The Canine Freestyle Federation held its annual trial on October
7, 2000, in Alexandria, Virginia. After the trial, much thoughtful
commentary ensued regarding the trial results, the proposed and
newly instituted rule and level changes, and what the judges
seemed to like and dislike. I decided to invite the judges themselves
to record some post-impressions of the overall strengths and
weaknesses of the routines. Several reviewed the trial video
tape before commenting and consequently cautioned me to keep
in mind that hindsight and two-dimensional videos are not as
accurate as viewing the original performance and judging it on
the spot. Remember also that although all CFF judges are rigorously
trained to the same standards and are very familiar with CFF
rules for judging, each judge IS an individual with a personal
perspective and will evaluate each performance and its creativity
and conformity to the rules accordingly.
Understanding, therefore, that l) the following critiques may
be influenced by hindsight, memory and the limitations of video;
and 2) that all judging is ultimately a subjective interpretation
of rules and definitions, let us examine the most recent trial
performances through the eyes of the judges. Perhaps we can glean
useful information to help us improve our own performances while
also evaluating the direction our sport is taking, at least in
terms of how it is judged.
The judges and their respective classes were :
Level I (on-leash) & Level II (off-leash) - Alison Jaskiewicz
and Maureen Taylor Level III & Level IV (both off-leash)
- Susan Allen and Monica Patty
I asked the judges to limit their comments to generalizations
and without naming individuals, as I felt it most instructive
and fair to examine overall impressions versus individual routines.
Susan described the actual atmosphere of this trial compared
to past trials when she wrote that "it felt to me like there
was less tension in the air, overall, and this positive atmosphere
seemed to calm the dogs, boost the handlers, and contributed
to the strongest and most polished routines we have witnessed
All the judges noted marked improvement and growth from the
previous trials to this one. When teams lost focus or encountered
a glitch, judges agreed that smooth handling saved the day. Maureen
and Monica commented together that
It showed in this last competition that there had been a big
improvement in the routines and in the presentations. There was
a higher level of performance from both dog and handlers at all
levels. This shows good training and focus. Programs showed more
complexity and a greater understanding of the theory of Freestyle.
Transitions between movements flowed and handler cues were muted
for the most part. Those handlers with a breakdown in their routines
because of inattention or dogs leaving the assigned space showed
a great deal of poise by retrieving their dogs and managing to
finish their programs. This indicates... that the handlers have
indepth knowledge of their programs as they relate to the music
and the presence of mind to get back on track instead of falling
Alison stated that:
In general the handling was excellent. Handlers were definitely
respecting their dogs' strengths and weaknesses and working
with them every step of the way, allowing time to complete
movements when necessary, as opposed to rushing off to the
next movement whether or not the dogs were gathered and ready
to go. Even in those unfortunate instances where the dogs totally
lost focus and attention, the handlers remained calm, poised
and gentle with their dogs, who were then comfortable in re-engaging
for the rest of the performance. Kudos to all the handlers.
I also enjoyed sitting back and absorbing (without judging)
Levels III and IV. The calibre of dogwork, training and choreography
is growing by leaps and bounds. We were privileged to be allowed
to share in many unique and wonderful relationships during the
evening. . . . The joy and rapport between human and canine can
be a special bond indeed.
Although Maureen and Monica believed that "music selection
with very few exceptions was very good and complimented the programs," they
advised that it also "immediately sets the tone for the
artisitic portion of the program and if ... inappropriate to
the movement and size of the dog, the entire program is negatively
impacted. It's hard for an Artistic Judge to separate the music
from the performance. Personally, we find music with words to
be ... distracting to a performance. The aim should always be
to select music that compliments the dog's movement." (
I might add that music with lyrics is permitted under CFF rules
and therefore does not warrant a penalty per se; however, in
my opinion, human nature prompts --even if unintentionally--some
connection made, or attempted, between words and the actions
of the team. If the lyrics are reflected poorly --or even well,
depending on their meaning--the focus of the judge/audience could
concentrate more on how well the words are "acted" out
instead of on how well the music and movement flow together.
The motivation for the performance could then become the LYRICS,
not the DOG. Always remember that the guiding policy of CFF-style
freestyle is to showcase the dog. )
The same principle of enhancing versus distracting from the
dog applies to the handler's choice of outfit, according to judges
M & M, who feel that if the outfit is not proper, the artistic
presentation is adversely affected. "What is `proper'?" they
ask "Some outfits are so different that they distract from
the program rather than compliment the performance. If you see
one, you know it."
Handler cues, if overdone, can be just as distracting. In the
opinions of M & M:
Strong excessive cues are very distracting to the Artistic judge.
They tend to draw the attention away from the dog to the handleer.
Points [off] are not [accrued} for smooth, small and flowing
cues that enhance the performance--the handler's body language
should not be stiff but should also flow with the music. However,
the handler should not use body language that would distract
from the dog's performance but to give the feeling of oneness.
Calmness thoughout the program really adds to the overall presentation.
Performance on leash should avoid moves that require the handler
to move the leash from hand to hand frequently--distracting.
Alison remarked on the merits of a smooth gait in the dog. She
I would like to address the issue which I found distracted most
from several of the performances;.... the dogs were pacing, sometimes
for most of the routines. Pacing is not an attractive gait and
in CFF the judges are looking for the dogs to be shown at their
best. Handlers, if you will move faster and get your dogs trotting,
your overall performance image will vastly improve. A trot will
smooth out your dog's overall movement, ease transition movements
and improve the image of attitude and attention.
Again, let me explain that CFF rules for judging do not penalize
pacing specifically. Some dogs pace only when they are tired
or inattentive, while other dogs' conformation makes it nearly
impossible to gait at other than a pace. If a dog is pacing from
fatigue or inattention (or perhaps because the handler isn't
performing at a speed fast enough to make the dog trot), then
the issue is one of rest or training and supportive handling.
If a dog paces at the same points in a program repeatedly, perhaps
the handler needs to rethink the choreography. Altering a move
or tempo may be all the help the dog needs to more smoothly gait.
However, if conformation is the culprit, there is not much a
handler can do except plan the choreography around it to downplay
unavoidable moments of pacing. Again, although pacing itself
does not warrant a penalty, the resulting lack of smoothness
and flow in a performance is a judgeable fault.
Interactive attention between handler and dog is a goal and
hallmark of a good CFF performance. Our judges agreed that, for
the most part, attention was there. When it was lacking, it was
generally the fault of one, not both, team members.
As Alison described:
Overall, I found the level of training and teamwork to be very
good. The teams shared their bond and relationship with their
audience, although the interactive attention, the vibrant link
between dog and handler, was sometimes intermittent. This was
most often on the part of the canine half of the team (attention
breaks, distracted by the audience, flowers, etc.) and occasionally
on the part of the handler. . . . The latter image is one of
a handler so focused on their floor pattern and choreography
that the dog is temporarily left on its own (and usually working
valiantly to stay close and connected!).
Maureen commented that although she felt interactive attention
was mainly the province of the Technical Judge, "artisitically,
without interactive attention, you cannot get a feeling of oneness.
When a dog becomes distracted for whatever reason, the program
falters, and the team looses the energy and place in their program.
This is especially true when a dog goes out of the assigned space."
Monica, as Technical Judge, agreed with Alison that there were
moments of "moving in and out of interactive attention by
both dog and handler," worsened at times when the handler
went "into obedience mode in parts of the program."
CFF requires the team to make complete use of ring space. As
Maureen explained, "Artistically, the full use of the space
is imperative. To show the dog to its full potential requires
using the entire space. Handlers should try not to come between
the Judge and the dog when making their moves, because it is
hard for a Judge to fairly evaluate the performance when the
handler is hogging the foreground. Artistically it detracts from
She added that big points are lost when a dog leaves the designated
space, barks constantly, or shows loss of control or attention. "When
these occur," Maureen says, "the handler loses concentration--misses
part of the presentation, starts to hurry to catch up in the
program, etc.; these activities cause the points to go south."
Our panel made few comments on the performance of specific technical
moves, with the exception of gait (already discussed) and laterals.
Monica noted that some laterals were "crooked and not well
performed; " with the "handler crowding or rushing...the
dog into the lateral movement."
I would like to end this column with some quotes from Judge
Susan Allen, who chose not to be very specific in her comments
but to leave us with some thoughtful observations on the atmosphere
of that particular trial, her goals as a judge, and our ultimate
goals as competitors, certainly, but more importantly, as ambassadors
and custodians of a growing sport:
I, personally, strive to judge each team to the same standard,
and reward solid training, together with innovative and inventive
movements that enhance the grace of that particular dog, with
higher scores, as long as they flow with the choreography and
contribute to a truly lovely "whole". While on the
subject of scores, i.e., numbers, if a competitor has entered
strictly for the self-gratification of high numbers, then I think
[his/her] motivation is misguided. If that is the goal, perhaps
a sport with only [his- or herself] and a finely honed skill
would be a wiser choice. Our canine partners are not always at
their peak; and, as we know, one can't always train for or foresee
what might happen on any given day.
In an ideal world, each handler would strive to achieve a unique
bond and oneness with her dog, and in so doing create a lasting
impression of sheer joy and harmony for the audience to savor
and take home with it. This is the true essence of success (in
my humble opinion). And what will be most remembered years from
the competition? A number score, or the feeling of reaching the
personal goal set out to achieve?