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I have heard people refer to CFF freestyle as “ ‘just’ heeling set to music.” In contrast to some
of the other freestyle groups which require costuming for the handler and encourage and
strongly reward a density of optional and challenging moves, CFF freestyle is less flashy and
“trick”-oriented. Although I do not know how other freestyle organizations score interactive
attention (sustained visual contact and engagement between both handler and dog), for CFF, it
is integral to a successful performance. Perhaps because a dog heeling with superior interactive attention is such a compelling sight, it might be why some people think heeling is most of what we do in our CFF routines. This is far from the truth.

Freestyle “technique” is rooted in traditional AKC sport obedience. Foundation positions in CFF-style routines are dog in front and dog at heel. Successful routines are based on formal training of the dog and usually include--in addition to heeling--elements of obedience trial exercises such as downs, recalls, finishes and go-outs. A common precept of CFF choreography is “there is no artistry without technical precision.” The dog is expected to be under control and obedient at all times, perform close to as well as apart from the handler, fulfill certain core requirements at each level of competition, and be judged by two judges each time in the ring. As in obedience competition, a dog is judged on whether or not he completes standard criteria for a title and also in how he does so. (Willingly? Slowly? Flawlessly or with some faults?). CFF also awards scores, titles and placements--even a championship! Unlike AKC judging, CFF uses positive scoring, meaning that the team starts with a score of zero and accrues points, whereas AKC starts the team with a perfect score of 200 and subtracts points for faults.

The major difference between canine freestyle and competition obedience as sports is freedom, in many forms. With competition obedience, there are set formats and patterns or exercises. The judge is actively present in the ring, and the exhibitor performs to the judge’s will and at his command. Creative execution of the required exercises deviates from the standard ideal performance (as described in AKC literature) and incurs penalties. Furthermore, in competition obedience, the handler is not free to talk to his dog during a trial performance (except briefly between exercises), nor to substitute a behavior more suited to his dog’s abilities and mood of the moment, nor to offer additional moves. Another obvious distinction between the two sports is freestyle’s use of music, and with few limitations-- albeit some recommendations--as to what that music might be.

In freestyle, two judges score each performance from outside the ring, rather than inside. Judges sit at a table in a front, center position and all CFF routines are choreographed with this in mind. Scribes time each routine and tally completion of required moves, as well as record each judges’ ongoing comments as they are spoken, which frees each judge to watch performances without ever having to glance down to take notes or mark a checklist. What each routine will be is unknown to the judges and purely the choice of the handler, although there are required movements at each level which the handler may execute when and how he wishes. What I like most about showing in freestyle is the freedom to quietly cue and praise my dog during his performance. Although no guiding touch is allowed, unobtrusive verbal and body cues are permitted and even encouraged. I believe this is why many dogs showing signs of burn-out in the obedience ring reawaken the urge to work in freestyle, as they are rewarded with quiet feedback throughout their performances.

Where obedience and freestyle unite, I believe, is in the training. No difference should exist between training for competition AKC obedience, freestyle, tricks, or good manners in the home. The dog will have fun and want to work only as long as the handler makes it fun and rewarding. If your dog lags in competition obedience training but not at freestyle, evaluate your training style, venue, training companions, and most importantly, your attitude. Try merging the tools and goals of both sports. Play some music during AKC training to lighten your step and attitude. Practice traditional competition obedience exercises such as tight turns and figure eights and fronts to keep your freestyle dog precise and aware of where heel position is. If he loves retrieving, throw a toy in the midst of serious freestyle work. Keep your dog guessing as to what will come next, anticipating the best, and keen in work ethic. Tracer, my three-year-old Belgian sheepdog, has a love/hate relationship with leg weaves. I am too short and value particular body parts too highly to ever put leg weaves into my routines, but they both excite and annoy Tracer. If I do a series of leg weaves during some of the fussier technical training we do, he performs them with gusto and perhaps a bit of an “okay, okay; enough already!” attitude, but the end result is one fired-up Belgian and a few damp nip marks on my posterior.

As in other freestyle organizations, required and optional moves (in addition to heeling) are key ingredients in a successful CFF competition routine. The required moves for each level are clearly listed in CFF’s rulebook and judging guidelines. The variety of movements include curving ones such as spins, pivots, tuggers, serpentines, weaves and circles; linear movements such as recalls, backing, switchbacks, and side passing; distance work; front work; and others. Creative and novel execution of these required and optional moves is encouraged and rewarded. Good heeling alone wins no prize.

The most important point to remember in any training endeavor is that you get back what you put into it. If you approach training as a chore or with the idea that one training sport (obedience, trick, good manners, etc.) is more fun than another, your attitude will transmit to your dog In addition to making your dog an enjoyable and safe pet in the household, training is bonding time with your dog, which is ultimately the best reward of all.
















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