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by Alison Jaskiewicz

Obedience training is essential to Freestyle, as obedience provides the foundation for developing the dog’s athletic and training potential. Enroll your dog in good obedience class. Besides having a better mannered companion, you’ll be surprised at the wonderful relationship you will develop with your dog as you devote special time to him, and him alone, each day for training. By the time your dog is trained to the level for a Companion Dog title you’ll be ready to consider a plunge into Freestyle. However, as you devote time to the initial training of your dog, there is lots you can do to prepare for the broader world of Freestyle. . .

Obedience Training Plus
The standard beginning obedience class will concentrate on heeling, fronts, finishes and recalls. Ideally your class will also teach you to train your dog to work with his attention alertly and keenly focused on you. Attention is essential for CFF Freestyle. There are also a number of excellent attention training videos by top dog trainers available - an invaluable investment. Your attention to attention will pay off multifold in both obedience and Freestyle.

Traditional obedience is very one sided from the physical point of view. This is because heeling is performed only with the dog on the handler’s left side. Dogs actually develop different muscling patterns on their two sides due to this type of training. In CFF Freestyle heeling must be performed on both sides of the handler. One outstanding benefit to Freestyle dogs is physical balance and fewer problems from unequal conditioning. Freestyle dogs are trained and physically developed equally on both sides of their bodies. So. . . when your obedience instructor teaches you heeling on the left side, you should go home and practice heeling on both sides. When you learn in class how to teach your dog to finish to heel position on your left side, you should go home and also teach a finish into a right side heel position. Be sure to use different commands to help your dog understand the differing movements.

Are you intrigued? Your fun is just beginning. Once you have the basics, start teaching your dog some more unusual moves not required in the obedience ring, but all potential elements of a Freestyle performance:

  • Teach your dog to back in a straight line. How many different ways can you think of to back your dog? Well, let’s see, there’s backing in heel position on both your left and right sides and there’s backing away from you from front position. From the front you can either move with your dog as he moves backwards or you can teach your dog to back further and further away while you remain stationary. And there’s backing at different speeds.
  • Teach your dog to pivot in place in heel position - on both sides - and in front.
  • Teach your dog to side step - in both directions - on both sides - in front.

The possibilities are endless. Ask your obedience instructor for help in teaching new movements. Trainers are just beginning to explore the potential of our special canine athletes. Use your imagination, but remember, your goal is to show off your dog’s grace, beauty and athleticism, not to do tricks or acrobatics. All the movements are natural ones performed by the untrained dog at play.

Once your dog knows and understands a wide range of movements, you should select a piece of music for your Freestyle debut. Remember the music should fit the natural rhythms of the dog. You, the handler, may or may not be moving to the music.

We all need to hone our listening skills to unleash the potential of Freestyle choreography with music. Listen for the melody, the instrumentation, themes and variations and, particularly important, learn to listen for the rhythm. Consider all themusical possibilities, from classical to contemporary, jazz to folk, instrumental or vocal. Select several pieces which you think will fit the rhythm of your dog and heel while the music plays until you find a rhythmic match. You will also discover your dog likes music! Many obedience instructors have used music in their classes for years because it improves the attitude of both dogs and handlers as well as helping establish regular rhythms. Your dog will quickly learn to recognize his music for his Freestyle. You’ll see a new sparkle in his eye, feet stepping higher and a tail wagging harder. A new star is born.

Choose a piece 1 1/2 to 4 minutes long - shorter is better for your first excursion into Freestyle. Choose music that you like, because you will be listening to the music a lot. Once you have choreographed your performance you should walk through the routine without your dog over and over and over, until you know exactly where to be and what to be doing at every beat of the music.

Starting to Choreograph

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

Now, wake up your dog, get him happy and upbeat and start experimenting to the music. Since the music was chosen to suit your dog he is an essential element. Only by doodling with your dog will you know how far across the ring you will get as you side pass or heel or weave to a particular segment of music. Balance stationary or localized 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 move from different angles. Or the same move could be repeated at different speeds for a very different look. Stopping completely for several beats of music can be an effective accent and give your audience a moment to catch up in a busy routine or build 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 on the suitability of music and how different moves and sequences of moves may look. A video camera is a useful tool as well.

Your goal is to develop movement combinations which will maximize your dog’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. Allow the structure of the music to guide the development of your movements into a unified choreographic whole. Be sure to make good use of the 40 X 50 foot ring space. The focus should always be on the dog, so downscale your costuming and any exaggerated movements of your own. You should flow with your dog and direct the audiences’ attention toward your dog. This is a sport which is also entertaining, but the entertainment should never overshadow the sport.

Embarking on the Freestyle adventure, you and your dog will also reap benefits in the obedience ring. CFF co-founder and canine choreographer, Joan Tennille, finds the attitude and attention of the dogs in her Freestyle classes improve weekly. The excitement is infectious for handlers too. Frequently Joan’s two hour classes stretch into three or four. Everyone is having too much fun to leave!

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

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