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More Articles

Where Obedience Leaves Off and Freestyle Starts
A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose
The Freestyle Challenge
Getting Started With Freestyle
Definition of Freestyle and Structure of a Freestyle Performance
More Than Just Heeling
Creative Development of Movement
Music, Rhythm and Freestyle
Understanding Required Moves
Do I Have to Dance?
Freestyle - A Point of View
Training: a New Mindset
My Introduction to Training a Freestyle Dog
It Takes Three - The Audience
Choreography: How to Begin
40x50 Feet: The Empty Canvas
Rhythm: The Great Organizer
What is a Guild

Front and Finish Articles

Issue One - Teaching Side Steps
Judges' Comments
Commands: Getting Personal
New Steps for Old Bones
How to Plan a Demo
Presentation Elements

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I've noticed an interesting and--to me--heartwarming trend in freestyle demographics: frequently, many of the most successful dogs are some of the oldest. In CFF's fall of 1999 trial, many of the higher scores and placements were to dogs considered seniors or veterans (7 years or older). In our Silver Spring, MD, freestyle class (which has been running continuously for over 5 years) on any given day at least half the dogs attending are seniors. Observe any freestyle event, and I'll bet at least one third of the participants are seniors. Why is freestyle attracting so many older dogs (to say nothing of the age of some of their handlers!)? I contend that this is because freestyle, particularly "CFF-style" with its emphasis on the dog rather than on the handler, appeals to trainers of older dogs because of CFF's guiding philosophy to create a routine which "showcases the DOG [emphasis mine] to its best advantage."

This rule, drilled into all who have trained with CFF cofounder Joan Tennille, encourages us to make the best use of our dogs' natural and trained talents while avoiding or tailoring movements that might focus on our dogs' weaknesses--be they behavorial, training, or old age-inspired. This does not mean that freestyle is easy, or that we perform only what is easy for our dogs. Freestyle can be very demanding, and there are required moves ( in CFF) at each level that must be executed to some degree of accuracy for qualifying points. A senior dog performing at an advanced level must still be sound and physically fit enough to successfully complete these required moves. I believe this discourages from competition those older (or unsound) dogs who for their own health should not compete, while encouraging the sounder veteran dogs to train and compete, thereby contributing further to their health and well-being.

Sounds like a catch-22? I don't think it is. All CFF competitors, senior dogs included, must perform required moves and therefore must be in a physical condition capable of safely executing these moves. However, CFF promotes and rewards creativity in the style of execution of required moves as well as in optional moves and complete use of ring space. There are few strict time or "number of" mandates for performing required moves. Consequently, a basically sound but perhaps slow-moving, somewhat stiff, senior dog could fulfill the requirement for lateral (sidesteps) work in a way suited to its age and condition.

For instance, to minimize the potential for soreness an older dog might experience by trying to perform the multiple stepsides easily accomplished by younger, more flexible dogs, a handler could intersperse front and back steps or circles between each sidestep, causing less physical stress to the dog while still fulfilling the requirement for lateral work By performing the harder moves in an area of the ring and in a manner that focuses more on the veteran dog's interactive attention with its handler or on its lovely profile in motion, for example, the quality of a required move safely and adequately performed but perhaps lacking in athleticism is downplayed.

For senior dogs retired from the higher impact and more physically demanding sports of agility, flyball, advanced obedience, lure coursing, field work, tracking, etc., freestyle offers a "sound" (there are several puns here, folks) alternative. This sport allows you to determine within generous guidelines the length and energy level of the performance, the number of moves and how and where in the ring they are performed, and even the opportunity to "fudge" (change or alter) a routine when some part of it has gone awry during any given performance. Unlike some other dog sports, freestyle does allow unobtrusive verbal communication and body language (but no touching) between you and your dog.

To me, there is nothing more fair in my mind than to be allowed to quietly convey through a word or gesture, my pleasure or my guidance (and yes, sometimes my wish to restrain) to my hard-working, trusting partner, who may be aging but still has much to offer in skill, willingness, and the joy of just being together. The training and practice necessary to maintain a good freestyle dog will continue to keep him sound and healthy, in body and mind, perhaps even beyond ordinary expectations. In addition, the bond forged through those earlier years of training and competing, and --heck!--of just life together, may very well give you an edge over the competitor with a younger dog who may not read and relate to each other as well as you and your senior dog do.

Don't misunderstand me; I'm thrilled to see young freestyle teams in action. My dog , Cajun, and I are both (just) on the younger side of "ancient," ourselves. When I get my next puppy, you can be certain it will receive early training in freestyle right along with training in other sports, and I won't wait for age to frost its muzzle before showing in freestyle. Just don't sell your older dog short when it comes to freestyle. Despite the very impressive, althletic, exuberant, look-at-all-I-can-do performances of some of the younger dog/handler teams (and indeed there are some great ones) in freestyle today, I am often more genuinely moved by the majestic grace and quiet dignity of a grey-faced dog moving in complete harmony and bond with its handler. I salute in my heart (and sometimes with a tear in my eye) those handlers who honor their veterans by choosing to share with us their bond, through movement to music.

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