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A Freestyle Primer

by Alison Jaskiewicz
(published with the permission of the author)

 The music begins.  You and your partner flow into your choreography.  Broadway?  Ballroom dancing?  No!  This is Freestyle and your partner is your dog!

Canine Freestyle evolved in the early 90’s as an artistic offshoot of obedience training.  Add music, creativity, choreography and artistry to dog training and a new sport is born.  Perhaps some of you are familiar with the Musical Kur or Freestyle of equine dressage?  Canine and equine Freestyle share many elements, yet diverge to reflect the unique character and attributes of the different species.

Something For Everyone

In it’s simplest form or definition, freestyle is a dog and handler performing to music.  Since the mid 90s multiple organizations have defined Freestyle in different ways.  While this can often be confusing to a newcomer, the resulting ‘styles’ enable teams to explore a wide range of possibilities.  There is a niche and style for everyone and still much room for experimentation and exploration.  The future of Canine Freestyle is still wide open.   Many freestylers choose to  entertain rather than compete.  Freestyle is a fine addition to therapy visits and a wonderful way to introduce children to the joys of dog training.  Consider giving Freestyle a try. 

Freestyle = Training

Freestyle, like every other dog sport, is all about training.  Freestyle offers the opportunity to share a vast array of trained skills, skills of your own choosing and your dog’s choosing.  Along the way you will discover and develop a wonderful interactive relationship with your dog. 

Freestyle = Balance

Perhaps you have started training in basic obedience?   Traditional obedience is one-sided because heeling is performed with the dog only on the handler’s left side.  Dogs actually develop different muscling patterns on their two sides due to one sided heeling.  For Freestyle you will teach heeling on both sides, finishes to both sides, and, in fact, many different movements on both sides, and some in front and behind as well!    If you started in agility you may already have a dog working both sides.  Your dog will thank you because he will be more physically balanced and comfortable. 

Freestyle = Movement

Freestyle is a celebration of movement with music.  What movement, you ask?  Any movement which is safe and enjoyable for your dog.  Some frequently seen movements are backing, pivots, side-stepping, weaving, spinning, circling, crawling, bouncing, waving, bowing.  Use your imagination.  Watch your dog as he/she plays.  You may notice movements unique and natural to your dog which you can then train to a cue.  You will also begin to notice that every dog does each movement with their own style.  Capture and develop that style, and your freestyle will become a unique celebration of each individual dog and your relationship with him or her.  

Freestyle Music

You will find yourself honing your listening skills to unleash the potential of Freestyle choreography with music.  Listen for melodies, instrumentation, themes and variations, and, particularly important, listen for the rhythm.   The most effective Freestyle music is selected to match the natural trotting rhythm of your dog.  Consider all the musical possibilities, from classical to contemporary, jazz to folk, instrumental and vocal.  You will discover that your dog likes music!  You will also discover that your dog has musical preferences!  Skeptical?  We all were at first, but when you first watch a dog ‘choose’ music you will be astounded.  After you have found several pieces of music which match your dog’s rhythm, play them one at a time while you heel with your dog.  When your dog really likes a musical selection he will step higher, wag harder and sparkle with a new and delighted presence.  Having a friend watch or running a video camera can help with this process, although you will be able to feel your dog sparkle and glow at your side as well.  

Starting to Choreograph When you are thoroughly familiar with the rhythms, instrumentation and patterns of your selected music and you have a good idea of the variety of movements your dog is capable of doing, you are ready to start to choreograph.  Your goal is not to show every movement your dog can do, but to create an artistic, flowing, and compelling performance.  Maintain a sense of space and direction.  For instance, always choreograph with a clear idea of which direction is front, where your audience or perhaps your judges will be. 

Now start to experiment with movement with your music.  Perhaps move by yourself at first, imagining your dog and his movements, but plan to include your dog very soon.  Only your dog can tell you how long it takes to perform a certain movement and whether it will work with the music or not.  This is a team effort and you must include your partner.  Your goal is to make him look his very best, maximizing his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses.

Balance stationary movements with ground covering ones. Balance slow movements with faster ones. Repetitions can be very effective in different locations so your audience can see and appreciate a movement from different angles. Or the same movement can be repeated at different speeds for a very different look. Stopping completely for several beats can be an effective accent, giving your audience a chance to catch up in a busy routine or building anticipation for a movement to come. The options are endless. Aim for smooth transitions and work with the music for maximum impact. An observant friend can offer valuable feedback.

Choices

As you are probably realizing, Freestyle is all about choices, choices of many kinds. Through Freestyle you can share your dog, his/her personality, character, training, athleticism and the joy, bond and relationship you share.  Some people happen to like precise and dressage-like movement.  Others prefer looser and more freeform movement.  Some prefer music without the distraction of vocals.  Others always choose vocal selections.  And choreography is a choice with every step, every change of direction, movement, tempo, energy and balance. This vast freedom of choice in Freestyle appeals to many, and yet, can also be intimidating or overwhelming to those more familiar with structured canine sports.  The key is to doodle and experiment and if possible find some like-minded friends to explore this new sport with you.  Visit the various websites listed below, join one or more of the Freestyle e-lists, ask lots of questions, attend some seminars and enjoy the freestyle journey with your dog. 

In Conclusion

Through Freestyle you will find great joy in training with your dog and the ultimate satisfaction of projecting the harmony and bond of your relationship to an appreciative audience.  Much work will go into making a performance look effortless but words cannot express the feeling when you and your dog become one in thought and movement with music. 

The currently existing North American Freestyle organizations are:  

Canine Freestyle Federation, Inc.
founded in 1995 (US)
 www.canine-freestyle.org  

Paws 2 Dance
founded in 1999 (Canada)
www.bcfirst.com/paws  

World Canine Freestyle Organization, Inc.
founded in 1999 (US)
www.worldcaninefreestyle.org  

Musical Dog Sport Association
founded in 2002 (US)
 www.musicaldogsport.org 
 

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