I have been involved with Canine Musical Freestyle since 2006 when my first Border Collie, Speedy, and I, took a Freestyle class because he needed a break from Rally and a chance to regain some lost confidence.
Speedy and I discovered a passion that I never expected.
From the first time Speedy stepped onto the floor and did a few of his Rally moves to music, we were both hooked. There was something about moving to music with him. It didn't matter what kind of music it was. It didn't matter what we were doing - we were in an amazing zone together.
At first I literally lured him around. He was lured through spins and twirls and leg weaves. He already had a nice assortment of skills from his extensive Rally training. He could heel nicely, he could circle around me, and swing into heel position from center. He could pivot very well. He even had a little bit of training in backing and sidepassing from his Rally work. It all served as a great foundation for Freestyle training.
We dove into training for Freestyle. He learned to touch his paws to my hands, my legs, and to props. He learned to put his paws on props and circle them.
And every moment of all of that was an experience of enjoyment, discovery, and growing together.
Speedy's intense love for learning and movement inspired me and we were soon performing little sequences, and finally routines.
We had fun. I wasn't worried about cue styles, nor about what any titling venue was looking for. I used what worked for Speedy. If he knew something on verbal, I cued it with a verbal cue. If he didn't, I used a hand signal or a hand target or even a prop as a target stick! Sometimes the type of cue I would use was more of an artistic choice. We did many routines at nursing homes where I would use a prop as a target stick, especially to get him to do his absolutely gorgeous high step prance in a big arc around me. He loved to prance to Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies from the Nutcracker. It was that performance, which we did at many demonstrations, that led to me nicknaming Speedy "Barishnacov".
And we trained the behaviors in the best way that worked for him. Some were lured. Some were shaped. Some were captured. Some were trained with combinations of techniques. I wasn't thinking much about it, and I didn't really care. I was not trying to train him perfectly. I did what made sense to him and to me. If I didn't know how to train something, I made it up! Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn't, but Speedy and I never got tired of trying.
Best of all were the times when I would rent a training building and we would put on music and just move together. I called this "doodling". At first I always had food in my hand, held up above his head, to encourage the prancing. I had no interest, whatsoever, in taking that food away so he wouldn't need it. Who cared if he needed it? We were in our zone and it was perfect.
As time went on, that food became an open hand target, and later he didn't need anything and I could hold my arms straight out, or have them on my hips, or whatever I wanted to do in the moment. It was a natural progression. We were not on any timeframe. When he was ready for less help, I gave him less help.
Speedy and I danced together. It was about expression. It was about creating art. It was about doing what we both loved. That boy was an artist like I have never encountered before or since. It was about Speedy and I moving to the music, connected at the heart, and loving every second of it.
And when we competed or did a demonstration, Speedy and I went out there to entertain the people. He always put on a good show, just by virtue of who he was! People loved the leg weaves, and the prop moves, and his prance, but what people responded to most was him. He drew in his audience and made a lasting impression on them. For years after I retired him from live performance, people came up to me and said that they remembered him and this routine and that routine that he did.
Speedy was not a high precision dog. There were some moves that he did precisely, but he was always much more about moving through the moves and experiencing them than he was about carrying them out to any particular specification. What he did was always beautiful, but it was not often precise. In competition, our artistic scores were always significantly higher than our technical scores.
And honestly, I didn't care. This was our dance. Our art. Speedy wasn't about precision, and it never even occurred to me to try to make him be something he was not. Really, with Speedy, the idea of trying to make him have a strength he did not have would have been beyond absurd! Speedy was Speedy - he had tremendous talent and artistry. I am glad now that I always appreciated that in him.
Speedy was not perfect. He struggled with an absolutely horrendous overstimulation problem that was often triggered by his own motion. As he got older, his arthritis became more of an issue and he became limited in the moves that he could do in his dances.
But there is a lot I would give to go back and have just one more dance with him. If I could, I would not be thinking about precision, or technical difficulty, or cues, or titles. I would not be thinking about what anyone else might think our dance should or should not be. I would be savoring every second of experiencing that amazing dance one more time, and appreciating Speedy for the artist he was.
I will never have that.
But I just may have something even better. Yes, I actually said that. When I face reality, I know it is true. Bandit has potential that astonishes me over and over. He is his own dog, and in many ways he is as different from Speedy as he can possibly be. However, he has three things that Speedy had - three things that I have longed for in a Freestyle dog since losing Speedy.
First, he has a natural passion for moving to music. In front of an audience is even better. We haven't performed much, but the few times we have, his eyes have just sparkled, and he has performed to the best of his ability! I am amazed at how he has just taken to Freestyle like a duck to water. I know he was bred to work stock, but that boy was born to dance!
Second, he LOVES movement. And, unlike Speedy, he is not overstimulated by it! He can MOVE and be thrilled with it, and he retains his ability to think! I am seeing this come out in his Agility training, and I see the same thing in his Freestyle work. He is not really into a lot of stationary exercises, although I believe he will develop more of an aptitude for that in time. By his nature, he's a mover!
Finally, Bandit has an artistry of his own. It is nothing like Speedy's. He is not the soft dancer gliding across the floor as if his feet aren't touching the ground! But I can tell that Bandit does have his own creativity and style in his movement. It is untapped potential right now, and probably something that will develop much more as he matures. It's there, though. I see it.
Since the days when Speedy and I started out in Freestyle together, blissfully clueless, finding our way based on what we discovered together, a lot has changed for me as a trainer, handler, and title seeker! I have gotten involved with Agility, Cyber Rally-O, the CRO Dance Divisions, Rally FrEe, and now Parkour. I did some Freestyle training with Maddie, although not very much. I did a great deal of Freestyle training with Dean, and Tessa and I have done a fair amount as well. My team of Speedy, Maddie, Dean Dog, and Tessa has become a Dogs Can Dance Champion 2 team. I have earned bunches of Beginner titles in WCFO Freestyle with Speedy, Dean, and Tessa, and Tessa and I went all the way through Intermediate Musical Freestyle together.
I have read countless training books, attended workshops and conferences with many presenters, and taken online classes. Some of these have been Freestyle specific, and some have been more general.
I know some things now that I wish I had known when Speedy and I had gotten started. But then . . . . in a big way . . . I am actually glad that I did not know then what I know now! Speedy and I may have missed out on our unique experience if he and I had not started out at the same place and spent those years learning together.
When I started training with Bandit, I was very set on trying to train him very well. After all, someone with the amount of training experience that I have now, should want to train very well - right? I wanted Bandit to learn to work with the precision of Dean Dog, but with the heart for the sport that Speedy had! I wanted him to be the total package - dynamic, artistic, precise . . . . well, perfect!
But . . . there was one little wrench in that monkeyworks!
I know better.
If Speedy and Dean Dog taught me one lesson very well it is that my first and top priority must always be to appreciate my dog as an individual. I was true to that with Tessa and I have never regretted it. Tessa's love is Agility and we ran with that - literally! Yes, she and I do other things, but her number one dog sport is Agility, and to that we dedicate most of our work together. That is why our five year C-ATCH quest is such a precious memory to me now: I respected Tessa for who she is - for her strengths, for her weaknesses, for everything about the beautiful girl that she is, inside and out - every step of the way. To me that is the greatest success there is in any dog sport.
So . . . Bandit . . . Freestyle.
When he and I started, I was very much taken with the idea of trying to train him using few lures, lots of shaping and tools like gates and platforms, and with the goal of getting everything on verbal cue.
And that's fine. He was a baby and I really didn't know who he was going to turn out to be. Might as well start somewhere!
The thing is - that mindset literally sucked all of the joy out of Freestyle training for me. And, even more important, Bandit didn't really take to it, either. Deflated balloon team . . . no dance.
And this was a problem. From the time I sent in the deposit for my then-unborn puppy, just weeks after I lost the best dance partner of my life, it was on my heart that we would dance together.
When Bandit, then unknown to me, was still inside his mother, the Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia were taking place. It was one of the darkest times of my entire life. I was still stunned by Speedy's sudden death, and I missed him horribly. Sammie's health was in decline and I saw that the end was coming for him. It was winter. It was extremely cold. And I felt guilty because I was more afraid than happy about my future puppy.
But, I couldn't help it. When I watched the figure skating routines, and listened to the music - they used a lot of Tchaikovsky at those Olympics - mixed in with the terrible sadness of the time was just the tiniest glimmer of hope that someday that puppy and I would find a zone of our own and have our own dance.
I have never forgotten that. And I am more delighted than I can possibly express that in Bandit that tiny glimmer has burst forth into everything I ever could have wanted and more.
But . . . I have found myself incredibly frustrated. When Bandit and I go to dance, I am burdened with worries about how I am using my hands, and verbal cues, and him getting his rear end into position properly, and whether or not he is forging too much. Somewhere along the line I lost everything that made Freestyle such a delight for Speedy and me, and I have turned into a neurotic mess of, "Are we doing this exactly right?"
And to say that is no fun would be an understatement.
Now, I know that some people actually do enjoy that kind of thing. And I am not against good training in any way - I have something of a passion for that, I just tend to go outside the box more than most people. And I understand that titling venues have their own requirements and that it is my choice to participate in those venues.
But, still. I have developed a mindset toward Freestyle that does not suit me, and I must make a deliberate choice to change if Bandit and I are going to find our place in the sport together.
This really came to light for me over the summer when Bandit and I attended the Future of Freestyle conference at the end of July. It was an incredible and intense experience for Bandit and me.
In that particular format, there is no emphasis on verbal cues. There is total freedom to use verbal cues, physical cues, and even to use props to cue! When Bandit and I were in the prop workshop, I felt that I rediscovered something that Speedy and I had once shared - a real sense of discovery, and of finding what works for Bandit and me as a team.
The participants of the conference were watching my dog, and when I got comments they were about how beautiful he is, and his movement, and what he did well, and what he still needs some help with. Nobody watched Bandit move beautifully on the floor and then turned around to tell me the equivalent of, "well that's nice, but you were using too many hand signals"! (As if that is the only thing that really matters in Freestyle!) How refreshing!
The most amazing part of the conference was during a session where we were trying out music. Bandit and I were moving to one song, and we just locked in. We were in perfect synchronicity - in movement and in mind! It was an experience that transcended cues and training styles and what my hands happen to be doing at the moment! We were dancing. In fact, in that moment, that glimmer of "maybe" that was in my heart during those Olympics in the dark cold winter of 2014 burst into reality.
So, what's my point? I feel like I am at a crossroads right now. Somehow I know that now is the time when I need to make some decisions about going forward in Freestyle with Bandit. We have been training since summer and he is making beautiful progress. We are starting to become a team and we are going to start preparing routines for performance very soon!
I think the big thing that is on my mind and heart right now is that, for me personally, Freestyle cannot be about cues and difficulty of behaviors. It just can't be. That isn't me.
Of course, we are going to train a variety of behaviors, and of course I am going to do everything within reason to help him learn to be "bi-lingual" between his natural language, physical cues, and my natural language, verbal.
But I am just not going to make those two things the heart and soul of our Freestyle training. Those are part of the package, not the essence of the discipline.
That leaves me with the question - then what is it going to be?
And I guess Bandit has a lot to do with the answer to that question.
But I want him to have the opportunity to show me who he is as a dancer. I want him to be able to help me discover his personal artistry and style. I need to find a way for he and I to have a chance to move to music together on a regular basis so we can discover our own dance.
And I am going to be very concrete:
For the next six months:
There will be NO focus on cues in my work with Bandit. None. When he needs for me to use my hands to show him what I want, I will use hands. When he doesn't, I won't use them. What a concept! We will play with target sticks and training aids, but there will be no immediate goal of fluency on any particular cue. Absolutely no big deal. We can work out the particulars for titling venues when we are ready to think about that. That's not where we are now, and I seriously don't care a thing about it!
We will work on the foundation behaviors in whatever way works best for Bandit. In particular, I want to start him on laterals. I plan to use the same process that I used with Speedy, unless we try it and find it is not the right way for Bandit. And as we are working on behaviors, I am going to focus on joy! I realize that in the early learning stages, sometimes there is more concentration than joy, especially with a Border Collie. But no shutting down, no frustration. If that means I use a lure, so be it - I use a lure! We will be going for physical fluency with whatever aid is needed. Not final fluency.
Bandit and I will also work on focus and engagement more than we work on particular behaviors. Again, I want to see joy in being connected to me much more than I want to see precision. Unless Bandit suddenly decides he loves precision - then we will go for it!
And, at least once a week, I will put on music at home and Bandit and I will dance in the house like Speedy and I used to. We will doodle. And it will be a dance, not an exercise in performance of behaviors on verbal cue!
Yes. This is right for us. I know this in my heart. Time will tell where it takes us, but I know this - it will be someplace very good.
I am glad I took the time to work all of this out. And to anyone who has read all the way to the end - thank you for taking your time and consideration to do so!
In the end, I believe that Freestyle is actually a highly individualized artistic sport. While titling venues have a place, I think we lose something when we base our entire training and performance framework on any organization's guidelines. Freestyle can be a sport that transcends titling organizations . . . and maybe that is where Bandit and I are going . . . more to find our own way and see where we land when we become the team we are meant to be!