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You’ve Never Seen Anything Like Canine Freestyle

Competitive dog dancing is the amazing must-watch dog sport you didn’t know you needed.

by Julia Lane
June 30, 2021
A dog jumping in the air next to a woman smiling.
Guille Faingold / Stocksy

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Did you know that dog dancing is a thing? Yep, and it’s growing in popularity thanks to Rainn Wilson’s Netflix documentary “We Are the Champions,” which explores competitive dog dancing. While you might still be figuring out how to get your dog’s attention, these enthusiastic pet parents have their pups grooving to Tones and I’s Dance Monkey with elaborate dance routines. Dog dancing, also known as 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

How Did “Dog Dancing” Begin?

Joan Tennille, president and co-founder of the Canine Freestyle Federation (CFF) claims that she defined canine freestyle as a competitive sport rather than 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 while treating both humans and dogs 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 their feet than a Bloodhound.

The demo proved successful, and Canine Freestyle Federation was born two years later. It remains the oldest active canine freestyle organization and is best known for what Tennille calls “performance attitude.”

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In 1999, the World Canine Freestyle Organization (WCFO) made its debut and began offering worldwide competitions the following year. The Musical Dog Sport Association (MDSA) was then founded in 2002. Its website is a treasure trove for beginners, featuring resources such as a comprehensive (and ever-evolving) list of dog dancing moves and advice on how to find a good canine freestyle trainer. MDSA also recognizes freestyle teams that perform at hospitals, schools, and nursing homes through its Spirit of Sharing program. Since freestyle classes are not available in some areas, MDSA’s Circle of Friends program is a great way for members to meet and train with freestylers in their area.

Canine Freestyle Competitions and Routines

Each organization promotes its own style and hallmarks of competition. As you progress from one level to another, you’re required to perform longer, more challenging routines. Unlike dogs in many other sports, freestyle dogs must focus on their partner for a minimum of 90 seconds and up to three minutes at the most advanced levels. The key is a strong bond and positive training using motivational methods — you really can’t make a dog do freestyle; it’s all about the relationship.

Although most of the top competition dogs are Border Collies and Golden Retrievers, all breeds and mixes are welcome to participate, no matter the organization. Karen Lewis of New Mexico competes in WCFO and MDFA with her six-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bryce, who also competes in agility.

“The bond is even more important in freestyle,” says Lewis. “In agility, you pretty much do those obstacles the same way. In freestyle, you’re always doing new moves. The dog has to pay attention to you constantly to get the cues, either verbal or physical. Since you’re supposed to keep up, you’re constantly thinking, What am I doing now? When am I going to say it? It’s amazing what can go on during a one-and-a-half-minute routine.”

Getting Started With Canine Freestyle

Whether you are ready to boost your dog training to the next level, want to build that bond with your pup, or just want to peep at some mesmerizing outfits and top-notch dog training, “dog dancing” might just be what you’re looking for.

“This is like a real-life ‘Best in Show’ where the stakes are as high as you could possibly imagine,” Rainn Wilson said in an interview with Variety. “When you watch them compete, you’re like, ‘This is ridiculous,’ but then you go, ‘This is beautiful.’”

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Julia Lane

Julia Lane owns Spot On K9 Sports, a training facility in the Chicago area, and offers online dog-sport coaching. She is the author of several travel books, and her byline has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets & Writers and elsewhere.