Even though it is still such a young sport, the beginnings of Heelwork to Music and Freestyle are shrouded in mystery. Probably like all good ideas it was, quite simply, time for it to happen. Handlers had been using music for many years to help with their own walking rhythm when practicing heelwork for competitive obedience. Certainly here in the UK, music with a good strong beat was being pumped out during many dog training classes in village halls and training centres.
Tina Turner and her very distinctive music inspired handlers as they pounded the floor, striding out to the heady beat, encouraging higher heads and paws from their canine companions, always working for that perfect fluid rhythmic trotting action that would set their dog apart from all others.
Perhaps it was natural then that once heelwork and music became the norm rather than the exception, handlers would want to extend their dog's repertoire of movement and introduce choreography and musical interpretation.
The sport of moving to music with a dog has taken off in a very big way worldwide, each country with its own definitions and competitive rules. Here in the UK, Paws n Music Association (which is the first dog association dedicated to this new sport to be recognised by the Kennel Club) offers four different divisions of style and content - Musical Dressage, Heelwork to Music, Freestyle and Dances With Dogs. In this way we offer something for all preferences and abilities.
Musical Dressage is based on the dog's movement - a continuous rhythmic trot, canter or walk, the dog always in time with the music and moving in any position with relation to the handler, near to or at a distance.
Heelwork to Music is a mixture of Heelwork (which this time must be in the heel position, right or left side, facing forward or backwards in relation to the handler) and Freestyle moves in a ratio of 60% Heelwork and 40% Freestyle.
Freestyle consists of any moves that do no harm to the dog physically and that would not be deemed dangerous or undignified either in the training or in the performance, in any position in relation to the handler and at any distance from the handler. Just watch puppies at play to see the many natural movements that we can use.
Lastly Dances With Dogs, which can include any moves from all the other divisions but the handler's moves must show an interpretation of a recognisable dance.
So you can see that each division gives the individual an enormous choice in style of movement and interpretation but also has a particular area of expertise inherent in it for both handler and dog.
The moves in all our four divisions are based on completely natural dog moves that are captured, refined and then put on cue. This part is not difficult as all dogs love to learn for the whole of their lives. It's not even very difficult to teach you - the handler - to move to music. The hard part is putting you, the dog and your music together but hey, if it were too easy there would be no challenge with nothing to aim for!
Your choice of music will vary depending on which style you wish to adopt for your routine. Whereas in Musical Dressage and HTM you would choose music to suit your dog's natural tempo of trotting, or Dances with Dogs you would choose a definite rhythm or style of dance music such as the waltz, the hornpipe, the can-can or the cha-cha etc., in Freestyle your choice of music should be chosen to enable you to tell a story through the choreography and musical interpretation.
Let's look at Freestyle first. This is the division that brings forth all the flashy movements, the spins, the jumps, the interaction with props and handler and this is probably the best division for encouraging story telling and dramatic musical interpretation. The list of these moves is long - turning movements, weaving movements, figures of eight, sideways movements, backing movements, front paw work, hind leg work, poses, jumps, rollovers. Watch dogs at play or when solving problems for themselves and you will see them come up with the most imaginative moves. Dogs are very, very creative.
Is it possible to choreograph a routine based solely on a selection of these freestyle moves? Yes, provided you can work your dog at a distance from you. If you have only progressed as far as having your dog do any of these moves close to you then you will have to introduce some form of heelwork to move you both around the ring, otherwise your routine would be just a series of tricks with no form or interpretation to it and because of this lack of form, a trifle boring to watch from a spectator's point of view. It's worthwhile remembering that this is above all a spectator sport.
Moving sideways is pretty flashy especially when your dog picks up his feet and high steps at speed, crossing the following foot over in front of the leading foot. Let's look at how this can be accomplished by going back to what your dog already knows.
It is understood that you will be rewarding your dog every step of the way with all your dog teaching/training and if you use the clicker, as indeed I do, you will know how and when to use the click and reward.
I reckon that most of you have asked your dog to move closer into the heel position at some time or another. Your dog is sitting next to you on your left side but you don't think he's near enough to your leg so you take a small step to your right giving your dog his 'heel' cue. You expect him to move closer to your leg and as he does so, look at the direction of his move - he has hopped, shuffled, stepped or somehow moved sideways! Although the dog may not be totally aware of his back feet during this move, he's proved he knows how to move his front feet sideways.
So, we need to get the dog in touch with his back paws and to do this, teach the front position first. Stand your dog in front of you, facing you and about twelve to eighteen inches from you. You'll need to keep him in the stand for this exercise so any dog that has been taught that in front means an automatic sit will need to go back a step further and be taught that with a different cue, it is okay to stand in front. Remember don't call him to you as in a recall because this may well be the trigger for the sit in front of you.
When you have the dog understanding the 'front' position as standing and looking up at you, turn on the spot, 180 degrees - right or left, it doesn't matter which - and ask your dog for 'front'. He will walk forward to find your face and then swivel his back end round to straighten up in front of you. He is now in touch with moving his hind legs independently from his front legs. Continue turning 180 degrees in either direction until your dog is really enjoying finding the 'front' position and you can see from his response that he understands what it is you are asking him for. Don't rush this bit and move on too quickly - it's not worth it.
Step 2 is you moving as before but only a quarter of a turn - 90 degrees either way. Because there is less distance for your dog to travel, he won't need to walk forward as far before he straightens up. Therefore the sideways move from the front feet begins to happen almost at the same time as the back end swivel.
Step 3 is you turning as before but this time only 45 degrees. The dog will really be getting the message now and you should see a definite sideways move from the front and hind legs as he finds the 'front' position every time. From now on, if you shuffle round on the spot, making a full circle of 360 degrees in either direction, asking your dog for 'front', he should keep up with you by constantly moving in a sideways direction in order to maintain that 'front' position.
But you may not have got the crossing paws yet. You have though, got a very strong 'front' position so instead of turning on the spot, switch now to tiny steps to the right or left moving in a straight line sideways. Your dog will move in a straight line sideways in order to maintain the 'front' position. Now he will naturally begin to step out to the side with the leading leg and cross his following leg over the leading leg in order to keep up with your movement. You will find that with practice your dog will eventually cross front and back legs during this sideways move and if he is comfortable with the forward trotting heads up gait, then his front legs will automatically lift as they cross when he is moving sideways.
So now your dog is moving sideways, in front of you and at a distance from you of up to eighteen inches. This is a beautiful movement and once you have it on cue in front of you, it is easy to put the movement in the right or left heel position. You will need to use a different cue for this because although the dog's movement is exactly the same, he is no longer in the front position and therefore to him, it will be a different move. Remember, dogs are not able to generalise as we can. You will also need to practice the sideways move in order to keep your feet out of your dog's way!
But as this is a sport based entirely on moving to music, is it enough simply to train your dog to do wonderful moves or is it important to understand a little more about the music you will choose rather than you just happen to like the tune? Should you get to grips with time signatures and bars and rhythms? My answer is an emphatic "yes"! You will find a basic understanding of the rudiments of music an enormous help when putting together your routines. To be able to hear the beat and to work to the musical phrasing means your choreography will always appear more smooth and look better thought out to an audience, even though they may not realise why.
When starting to put together a routine, handlers usually choose music with the time signature that is the most common to popular music, that is 4/4 time or 4 beats to the bar. This gives you an obvious steady dum, dum, dum, dum from the drums and bass (the rhythm section of the band) 4 times in every bar. Listen out for this rhythm as it will help you to keep in time with the music.
Let's look at the bpm, which stands for beats per minute and refers to the speed of the recording. A piece of music recorded at 120 bpm is 120 beats per minute or two beats every second. If you translate those beats into steps, then it is two steps every second or a steady marching tempo. Military Band music is usually round this mark. To find out the bpm of a piece of music, listen for the rhythm section again.
Take a watch with a second hand and count how many beats you can hear in 15 seconds. Multiply this number by four and you have the bpm of the music.
You can also find out the trotting speed of your dog in the same way. Get a friend to count how many natural trotting steps he takes in 15 seconds and again multiply this number by four. Medium size dogs like collies trot at around 170/180 bpm. Larger dogs will be slower and smaller dogs will be faster. In this way you can choose your music to reflect the timing of your dog's movement. Your audience will be amazed at this wonderful rhythmic movement and when they ask you how on earth you trained your dog to keep in time with the music, you can just smile and shrug your shoulders!
Keep those paws dancing!
Copyright © Annie Clayton 2005
About the author of this article -
Annie Clayton has written 2 books on HTM/Freestyle/Dancing with Dogs. The first book, 'Paws to Dance' is the ideal book for beginners in the sport and the second book, 'More Paws to Dance', is for those who are looking for more of a challenge. Both these books are being used as teaching manuals around the world. Annie is a qualified dance teacher with a lifetime experience of theatre, TV and the related performing arts and a qualified dog training instructor with many years experience in puppy, pet and agility classes, workshops and seminars on HTM/Freestyle in the UK and abroad and dealing with veterinary referred canine behavioural problems. She is a -
In 2005 she hosted a television series in the UK about clicker training dogs (and humans!) which emphasised the success of using positive training techniques.
Her contact details are - firstname.lastname@example.org
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