Dancing with Dogs: The Canine Freestyle Competition

We've hunted with them, exercised with them – even slept alongside them. So, why not dance with them?

Dog lovers in growing numbers are training their pets – and themselves – in a sport called "canine freestyle", a pastime in which the dog and its owner move in tandem through a set of choreographed steps to music of their choice.

Organizations in the United States, Canada and Great Britain hold championships that are drawing ever larger groups of freestyle enthusiasts, who swear that their canine Barishnikovs love the music, the teamwork and the chance to show off.

Prizes Are Tempting

Prize money can also be tempting. At a recent "Disco Doggy Dance" held by the World Canine Freestyle Organization in Hershey, Pa., the best-in-show collected $500, while first place went home with $100, said organization founder Patie Ventre, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The dog's costume won't win him points at WCFO events, where dogs are allowed to don only ankle bands and a decorative collar. "The handlers costume up," said Ventre. "If you're doing "If I Only Had a Brain," you should be dressed as a scarecrow."

She said the WCFO, founded last year, has about 300 members in 14 countries. Ventre, a former “champion skater and ballroom dancer," said she developed the sport with the aim of “bonding with your dog."

Dancing Builds a Bond

Joan Tennille of Fairfax, Va., shares that philosophy. "It's a bond between the human and the dog," agreed Tennille, who heads the Canine Freestyle Federation, which she founded in 1983. "I have never met a dog that didn't love this."

Tennille is a professional dancer and choreographer and says that she encourages the melding of movement and music. "It has to have artistry," she said.

Her children always had horses and dogs, and they took their dogs to obedience school, Tennille said. Watching the moves dogs were taught in those classes kindled an idea in her brain: "I said, `Oh, my God, this is just like dance!"

How to Participate

If you would like to participate, it's best to have your dog complete a standard beginning obedience class with an experienced trainer, or follow the advice in a training video if you want to do the job yourself, the Canine Freestyle Federation advises.

You will have to teach the dog how to heel on both sides, not just on the handler's left side, as obedience training demands. And your dog will have to learn to walk backward in a straight line, how to pivot in place and how to sidestep.

Next, you'll be choosing music that fits the rhythms of the dog. And finally, you'll work on the choreography. Start by experimenting with your partner by moving to the rhythms of the music. Get a friend to watch and tell you what works best. A video camera is also helpful. And remember that your routine has to work in a ring that is 40 feet by 50 feet.

The Competitions

Competitions held by the Canine Freestyle Federation and World Canine Freestyle Organization are announced in advance on each organization's Web site. WCFO also lists several upcoming training sessions in the sport.

Mary Sullivan's Belgian sheepdog Cajun, age 9, took top honors at the CFF freestyle competition in Alexandria, Va., early this month. While a pianist played, Cajun moved to Bach's 18th Prelude, showing off his circular spins, pivots and leaps.

But the dance moves in freestyling don't have to be elaborate. They involve steps like turning with your dog, getting him to heel in step with you as you circle or having him step sideways, in sync with you. Spins, leaps and pivots are also encouraged.

The music should be chosen by the dog – sounds and rhythms that seem to naturally get your pet moving, Tennille advised. And take care not to injure the animal. "I don't want to see a dog with its paws up on my shoulders," she said. "I've seen, in some other competitions, a small dog that leaps over the back of somebody. You don't want to do anything to hurt the dog."

Veterinarians say dogs who are predisposed to hip dysplasia – where the hip bone can easily pop out of its socket – shouldn't be cavorting in ways that pull or put pressure on that area.

Paws to Dance

In Langley, British Columbia, dog obedience trainers Ray and Shannon Underwood take a looser approach than Tennille in their freestyle club, called Paws to Dance, where the dog handlers wear costumes.

"Ours is a bit more showmanship. We do ours purely for entertainment –we have very, very flashy routines," said Ray. His four-year-old sheltie loves to do tricks walking on two legs, he said.

While that doesn't hurt the 16-inch-high dog, Underwood said he'd never try it with a German shepherd.