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
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.
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.