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Why I Love Freestyle: That Unique Connection

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This article was originally published 07/01/2009.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When I first took the plunge into freestyle, I already had a vision of a routine I wanted to do with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Ennio Morricone's awesome soundtrack from the movie of the same name. I envisioned telling an entertaining story about struggling for the Confederate gold. Thank goodness I chose something a bit easier for the first freestyle routine my dog, Listo, and I would do together, and then had the time to really think about my vision for Good, Bad, Ugly.

This is an Advanced Musical Freestyle routine that
won the 2008 International ProStars competition.

My very first routines taught me a lot about the difficulties of putting a routine together, as well as about the challenges of "selling a performance" to an audience. But when it happened, when my dog and I were enjoying that routine together, it was amazing. I was very nervous, but my dog performed well from the start, and I became more relaxed with every movement and trick that followed. While I still get nervous about performing routines, now my nerves are more about my strong desire for my dog to perform at his best and show off for the audience's enjoyment. (I am nervous about performing as well as I can, too!)

Freestyle wins out

I've been in the competition ring many, many times over the years (too many to count) in both obedience and agility. Even the most spectacular "goes" and "runs" I've had the pleasure to experience, which did feel wonderful, do not come close to the feeling I experience in the freestyle ring. Freestyle is truly a team performance, one that requires a dog and handler to communicate fluently in order to project that performance effectively. When the team is "on," we feel so close as partners—the greatest feeling after having spent months preparing for the moment.

What makes these very special moments in the freestyle ring? Is it the fact that the handler and dog love each other? Whatever the level of affection between dog and handler, I believe that love is only a part of what makes a special performing team. Love's a really important part, but it is just the foundation for the rest of the performance recipe. I love my dogs very much, and consider them my family. But, all the love in the world won't make a great routine. Great performances require:

  • a lot of work in training fluent responses
  • variety in the behaviors used
  • good music selection
  • creative choreography

That's a tall order! Canine musical freestyle is not easy—but it is fantastic!

Fun: the essential ingredient

I'm a diligent and consistent trainer, but I keep something else in my training program—enjoyment of each dog. Freestyle is supposed to be fun, right? Dogs provide the most amazing surprises and reactions with their simple take on life itself. I love the funny things that dogs do—no matter how opposite it is from what I was working for. Sometime you have to just laugh, and then start over afterward. To move forward and solve the problem often requires regrouping and changing a training tactic. That's work, and training can seem to go on, and on, and on... But, please keep the fun in training! If you lose the fun, you lose the emotion.

That inexpressible piece

In addition to great music, creative choreography, and extensive training to produce great responses, a good freestyle routine requires one thing more. I call it personality. A routine needs to project the personality of the dog and handler, and the music and theme must fit their personalities.

How do I know when that personality ingredient has been added? It's not easy to tell; it's really just something I feel when I watch a routine. The moment a routine begins, I glimpse an emotional view of the team and what they are presenting. I either sense a connection between the dog and the handler, or I sense that the dog is disconnected from the idea of performing, or even relating to the handler. Even if there are multiple mistakes in a routine, a connected team remains a pleasure to watch. I feel privileged to experience such a performance.

Even if there are multiple mistakes in a routine, a connected team remains a pleasure to watch.

This working connection between the dog and handler is the most important element of the performance of a freestyle team. The connection has been called attitude or a bond, as well, and most would agree on its importance in a freestyle partnership. The relationship shows itself in the way the dog willingly pays attention to the handler, wanting to respond to cues, and enjoying everything the handler is doing—simply loving to interact with his human handler.

Cherish the connection

As I interact with and train my dogs, I strive to build on our working connection every day. While training, I'm alert to any problems that arise with the connection. It's important to train with dedication, effectiveness, and persistence. But without establishing and maintaining the essential connection with my canine freestyle partner, we can't reach our performance goals. We're both family and "business" partners—connected in multiple ways in our pursuit of the fun of freestyle.

Train/Love/Laugh/and Dance like no one is watching.

About the author

Michele Pouliot is a freestyle champion, guide dog trainer, and one of the many outstanding faculty teaching at ClickerExpo. Her dance partners include Déjà vu, a 6-year-old English Springer spaniel, and Sake, a 3-year-old Australian shepherd. Read more about Michele here.