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Getting Started in Dog Dancing

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 1 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Dog Dancing Sport Heelwork To Music

You will probably have seen performances of “dog dancing” on TV or at dog shows and been charmed by the creativity and fun teamwork between handler and dog as they perform a series of tricks and moves choreographed to music. Perhaps you have always wanted to try this fun sport with your dog but didn’t know where to begin?

“Dog dancing” - more properly known as Heelwork to Music or Canine Freestyle – is a relatively new dog sport that is rapidly gaining in popularity as owners and dogs enjoy the combination of music, obedience and tricks wrapped up in one fun package. What makes ‘dog dancing’ so appealing is that – unlike some of the other dog sports – it can be adapted to suit any type, breed and size of dog and you are not forced to follow a rigid set of exercises: instead you can choose the moves and tricks that your dog can do best and loves the most.

While many people do compete with their dogs in ‘dog dancing’ at a very advanced level (including performances at Crufts!), this is a fun activity that any pet owner can take up with their dog, with just a bit of time and effort invested in training and preparation.

Here are some tips to help you:

1) Learn About Clicker Training

Clicker training is a wonderful way to communicate with and train dogs, using a marker signal (usually a CLICK from a clicker) to pinpoint the correct action and tell the dog what has earned it the reward, so that the dog is likely to repeat the action again. It was originally developed by dolphin trainers and has been extensively used in TV and film to teach a variety of animals all sorts of tricks and stunts, through a hands-free, completely positive, reward-based method. It is particularly useful for teaching the type of specific moves and tricks that are so commonly used in dog dancing.

2) Find a Tricks Class or Start Teaching Your Dog Some Tricks

Most pet dogs will already know some tricks – you probably don’t even realise how many you have taught your dog, just in the course of play and every day life. There may even be certain cute things he does that can easily be turned into a trick (e.g. sitting up for a biscuit can easily be turned into a “Beg”). You will find that most dogs enjoy trick training much more than general obedience training – probably because people tend to be more relaxed and make it more fun. Many dogs that are considered “disobedient” can actually perform many tricks very well.

You may be lucky to find a local dog training school that runs a tricks class which you can join but if not, there are a host of books and DVD’s available which provide training tips and inspiration for a number of tricks you can teach your dog yourself at home.

Some tricks and moves commonly used in ‘dog dancing’ include: weaving through the legs, spins, turns, reversing, standing on the hind legs, circling a person or a pole, jumping over or through the arms, rollovers, walking sideways beside or in front of the handler, sitting up in a beg and raising the paws in sync with the handler’s marching legs.

3) Find Out What Tricks and Moves Your Dog Likes

Just like humans, dogs will have certain tricks and moves that they enjoy doing more. Some dogs love to jump and so will adore any jumping tricks. Other dogs love using their paws and easily take to learning to Shake, Wave and other paw tricks. Other dogs are natural retrievers and enjoy catching, fetching and carrying things. Observe and find out what your dog enjoys doing and teach him tricks based on these actions, as these will be his forte.

4) Consider Joining an Obedience Class

Because ‘dog dancing’ needs to be done off-leash, it is important that your dog has some basic obedience. At the very least, he needs to be able to walk with you and come when called. So even if you are not expecting your dog to Heel like an Obedience champion, it can be very useful to join a general obedience class to brush up on some of your dog’s basic control.

5) Start Practising Doing Several Tricks in Succession

Any dog can do a single trick – the real challenge of ‘dog dancing’ is being able to do several tricks and moves in succession, following cues from the handler. This also requires longer focus and attention from the dog. So start practising asking your dog for more than one trick in succession before you reward him. For example, you can ask for a spin, a rollover and another spin before giving your dog his reward. Or ask him to walk beside you, weave through your legs and then Sit before you give him a reward.

6) Find a Piece of Music You Really Like

Choose something with a good rhythm and obvious beat which is easy to move to and start to put some tricks and moves together in a choreography that matches the music. Ideally, you and your dog should be performing your moves in time to the music. Plan your routine and make sure you know it really well before attempting with your dog.

7) Practise Your Routine Without the Music First

Once you know the sequence of your routine, practise it many times with your dog – without the music – so that you both know it very well and the dog is following your cues smoothly and reliably. You may need to break it down into several segments and practise each part before joining them all together.

8) Put it All Together!

When you feel ready, try your routine with the music. The first time you try it, it will inevitably be chaos – you will probably forget the routine, trip over your dog or lose his attention – he might even run off! Don’t despair! All the best performers started here. You just need more practice. Again, break your routine into segments and practise each section with the music – and then gradually string it together. Remember, this is actually an advanced dog sport which demands a lot from your dog in terms of concentration and focus – so don’t feel disheartened if you find that you’re struggling to get through your routine with your dog. Nobody expects you to be perfect and the main aim is to have fun with your dog, "dancing" together to the music.

If you find that you’ve been bitten by the “dancing bug” and want to take things further, there are many local and national competitions for Heelwork to Music/Canine Freestyle where you can try the challenge of performing before an audience and competing against other handlers and their dogs. Contact your local training club for more details.

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