine to help fine-tune the choreography before training the dog. Have fun with it!
Training Your Dog for Freestyle Routines
Once you've set choreography, it's time to train your dog to perform each move, transition, and sequence perfectly to the music. Follow these general tips:
- Always start training moves via luring and shaping, not forcing into positions. Go slow.
- Break routine down into very small pieces. Take it step by step.
- Be very consistent in your body language, signals, and reward timing.
- Keep training sessions short, focused, positive, and fun for the dog.
- Gradually add hand signals, then fade out food lures over many repetitions.
- Use a clicker or verbal marker like "yes!" to precisely mark desired actions.
- Practice moves every day for short periods. Frequent short sessions are best.
- Slowly assemble pieces into larger sequences after dog performs them reliably individually.
- Train in various environments so dog generalizes. Practice without music sometimes too.
- Record training sessions to see issues from the dog's perspective.
- Avoid drilling routines mindlessly. Keep things lively and rewarding for the dog.
- Gradually add distractions and duration to proof behaviors.
- Remember to refresh obsolete moves so the dog stays confident in them.
- If dog is struggling, go back to an earlier point of success and rebuild.
- Use something highly rewarding like play, toys, or special treats for key moves.
Be patient and creative in your training process. Troubleshoot problems with engagement, motivation, choreography, etc. Training for canine freestyle is a journey! Let's look closer at how to teach some common freestyle moves.
Teaching Basic Heelwork
Heelwork refers to the dog staying in heel position (on the handler's left side) while performing synchronized steps, turns, pace changes, etc. It's a core element of freestyle routines. Follow these tips for teaching excellent heelwork:
- Work on getting an automatic, straight sit at heel first. Use a verbal cue like "sit." Lure if needed initially. Give the release cue "OK" to get back up.
- With the dog sitting at heel, take one step forward, mark and reward correct heel position. Repeat, adding more steps gradually.
- Train both left and right side stepping, crosses in front, circles, pivots, and backing up. Use treats and praise to mark when dog moves with you fluidly.
- Add heelwork while walking briskly, running, sideways, backward. Do right turns, left turns, 180 and 360 degree pivots.
- Use hand targets, leg targets, luring, or guiding gently under chin when needed to keep position. Wean off lures and prompts gradually.
- Practice fast and slow paces, sudden stops and turns, tempo changes. The dog must learn to adapt quickly.
- Use different hand positions like across chest, straight down, out to side, behind back, etc. to solidify reliable heel positioning.
- Work on persistence of heel position despite major distractions and for long durations. Stay upbeat throughout!
Teaching a snappy, focused heel with attention on you is crucial for executing freestyle choreography. Make it fun and rewarding!
Teaching Rear End Awareness
In freestyle, dogs must move their rear quarters independently from front which requires rear end awareness. To teach:
- With dog standing, face them and lure their nose towards you, causing their hips to shift away. Mark and reward.
- Lure nose towards you in an arc so dog pivots rear around front end. Reward correct pivoting motion.
- Use target to get dog to back up into correct position, then reward. Fade target over time.
- With dog in heel, step forward but use leash or lure to keep rear stationary, creating an angled stretch. Mark and reward correct position, then release to come back to heel.
- Do "perch" work – lure dog to stack rear and hold position while you walk around them. Mark and reward stability.
- Put low obstacles behind dog and lure front end over, teaching dog to lift rear independently.
- Reward voluntary hip shifts, pivots, backing up and other rear end awareness behaviors.
Work in very short sessions to build rear end flexibility, strength and independent motion skills crucial for freestyle.
Teaching Sidepass and Leg Weaves
The sidepass involves the dog moving sideways while remaining straight, crossing front and back legs over each other. It creates visually appealing travel along the ring. Teach by:
- With lured sit at heel, step sideways so dog must move over to stay aligned. Mark and reward correct sideways steps.
- Build up distance for sidepass, keeping dog straight. Use hand target on side if needed.
- Gradually remove lures and instead use body blocking, verbal cues like "over", leash guidance.
- Work both directions. Make sure hip and shoulder alignment stay straight.
- Sprinkle in rewards and praise to keep sidepass energized. Avoid too much repetition.
Leg weaves have the dog go in and out between handler's moving legs or arms. They showcase the dog's rear end control. Train leg weaves by:
- With lured sit at heel, step sideways leading with inside leg and sweep outside leg across dog's bodyReward dog swiftly moving hips out of the way in a slight arc.
- Graduate to full circling inside leg in front then outside leg behind. Dog learns to drive rear out and under.
- Reverse directions. Vary speed. Use targets and hand lures if needed initially but fade out.
- Challenge dog with more crossovers, faster pace, pushes lateral, etc. Keep it fun!
- Praise light, nimble rear end responsiveness. Avoid letting dog anticipate or lag.
Note: Only cross legs in front of dog at first, not over their spine. Leg weaves can stress joints, so monitor dog's flexibility.
Teaching Spins and Pivots
Spins and pivots involve the dog turning in a circle around one spot while the handler moves around them or stays stationary. They're crowd-pleasing moves when performed smoothly. Train them by:
- With lured sit at heel, tempt nose towards you to initiate pivot onto right rear. Mark and reward turning motion.
- Gradually increase pivot to full 360 using food lures, targets on hand, body blocking. Reward often.
- Work up to verbal cue like "spin!" Then name and train "left spin" also with cue "spin left!"
- String spins together – 2 in a row, 3 in a row, etc. Vary speed and direction often.
- Shape smooth, flowing motion vs abruptness. Dog should keep rear planted around which front end orbits.
- Troubleshoot disengagement, sloppy sits, popping up, etc. Keep sessions upbeat.
- Gradually fade out lures and prompts so dog responds reliably to verbal cues and hand signals.
- Challenge with distractions, getting spins from distance, adding stylistic elements, etc.
Spins and pivots require significant rear end awareness. Build up difficulty and duration gradually to avoid soreness. Make them fun with lots of praise and reward!
Teaching Backing Up
Backing up involves the dog walking backward in heel position while handler moves forward. It's useful for choreography and keeps the team connected. Train it by:
- With lured sit at heel, show a food lure stepping backward so dog is drawn to follow into backward walk. Mark and reward steps.
- Keep rewarding correct backward movement. Use hand target on chest if needed. Don't rush pace.
- Work up to full ring length backing up in straight lines, curves, zig zags, etc.
- Add in tempos, speed changes, stops and starts while backing.
- Use "back" verbal cue, then transfer to subtle body language like leaning forward.
- Only increase pace and difficulty as dog masters current level. Never pull leash or force backward movement.
Backing up expands rear awareness and coordination. Make sure to also train forwards, turns and changes of pace from backing position.
Jumping safely is an exciting freestyle skill. Start by teaching a solid "jump" cue on the ground using targets to shape the behavior. Then:
- With the dog confidently jumping on cue, introduce a low bar jump set below their shoulder height. Use targeting to guide the jump initially if needed. Mark and reward correct form.
- Gradually increase bar height as dog learns to fold limbs and spring over cleanly. Never force or rush height increases.
- Work on straight approaches, curving run-arounds, wrap-arounds and 180 jumps. The dog must collect and adjust body correctly.
- Add simple two-jump sequences, rear crosses, front crosses, etc. Weave jumps together into flowing lines.
- Set up broad, channel and panel jumps too. Change approach angles frequently to keep dog thinking.
- Use verbal cues and guiding hand signals to initiate jumps from a distance.
- Monitor and preserve soft, safe jumping technique. Avoid over-reps causing fatigue.
- Mix in jumps amid other moves to avoid dull repetition. Keep sessions short, positive and fun!
Note: Don't push dogs with joint issues or poor structure to jump high. Always prioritize safety and good form over height or volume.
Putting It All Together and Polishing
Once your dog reliably performs all the individual moves, transitions and sequences to music, it's time put the whole routine together!
- Run through entire choreography from start to finish multiple times to cement flow. Record and watch the footage to see where improvements are needed.
- Pay special attention to tightening transitions between segments. These must be crisp vs. sloppy.
- Check that moves align with musical highlights. Adjust timing/placement if needed.
- Practice without treats or rewards now so the dog remains focused in the ring. Use petting or a toy as reward instead.
- Increase physical conditioning with longer training sessions so the dog builds endurance.
- Run routines from various ring entry points and directions. Dog must adapt to any scenario.
- Add realistic distractions and test if they still keep their focus.
- Run routines flawlessly multiple times before calling it good. Don't quit while mistakes are still happening.
- Film routines from all angles – judge's POV, audience POV etc. Review the footage to catch minor glitches.
- Enter mock competitions or do run-throughs in unfamiliar places.
- Focus on expressing the music, conveying emotion and character, moving as a synchronized team.
- Always make training feel fun, challenging, and rewarding for both members of the team!
With dedication and positivity, you and your dog will be competition-ready and rocking crowd-wowing freestyle routines in no time! Now get out there and dance!
Canine freestyle dancing is a joyful, artistic sport that allows handlers and dogs to move together in harmony and showcase their training. Though it takes significant preparation and practice to train a dog for freestyle routines, the bonding and creative fulfillment make it deeply rewarding.
Choose an engaged, athletic dog suited for the demands of the sport. Pick motivating music, choreograph an inspiring routine playing to your dog's strengths, and train the moves through shaping, luring and positive reinforcement. Have patience working through challenges, preserve the dog's confidence and enjoyment above all else.
Before you know it, you and your canine companion will be performing creative, awe-inspiring musical freestyle dances together for all to enjoy. So grab your dancing shoes, turn up the tunes, and get ready to wow!