Whether you know it as canine freestyle or heelwork to music—or you've never heard of this new dog sport at all—the time has come to dance with our dogs.
Freestyle originated in the early 1990s when obedience teams set their programs to music. Musical "freestylers" in various places soon began demonstrating their heelwork to music at dog shows on in the US, UK, Canada, and the Netherlands.
Attila and Fly
Combining a handlers' creativity with a dog's enthusiasm for working as a team, enabled by the pleasure and precision of clicker training, the result gives the illusion of dance. At any level, the sport is fun for both dog and handler, strengthens a trainer's skills, and develops new behaviors for the dog. In the hands of a few, the combination achieves real drama and thrilling theatre.
Mary Ray and Attila Szkukalek are among these few. Their extraordinary performances at Crufts, Britain's (and the world's) largest dog show, enthrall audiences, bringing laughter and even tears, just as any good drama should. Attila's work with his Border collie, Fly, displays not only his creativity and training skills, but his dog's personality and talent. After all, as Attila says, "The team presents themselves as partners, but the dog is always the star." Or, as in Mary Ray's case, the dogs are the stars, as Mary has broadened her brilliant routines to include up to four dogs at once. Watch a video clip.
Mary Ray, winner of multiple obedience championships in the UK, and inspired British trainers formed the Heelwork to Music Association. In North America, several organizations have been formed to regulate competition, including Musical Canine Sports International, the World Canine Freestyle Organization, and the Canine Freestyle Federation. Common to all the groups is an interest in creative training, pleasure in working as a dog-and-handler team, and a love of music.
Over the years, two types of freestyle have developed: musical freestyle, in which the dog performs a variety of tricks and the trainer's dance abilities and creativity are part of the fun, and heelwork to music, which focuses on the dog's ability to stay in a variation of the heel position while the handler moves to music. In a sport this young, however, the terms are still evolving and are used with flexibility by different practitioners.
Because all freestyle requires the full and eager participation of a happy dog, it is an ideal sport for clicker trainers to develop and exhibit their skills. The flexibility and precision of clicker training—whether shaping or capturing a behavior, building a behavior chain, or changing cues to fit a new routine—has played a role in the growth of the sport. Compulsive training techniques do not produce a dog's merry pleasure so important to an entertaining performance. It is no surprise, then, that the majority of freestyle dogs, including those of Attila Szkekaluk and Mary Ray, are clicker trained.
No doubt, the sport's appeal also comes from its welcome to dogs of all breeds and ages, and openness to handlers of all levels. Combining two of life's more compelling pleasures, a love of music and a love of dogs, canine freestyle is here for good.