By Julia Kamysz Lane, The Bark
When you’ve done canine freestyle as long as Kris Hurley of Oklahoma, you’re bound to have some funny stories. Most of them involve her seven-year-old Pug/Dachshund mix, Roxie, and her obsession with food.
“We were doing a demo in Memphis with an open ring, no gates,” recalls Hurley, who has danced with dogs since 1996. “On one side, there were high-rise bleachers. Roxie was next to me in left heel position, like she was supposed to be. We spin at the same time and she spins off to my left. At one point, she’s behind me, but then when I look down, I realize my dog’s not there anymore. She’s in the fourth row of bleachers in this guy’s lap, feet on his chest, and he’s holding a turkey leg up in the air out of reach.”
Canine freestyle is choreographed trick training set to music. You’ll recognize some traditional obedience moves, such as heel position, but the overall goal is to get creative and put your dog’s best paw forward. Fans of the sport love the freedom of choosing their own music, designing a routine based on their dog’s strengths and using verbal encouragement during a performance.
Joan Tennille, president and co-founder of the Canine Freestyle Federation (CFF), claims she defined canine freestyle as a competitive sport rather than as just entertainment. In 1993, four dog trainers approached Tennille, at the time, a professional dancer-choreographer, to help them create what would be the first canine freestyle demo. They wanted to showcase their dogs’ advanced obedience training by setting it to music and treating human and dog as equal partners. They showed her a video of a demonstration by a now-defunct Canadian organization.
“There was a woman in high heels and stockings doing ballet with a Golden Retriever, says Tennille. “There were so many sequins and ruffles, you couldn’t even see the dog, and all the dog did was sit. Another woman had a well-trained Border Collie, but she had heavy sequins and balloons, so again, you couldn’t see the dog. I call that entertainment. That’s not what they wanted.”
Aside from the challenge of giving the dog equal stage presence, Tennille had to think about movement and flow. Four-footed dogs move very differently from two-footed people. Plus, a Border Collie is going to be more agile and light on his feet than a Bloodhound.
“Rhythm is a great organizer,” says Tennille. “Your heartbeat determines the rhythm of your body. You breathe relative to that heartbeat, and you move relative to the heartbeat. The dog does the same thing.”
The demo proved successful, and CFF was born two years later. It remains the oldest active canine freestyle organization, and is best known for what Tennille calls “performance attitude.”