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
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.