Put Your Best Paw Forward: Inside the World of Dog Dancing

March 15, 2021

The first piece a choreographer creates will always hold a special place in their memory, and Cassandra Hartman still remembers the feeling of putting together her first routine with her dance partner, Debbie, sometime around the year 2000. Wondering if she had something, Hartman invited her mother over to watch and the two performed the number, set to a recording of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. singing “Me and My Shadow,” in the garage. “I said, ‘What do you think of this—do you think this is any good?’ ” Hartman remembers. “And she nods her head.”

It should probably be mentioned that Debbie was a golden retriever (named for Debbie Reynolds, of course) and that this was Hartman’s first foray not into human choreography but musical canine freestyle, otherwise known as dog dancing. Musical freestyle is a very real dog sport, albeit one that’s still gaining ground in the U.S.

While dog lovers may be familiar with more common sports like obedience, agility or tracking, freestyle is unique in that it asks dog-and-handler teams to perform routines of behaviors and tricks set to music—in other words, to perform dances.

At a typical competition, you might see dogs weaving through their handlers’ legs, rolling over, spinning on their hind legs or leaping triumphantly into the arms of their humans, tails wagging all the way through. Some routines are more skit-like and tell a story, while others are more abstract. Handlers often make creative use of costumes and props, dressing themselves and their dogs to complement the music.

Several people and their pets stand outside during a dog dance class. Two women dance with their dogs. One wears shorts, a tank top and tennis shoes. The other woman has grey hair, wears jean shorts and a blue top under a white shirt. She also wears a flower lei and her dog has a matching one. Both women have their right arms extended and are smiling.
DZ Maciel (left) and Karen Karlberg (plus their dogs) at Jacob’s Pillow’s Dog Dance class in 2019

Grace Kathryn Landefield, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow

As offbeat and zany as it may seem, the idea of dancing with our canine companions has been around for decades. Street performers, circuses and vaudeville numbers often included dogs performing tricks to music. In one scene in the 1941 movie musical Lady Be Good, Eleanor Powell tap-danced with Buttons, a spunky Jack Russell terrier mix.

Freestyle in its current form started in the 1980s, mostly in the UK and Canada at first, and was popularized partly by “heelwork to music” routines at Crufts dog show, an international event organized by the Kennel Club. It started gaining ground in the U.S. in the ’90s and, soon, early titling organizations, like the World Canine Freestyle Organization in New York, began teaching and holding competitions. These days, it can also be found creeping into both pop culture and the larger dance world. In 2012, Ashleigh Butler and her dog Pudsey captivated audiences when their delightful dances won the top prize on “Britain’s Got Talent,” and for the past several summers Jacob’s Pillow has hosted a free Dog Dance class, led by Elizabeth Johnson Levine and DZ Maciel.

While obviously fun, freestyle also takes serious skill. “It’s a very difficult sport,” says Julie Flanery, founder of Rally Freestyle Elements in Philomath, Oregon, who’s been training dogs for almost 25 years. “There’s an unlimited number of behaviors that you can teach the dog to perform, and an unlimited number of combinations in which to create sequences. The handler has to become a choreographer.”

Handlers must choose the music, plan and teach the routine, and—unlike in other sports where the main spotlight is on the dog—become part of the performance themselves. “That’s the beauty of freestyle. It has this potential for growth and creativity alongside technical training,” says Hartman. Competitors are judged on their sense of rhythm, how they interpret the music and the behaviors they choose to include for their dog in their dance.

How do you go from basic obedience training to teaching your dog to dance with you? “The cool thing about freestyle is that any dog can do it,” says Flanery, “because each routine brings out the best of what that dog has to offer.” Still, she says there are some common foundational skills that can help set a dog up for success, like basic heeling positions, which teach the dog to move in sync with you, and transitions, which allow the dog to change positions or directions easily. “The transitions allow the dog-and-handler team to change position or direction in a way that doesn’t create breaks in flow,” says Flanery. Transitions might include the dog passing through the handler’s legs from one side to the other, circling the handler on turns or spinning next to the handler.

Hartman adds that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to training. “It really is dependent on the dog in front of me, how developed the dog is physically and mentally, and what they’re ready for. You want to not only train the moves required, but to bring them along mentally, so that they are loving to learn and wanting more,” she says. Once you reach a certain rhythm together, “I find the dog becomes an extension of my body—that’s the way I think of movement with them,” Hartman says. “The dog is an extension of what I’m trying to say, and that rhythm and love of music is not just on the handler’s part. The dogs really enjoy it.”

Just as dancers need to keep challenging themselves and getting out of their comfort zone to keep growing, handlers also need to be careful not to limit their range. If a handler only uses slower, graceful movements in their routines, for instance, the dog won’t have quicker, more staccato steps in their arsenal. “The more versatile the handler, the more versatile their dog is going to be,” Hartman says.

Not everyone dabbling in dog dancing is aiming to compete or reach champion level. At Jacob’s Pillow’s Dog Dance class, no prior training is required, and anyone in the community is invited to bring their dog and give it a try. “There are a lot of different movement ingredients, different ideas that people can do their own variation of, because everybody’s dog is different,” says teacher Elizabeth Johnson Levine. “It’s been fun to see the ways that people have creativity using movements that you might already do with your dog, like petting your dog or wagging your own tail, the ways that you play with your dog and naturally move with your dog.”

Even at the more advanced levels of freestyle, handlers often try to work with their dog’s natural movements and capabilities. Laural Rhea, a 24-year-old who trains with a local group called Dogs Gone Dancin’ in Corvallis, Oregon, often factors this in when she’s choosing music for a routine. “I pick based on my dog’s energy level, the tricks that he knows and how he looks walking to the music,” she says. “We try to pick music that, when the dog is walking at his natural gait, he’s hitting the beats fairly well. It’s easy for us to change how we walk, but it’s harder for the dog.” Rhea has competed with two dogs so far: Her first was a 19-pound miniature schnauzer named Poochie, and her current dog is a border collie named Zuzu.

Most people come to freestyle through dog training, but Hartman is one of the few who came in with a strong dance background, as well. A former professional dancer, choreographer and teacher who specialized in tap and theater, she started training dogs nearly 30 years ago. Since that day in the garage with Debbie, she’s gone on to start her own dog training business, perform on “Canada’s Got Talent” and Animal Planet, and teach freestyle seminars internationally. She currently has six dogs, all named after famous dancers.

While a dance background isn’t a prerequisite to freestyle, trainers like Hartman and Flanery often encourage their students to take movement classes, whether in yoga, Zumba or dance, to get more comfortable with their part in the performance. Rhea only had a little bit of dance experience under her belt when she started freestyle, but she now takes classes in Bollywood and belly dance and has drawn inspiration from both styles for her routines.

The idea of dancing is the most intimidating part for some beginners. “They’ll immediately hit a roadblock and say, ‘I can’t dance,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes you can. Everybody can dance,’ ” Hartman says. “Most people’s perception of dance is music videos and ballerinas, but dance is expression and movement put together in sequence, and everybody can do that. It can be rhythmic, it can be expressive, it doesn’t have to be technically beautiful—it just has to be.”

As with any live performance art form, things rarely go as planned, but that element of unpredictability is part of the fun. “There’s a lot of joy in it, and it’s a little crazy—there was one year that a hound dog just howled the entire time,” says Johnson Levine of the Jacob’s Pillow class. “I feel like it’s a real celebration not only of pets but of humanity, too, and the wide frame of what dance is and who dance is for.”

It’s also a celebration of a very special bond: the one between a human and their furry best friend. “When it comes together just enough that you and your dog really have connected and are dancing as one—that is what keeps us going in this sport,” says Flanery. “Those moments are so strong that they’re unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We can create this magic with our animals that showcases a relationship like no other.”