If you’ve seen the YouTube video of Carolyn Scott and her Golden Retriever Rookie dancing a routine set to “You’re the One that I Want” from Grease, then you’re already familiar with canine musical freestyle, an obedience-based sport that has taken off in popularity since it began in the early 1990s.
More than Just a Dance
Dancing with your dog might sound fun and easy, but it’s actually the most difficult canine competitive sport to master. Its foundation is in advanced obedience, but the sport also requires learning tricks and complicated choreography, duplicating the choreography during competition, performing the steps accurately and truly enjoying the experience.
The Origins of Canine Musical Freestyle
In the late 1980s, canine musical freestyle began to emerge from pure entertainment and became a serious competitive sport for dogs. In 1993, Joan Tennille, the president and co-founder of the Canine Freestyle Federation (CFF), along with four dog trainers, put together the first canine freestyle demo. Two years later, Tennille founded the CFF, and a new sport was born.
The World Canine Freestyle Organization (WCFO), which came into being in 1999, promotes canine musical freestyle as both a sport and a form of entertainment. As a sport, the WCFO defines and enforces strict guidelines for qualifying, performing and placing. The WCFO organizes qualifying competitions throughout the worlds, although primarily in Europe and the United States.
In 2002, the Musical Dog Sport Association (MDSA) was founded as a resource for beginners, providing training tips, sample choreography, referrals to trainers and a library of reference materials. The MDSA holds titling events, showcases recognition for freestyle teams that perform at hospitals, schools and nursing homes. One of the MDSA’s specialized programs is “The Golden Years,” teams of senior freestyle dogs with senior owners.
A winning freestyle routine is based on an ever-evolving list of moves, but also incorporates new moves and creativity. The foundation for most moves is the “heel” command, and then build from there. Other common moves include:
- Backing in a straight line
- Pivot in place in a heel position on all four sides of you
- Side-step in both directions
- Close-in heelwork sequences in which the dog and handler move together in parallel positions to one another, whether a straight, curved or circular pattern
- Moving heelwork, such as spins, turns, pivots, paws or hands on-moves.
- Close-in moves that connect heelwork sequences together
After your dog masters these moves, it’s up to you to provide the atmosphere, which includes costumes and music. When you select the music, select a song you like that has a strong, steady beat. Make sure you can dance to it!
Your costumes should reflect the music you select and the choreography you perform. Don’t overdress in sequins and tulle; keep your costumes simple and appropriate, and make sure you and your dog can move in them. In the case of Carolyn Scott and Rookie’s Grease performance, they wore black clothes reminiscent of Sandy and Danny’s costumes in the movie.
Canine Musical Freestyle Competitions
Every freestyle organization has its own rules about the required components of a freestyle performance. At each level of competition, a dog must perform a certain set of movements set within a creative dance framework. Think of freestyle as you would ice skating—a certain number of moves are required, but it’s up to the performer to decide how and when to perform each move. The team will receive points for performing the moves, creativity, skill and the interaction between handler and dog.
Will You & Your Dog Enjoy Freestyle?
Any dog with the right skills, temperament and abilities can compete in musical freestyle, but Border Collies and Golden Retrievers are the current champions. Border Collies love having a job and performing it to your exact specifications, and Golden Retrievers simply love to dance! They’re also adept and learning complicated strings of commands, just like their Border Collie brethren. Another qualification for free-styling is your dog’s ability to concentrate: He’ll need to focus on you and your commands for 90 seconds to three minutes.
But even your pug or terrier mix can learn canine musical freestyle. Regardless of a dog’s breeding, if the core skills and interest are there, then your dog can excel in dancing, as long as you’re committed to the sport and all the training involved. You’ll need to be a strong owner with advanced obedience training skills, creativity, choreography skills and the ability to move with a beat.
If you’d like to try freestyle with your dog, remember to be patient and not to push him like a stage mom thrusting her child into the spotlight. If your dog isn’t interested in dance competitions, find another fun activity you both enjoy.