Paws to tango

Put on your dancing shoes, match your steps with the paws, twirl for fun, sing to the tune, share the spotlight, wear snazzy outfits and dance along……..dance lil doggy, dance!!!!!! A Dance Party, with a difference. If this doesn’t get your feet tapping think about the venue – the party is in full swing, the sound of music, the dancing lights are flashing, crowds are cheering, a ring to dance in, the spotlight is on and a couple is tapping and twirling. Believe me when I say it, that I was prepared for everything under the sun, except what I saw!!! Right before me, there was a pair twirling around, well in tune with the music, —and Are You Ready— a leg and a paw!!! That’s right. There were pairs of men and women, ready to dance, NOT with each other, BUT with their dogs.

And what was unbelievable was that the dogs were really enjoying it. They were beautifully tangoing with the love of their lives. Once I got over the shock of it, I realized what my dog and I had been missing out on.

My first brush with this sport happened about five years ago. The way the handler and the dog worked together totally enthralled me. Both appeared so happy and confident. This, I thought, was the way I wanted to work with my own dogs. (It is also an indoor sport and the thought of avoiding training outside with my dogs in all weathers does appeal!). Since then, ‘Dog Dancing’ appears to have taken over my life. We have started a club, run workshops and shows and given demonstrations at various events.

Dancing, for us humans, has been one of the most fun-filled indulgences all over the world. People have engaged in dances since time immemorial, because it is not only enjoyable and relaxing but is also a celebration of life. But for our four-legged pets to be a part of this activity, is an exploration of an all-new avenue. Infact, “dog dancing” is now being promoted as a whole new exciting sport for pets and their owners throughout the world.

In Belgium, this remarkable sport is called ‘Dog Dancing’, in other parts of the world it is known by various other names such as’‘Canine Freestyle’, ‘Heelwork to Music’, ‘Obé Rythmée’. But despite variations in the terms, the common thread that runs behind this extraordinary dog sport is to develop a better bonding between dogs and their owners.

This new and exciting dog sport is believed to have started in Canada in the early 90’s. Originally it was based on obedience work performed to music. As the sport spread to the USA and UK, it took on a form of its own, with more innovative and fun freestyle moves. Today the sport is spreading worldwide. The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Sweden and Australia are just a few of the many countries where dogs and owners are putting paws to music!

What is amazing about this sport is that it is open to one and all. Training can be done at the comfort of your home. All you need is some music, a bit of imagination and off you go!

Dog Dancing has choreographed set of moves performed to music by dog and handler, illustrating the training and joyful relationship of a dog and handler team. It is a competitive sport, where the handler and dog compete in different classes at different levels. What is remarkable in this is to see the dog moving to the beat of the music and the bond between the dog and handler. You will see graceful and intricate maneuvers performed with precision and artistry. Every movement is accomplished through the subtle use of verbal cues and body language. The emphasis is always on the dog, with the handler completing the team, creating a harmonious whole.

Clicker training

While the general public feels that this event is primarily that of spontaneity, the truth is, that to achieve a creditable performance in the ring, a certain amount of patient training is needed beforehand, so that your dog and you enjoy your dancing sessions to the fullest. For your dog to be relaxed and happy in the ring, make sure his training at home is easy and positive. By positive I mean, reward him when he does well, but never be harsh on him when he stumbles. The bottom line is, that the dance is meant for his enjoyment.

For those unfamiliar with clicker training, it is based on a method first used with dolphins, (try making a dolphin do a trick by physically forcing it to jump through a hoop!). When we want to encourage certain moves, we reward the pet with a click sound (made from a small metal box like object that is held in the hand) and then follow it by giving him a tasty treat.

When we replace the voice with a simple click, the dog begins to associate the movement with a ‘click–reward’. Believe me, these clever creatures will repeat the movement in order to get the reward again. However, while training him, make sure it is a quiet area with few things to distract him. Remember, train ‘little but often’. Let the dog enjoy what he is doing. Do not expect too much too soon.

Three’s not a crowd !!!

This type of training is fun, and, yes, anyone can do it. I have three dogs of my own, and each dog is very much an individual. Dusty, the rough Collie, aims to please and is easy to train but can be shy in public. Mr. Chips, my little crossbred mongrel, is a dog I found on a roadside when he was five months old. Very quick to learn, he is very sociable and has a habit of leaving me on my own in the ring while he goes to say hello to the audience. Believe me, this can be embarrassing and I don’t recommend it! Chicca is the latest addition. She is a Border Collie and has the tremendous will to work associated with this breed.

Training Chicca is great fun. By using a treat or toy to encourage her into the position I wanted, I taught her basic moves without much stress or fuss. A puppy is like a child; they love attention and are quick to learn. Now at 10 months, Chicca is already working well at heel, can perform twists and jumps, backwards circles and weaves. It’s an amazing feat for someone so tiny. Hopefully at the end of November, we will go to the Netherlands for her very first competition.

Music for the tango

When choosing music for a routine in the ring, you need to choose something fairly short, especially when you are competing for the first time. Two minutes is just fine. You also need to take into account the way your dog naturally moves. There is no point in choosing a fast jazzy number when you are working with a large breed of dog. In that case, disaster awaits you. You will also realise that once in the ring, your dog will often work more slowly than when he is at home in his own familiar environment. You can even take him to practice in the parking of the local supermarket, so that he gets over any kind of nervousness, and gets accustomed to working in strange areas. The local shoppers, of course, will have a good time. Always choose music that gets most people on their toes. Don’t underestimate the power of dressing up right, even if it’s just your dog you are dancing with. Believe me, it makes a difference. Practice your routine time and again, without your dog. You need to know what you are doing. If you forget your routine in the ring, you may well confuse your dog. Actually you will probably confuse yourself as well but that really doesn’t matter! Try and fit moves to your chosen music before you train with your dog. It is not difficult to spot dedicated dog-dance enthusiasts, who are often seen at all places pacing out their routines, walkmans in hand, while their dogs look on approvingly! He will dote on you despite everything, but if you are comfortable with your steps, then he will have more fun with you.

In fact, the very sight can be amusing and inspiring. It can very well lead you to put on your dancing shoes, with your favourite CD playing in the background, and guess what—pulling none other than your adorable four-legged companion to jiggle with you. It might startle him at first, but with the right music, the right training and the right company, believe me, very soon the minute he see you heading towards your music system, he will be already up on his paws, ready to dance on and on and on…….

(Ms. Dawn Hill, an English living in Belgium, is in her mid-fifties and has spent most of her life involved in the equestrian world. A chance encounter with Dog Dancing changed her life and today, it’s her passion. She feels the sport appeals to many and for her has the added benefit of promoting dog- friendly training methods. She however feels that she can only dream of giving that perfect performance since although her dogs are wonderfully talented, she has two left feet. But then, that does not stop her from savouring the pleasure of watching her dogs, dancing away to glory…..)

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