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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

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I became interested in Freestyle simply as a new training activity for myself and my dog, Cajun, a Belgian Sheepdog. I’d trained in obedience for years, had also participated in agility and flyball, but was ready for something different. Freestyle appeared to combine the best aspects of all three sports: athleticism, drive and focus, in a way that truly allows the dog and handler to work together as a team in a creation and through communication of our own design.

Demonstrating Freestyle in public was nowhere in my thoughts initially, but after devoting so much time and joy in training my Freestyle partner, demos are already a realized goal.

A likely Freestyle dog should heel with drive and attention, exhibit a natural joy and energy when working, and, of course, be of stable health and sound body. Deciding Cajun possessed most of these attributes, my first step in training him was to evaluate (to the extent of listing on paper) his and my strengths and weaknesses in terms of movement and skills. Cajun naturally likes to circle a lot, was already adept at backing from in front of me, enjoys leaping and running games, and often drops and stands quickly. These were movements I would definitely include in my routine. Because he is more focused and controllable when moving quickly, I concluded my routine should be brisk and active. To add texture and contrast, I would have to teach Cajun side steps left and right, inside pivots and slow movements: all skills in which he was weak.

Through the guidance of my dynamic and gifted Freestyle class instructor, Joan Tennille, I created several "phrases" of movements that I liked long before the final routine, which was frustratingly slow to develop until I found my music. We even had an ending before we had a middle! The night Caj and I discovered our music was the night I discovered the joyful essence of Freestyle: handler and dog celebrating in movement together music which matches their spirits and rhythms.

The night was chilly and fragrant with the dried leaves and wood smoke of autumn. I was in the largest room of my house, furniture shoved aside, and lamp light reflecting in the windows. Music swelled from the speakers, and Cajun watched me, ears swiveling in interest, as I swooped and pivoted, strode and minced, leaped and dropped, in an awkward effort to match what I thought might be Cajun’s moves to various tracts of music. Suddenly a relatively simple but "swishy" piece of orchestration began from a CD featuring music associated with water and sailing. I flowed around the room to it, enjoying how easy it was to transition from one move to the next, appreciating its repeats and its crescendo in the middle (perfect for a Cajun leap?). I called Cajun and moved him around as much as the room’s size allowed. The sway of his long dark coat, his sweeping tail, his graceful gait, all seemed to flow with the music flows. He rippled fur with sound? Cajun liked the music; I felt part of it: it was ours!

For the next month I became obsessed with matching and training moves to music clues. I became so single-minded about technical perfection and not losing my place that I lost my initial instinctive "feel" for the music and my routine became mechanical rather than fluid. To help me relax Joan suggested not to practice it for a while. I did refrain from practice and also spent occasional evenings in the dark, simply stretched out and listening to my music while imagining us moving around the ring.

When I did resume actual practice of the routine, one of the biggest aids to defining movements and giving the spectator time to not only see but assimilate each element was (my instructor’s suggestion) to simply add pauses.

Much revision occurred even after I thought I had the final routine. The human member of the Freestyle team must always be aware of the dog’s mental and well as physical comfort with any given movement. For example, although able to back in heel position beside me at any given moment, from a stand, Cajun steadfastly balked at backing beside me within a series of moves. Perhaps he found it too difficult or confusing to maneuver his body in and out of the backing position while also preparing to execute other moves - - whatever - - he was not comfortable with backing and it showed. We eliminated that particular element, and his attitude improved.

I frequently practiced the routine with the music but without my dog to ensure I knew all the elements without boring the dog. I did discover, however, that this occasionally led to awkward pacing when matched with the dog. When practicing alone I still had to account for the space and time his body occupied when working as a team.

My biggest and continuing problem in Freestyle training with this particular dog is keeping him fresh and "at peak" while still being able to practice the routine. Now that he and I have successfully performed the routine in public several times, I spend most of our training sessions on bits and pieces - - individual elements - - with much motivation and breaks. This keeps him from boredom with the whole routine, but I do feel insecure about handling the unexpected problems and quirks that occur during any full-blown performance. A fellow Freestyler, Wendy Ely, elects to break her music into three segments and jackpot after each segment as a way to build endurance and motivation for the whole routine.

All of this training has resulted in a very rewarding activity. When we finish a good performance I am thrilled to hear comments that we brought tears to eyes, that our close bond was very obvious, that he grinned his Belgian grin through the whole routine, and that we really looked like we were having fun together. Yes, we’ve had some flat, faulty performances also but they happen in any sport and are a learning experience. I can always counter the weak performances with the joy of that crisp autumn evening when Cajun and I found our music and flowed with it. No one had to be watching to tell me we were a team, fully communicating and reveling in movement together.

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