Put on a CD, teach your dog some moves, add a little costuming, and what do you get? Musical canine freestyle. And according to devotees, it’s simply the most fun you can have with your dog.
Susan Brogan, Nancy vonKoehnen and Una Valanski have been dancing with dogs, as it’s often called, for many years. All three found their way to freestyle – and the World Canine Freestyle Organization – through obedience.
Obey? Nah. Let’s Dance!
“I don’t think there’s anything I enjoy more than going in the ring and kind of forgetting that the audience is there,” Brogan says. “I like to play characters,” she adds. She’s designed choreography to create her version of Charlie Chaplin, as well as a washerwoman. Sometimes it’s the music that inspires her. “You hear a song, and you see something in your mind,” she says. Other times, she has an idea and “you see the behaviors you could use.”
Prior to becoming a freestyler in the late ‘90s, Brogan competed with her Pembroke Welsh Corgis in both obedience and agility, while still working in technical support in Virginia. Her dogs were aging, so she started doing therapy visits with them instead. She wanted to be able to do something entertaining during the visits. After seeing a freestyle demonstration, she decided to give it a try.
“Once I got started, I just got hooked and then it became my favorite thing. I have a theater background. I intended to teach dramatics while in college. That part of me came out.”
VonKoehnen got involved in freestyle in 1999 to motivate her dogs for obedience rings around Michigan.
“Then I got hooked,” she says. “My dog was having so much fun. I just thought it was fun teaching him the different tricks. He was smart and needed that extra challenge.”
Five-year-old Paddington liked to do anything “kind of different,” she says. It was different for vonKoehnen too. The now-retired legal secretary says, “As a kid, I was really, really shy. So, it’s like completely opposite to get out there with my dog and do these things. I never think about the people watching. It’s just out there being with my dog.”
Being different is encouraged. “There’s not a set way,” she says. You can essentially teach your dog any movement or behavior as long as it won’t cause any harm. “I’ve actually learned a lot about dog behavior and dog training since doing freestyle,” she adds.
Valanski also got her introduction to freestyle through obedience. A group did a demonstration at the obedience class she’d enrolled her Papillon in. She remembers thinking, “That’s something really cool that I’d like do.” Sasha competed for six months, earning her beginner’s title when she was a year old. Then she just refused to participate anymore. So, Valanski got another Papillon, Spencer, and “he’s done beautifully. He’s just a wonderful boy.” Sasha now spends most her time on the lap of Valanski’s husband.
“It just clicked for me. It’s just something I really, really enjoy,” she says.
Valanski also competes with her 6-year-old Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix, Chadwick. “He’s really a little showman,” she says. “He loves the audience. If he doesn’t get applause, he runs over to the ring gate, runs back and forth in front of the audience, like ‘you’re supposed to applaud for me.’ He’s a little ham.”
The Moves That Win
Competitors design their own routines, and almost anything goes. So, participants have their own language that tells their dogs what to do.
“Wiggle” is one of Valanski’s moves. “A lot of people have the dog back through their legs. Spencer kind of adapted to the way I walk and did it. I call it ‘wiggle.’” He backs around her to the cue, “reverse.” On the command, “paws,” Spencer gives her one paw, then the other. You might think “park” would have something to do with stopping the action, but it doesn’t. Valanski rests one foot on top of the other, and Spencer passes between her legs.
Spinning and twirling are common moves in freestyle.
“I like to teach things that are unusual,” Brogan says. If she gives the “stink” cue to her 12-year-old Australian Shepherd, Jazz, she covers her face with her paw. The move got its name from a lyric in the song with which Brogan first used the move. “Something in the lyrics said something about smelling bad,” she explains. Jazz also likes to “snuggle.” That’s when she stands on her hind legs, then leans her back against Brogan.
“’Snuggle’ took a while,” she says. It wasn’t hard for Jazz to learn, but she had to build up the necessary muscles. “Dogs don’t use those normally. It took a while to build up that strength and that balance, just to stand. Then she had to be taught to move.”
Most routines, as they’re known in the freestyle world, are under four minutes long. But it takes a lot of activity on a dog’s part to fill that time with interesting moves. One that Brogan designed had about 50 moves in it.
When vonKoehnen wants her 6-year-old Golden Retriever Takota to walk forward with her, she says, “ur.” Why? Because “straight” sounds too much like “wait.” Takota’s signal to back around one of vonKoehnen’s legs is “teg.”
Everyone has their own way of creating a new routine too. “I pick out my music and walk the dog to the music,” Valanski says. “Is his tail wagging? Does he walk nicely to the music?” If the music doesn’t seem to work for that particular dog, she tries a different dog or different music. “I play it over and over, then incorporate moves my dog knows into various points at the music.”
Brogan adds: “My feeling, and this is just me, is that the music should suit both the dog and the handler, the team. Maybe it just doesn’t suit your personality and your style. Sometimes those things all come together. Sometimes they don’t.”
Freestyle Keeps on Giving
Despite years in the sport and Spencer’s completion of his final title, Valanski’s not giving up freestyle. She’s competing with two other dogs now. “I just love it. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful sport. Everyone is so encouraging. People compliment your routine, your costume.”
That camaraderie sometimes extends into the ring, itself. In the Pairs division, two handlers and two dogs perform one routine. The Team competition includes even more competitors. Brogan was on one team that did a routine to “Mexican Hat Dance.”
“It was such an awesome experience to do that even when the dogs were goofing off. It was just a blast. None of us wanted to leave when it was over,” she says. The team of dogs included a Newfoundland, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, a Golden Retriever and Brogan’s Australian Shepherd, Ruby.
Brogan sees no end in sight for her, either. “It really is a hoot,” she says.
“The thing of it is,” vonKoehnen says, “that no matter what breed of dog you have or what kind of person you are, you can do freestyle.” If you want to do something “wild and crazy,” you can. But if you’re more conservative, that works too. “You can pick and choose your music and the type of routine you want to do.
“I’ll be doing this a long time,” she says.