The History of Canine Freestyle
Before we can begin any discussion of the history of freestyle we must establish a basic definition: a dog and handler performing to music. It is quickly obvious that this definition has been met through the centuries by traveling minstrels, carnivals, fairs and circuses. We can fairly say at a basic level, that these were the beginnings of freestyle. The dogs involved ere certainly trained and the performances carefully planned. Whether they could be called choreographed is a matter of opinion, and while the training obviously did not resemble the structured obedience training developed over the last half century, the training suited the times and circumstances. The goal was purely entertainment.
Obedience club drill team demonstrations are frequently performed to music. We also know that lots of obedience instructors have, for many years, used music in their classes for a variety of reasons: to develop consistent rhythms in heeling, improve overall attitude of dogs and handlers, etc. The music as training tool but never became a driving force behind the training with a performance as a final goal.
With this background we can now consider the emergence of freestyle in the late 1980’s. We will find several things: 1) freestyle is a tapestry woven by many people simultaneously and 2) freestyle is still growing, changing and evolving – the tapestry is a work in progress.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s positive, motivational training techniques grew in popularity as more people looked for happy att8ituyes and p8izzazz from their dogs. Obedience work was also becoming more and more precise and more frequently pushing the envelope of perfection. Yet, at the same time, the structure of obedience had remained essentially unchanged for decades. Individuals in the U.S., /Canada, England and Holland, inspired by the musical kur or equine dressage, and seeking similar freedom or creativity in obedience, began to explore new possibilities.
In 1989 in Washington State, Dawn Jecs, a trainer using music in her classes, chose to illustrate her obedience training techniques with a choreographed musical routine at one of her seminars. This led to demonstrations at therapy visits and a performance at the Pierce County Fair, also in 1989. Audiences were very enthusiastic. A seed was sown.
In 1990 one of England’s top obedience competitors, Mary Ray, did a demonstration of obedience to music at the urging of John Gilbert. This led to similar demonstrations in ensuring years at Crufts Dog Show. Another seed was sown.
In 1991 a demonstration was given at the Pacific Canine Showcase n Vancouver, Canada, including Tina Martin and her golden retriever, Cognac. Tina, a Grand Prix dressage rider, modeled her demonstration on the equine musical kur or freestyle. Yet another seed sown.
Tina helped found Musical Canine Sports International in Canada in the summer of 1991 and became MCSI’s first president. MCSI remained informal until after the 1992 Pacific Canine Showcase when they started writing rules and guidelines. Their goal was to have their first competition under the new rules at the 1993 Pacific Canine Showcase. Their rule book is extensive; they offer multiple classes and tiles; and there are no required moves in any class. Costuming is encouraged and judged, and music is chosen to suit the handler who is also judged on movement and body language. The emphasis is on entertainment, seeking maximum spectator appeal. Most MCSI competition are in western Canada.
In 1992 and 1993 Brian McGovern of Holland extended invitations to top obedience competitors in both England and the U.S. to join him in developing an “international canine dressage competition”. His ideas were detailed and included establishing an international governing body, national governing bodies, arranging sponsors, ways of promoting the sport, establishing a development timetable plus a first draft of rules and regulations. He even considered ways of reconciling the differences between the European and American styles of obedience. Brian’s enthusiasm was not reciprocated by his correspondents in either Britain of the U.S. ad he ceased pursuit of these ideas.
In the April 1992 Front and Finish, Ellen Lacina discussed the possibilities of adding a freestyle class to obedience competition. She compared the concept to gymnastics, figure skating and dressage. She wrote that, “dog obedience is just like a compulsory gymnastics routine” She continued, “Let’s put the dog/handler team together in a timed freestyle heeling event and add music. The team would present heir own choreographed heeling pattern/routine. . . All it ‘Freestyle’ or what ever we wish to call it. In gymnastics it’s called optionals, in figure skating it’s the shore (original) program and long programs. In dressage it’s called the Musical Kur
Some of the advantages she cited were more spectators, ore media coverage and the opportunities to continue to work dogs retired from the rigors of obedience jumping. The previous month she had outlined possible basic requirements for three classes of freestyle including guidelines for judges.
So, by 1993, we have a number of individuals (almost certainly more than those mentioned) and one organization exploring the concept of freestyle. Probably the only common threads were the music and a foundation in formal obedience training. Some preferred heeling to music, some were adding dressage style movements and some were including dance by the handler. Several individuals were proposing possible rules to the American and British obedience fancies and the Canadian MCSI had a detailed set of rules.
The first freestyle demonstration held at a Cycle obedience competition was at the western regional in Tacoma, Washington in July 1993, Dawn Jecs performed with her OTCh border collie and Rachel Hubbard with her golden retriever, who had just won the first MCSI competition in Canada. Their styles were very different, one focusing
on the dog and teamwork and the other on the handler’s dancing ability. The music also differed, one classical and the other rock and roll. Both handlers were costumed to suit their performances. Was there a future to freestyle in the U.S. through this venue of top obedience tournaments?
Later that year, at the October Cycle Classic in Memphis, Tennessee, Dawn Jecs was joined by Terri Arnold, Dee Dee Rose, Janice DeMello and Celeste Meade for freestyle demonstrations. The latter four teams were choreographed by dance and choreographer Joan Tennille. Joan’s choreography background led her to explore the movement capabilities of dogs and ways to combine those movements to illustrate each dog’s special abilities. She also identified the natural rhythms of the dogs and chose music to suit those rhythms. For the freestyle program Joan wrote a definition of freestyle to explain these reasons for choreographing as she did. This definition, with only minor changes, is the basis for the Canine Freestyle Federation, Inc which was founded in 1995
All four Cycle events in 1994 included freestyle demonstrations: Indianapolis, IN; Springfield, MA; Reno, NV and Pasadena, CA. Cycle started to hold “town meeting” at the competitions to seek input from the obedience community and establish a freestyle task force. In October Cycle adopted the MCSI rules and the obedience community was informed at the Classic in Pasadena. The demonstrations, which became regular features at Cycle events, welcomed all freestylers regardless of their performance style and structure. Conforming to MCSI rules was not a requirement. Cycle (now Heinz) sponsorship culminated in the first American MCSI competition in November 1996 in conjunction with the Eugene Oregon Obedience classis. Nineteen teams participate din this inaugural event.
In 1995 Terri Arnold and Joan Tennille were invited to organize a freestyle demonstration at the first AKC Obedience Invitational. The six performances received a standing ovation. What will be the long term interest of the AKC?
Late that summer the Canine Freestyle Federation, Inc was founded by Joan Tennille and Alison Jaskiewicz. The CFF goal is to develop a sport which emphasizes the training and movement of the dog as well as the interactive bond between dog and handler. Music is chosen to suit the rhythms of the dog and there are require doves at each of three levels or competition. The first two drafts of rules and regulations were sent to over thirty interested obedience competitors across the U.S. and their comments and suggestions were considered and incorporated into succeeding drafts. CFF was invited by the AKC to present the freestyle demonstration at both the 1996 and 1997 AKC Obedience Invitationals and the performances received outstanding responses. CFF was incorporated in December 1996, published rubles in early 1997 and is having its first competition in September 1997.
In England, following Mary Ray’s 1995 demonstration at Crufts, Peter Lewis proposed developing a competition. Rules were prepared and their first “Heelwork to Music” competition was held in April 1996 with the outstanding participation of twenty-four teams. Four judges scored based on program content; accuracy and execution of movements; and interpretation of the music. Response was so enthusiastic from both handlers and spectators that a second competition was held in April 1997.
Now, approaching the later third of 1997, the freestyle world consists of MCSI in Canada, CFF I the United States and an active group in England (Kennel Club rules preclude forming a separate organization). Each offers a unique approach to freestyle and their future depend on the participation and input of the obedience community.
Front and Finish, April 1992
Dogs in Canada, November 1994
Dog Trainers Weekly (English), multiple issues
MCSI Rule Book and Guidelines and Scoring Manual 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996
Musical Notes, Newsletter of MCSI, Winter/Spring 1997
CFF Regulations for Freestyle Competition, 1997