Dog Dancing

This article by Karin Larsen Bridge of Get S.M.A.R.T. Dogs in Sydney first appeared in Dogs Life Magazine Sept/Oct 2004 and is reproduced with kind permission of the author.


It had to happen. First we added music to ice skating, then dressage and now dog obedience! Sound crazy? Think again. Dog dancing has swept the world as a new way of putting fun back into training much to the delight of owners, dogs and spectators alike.

The History of Dog Dance

In 1991 a Canadian team obedience competition decided to incorporate a routine to music. The event was so popular that the idea quickly spread to the USA and the United Kingdom. A demonstration of dog dancing at Crufts - the most famous dog show in the world soon led to the development of dog dance as a new canine sport. In Australia people were beginning to see glimpses of the new sport on videos from overseas and one of the first to give it a go was Jill Houston in WA. We were hooked, as we already had a small demo team we just added routines as an extra in our demos. It soon became apparent that people liked the dancing a lot better than the obedience exercises alone so we added more.

WA continued to lead the way by running the first official competition in Australia in 1998 where the winner was Roslyn Ateo and her Border collie Duke dancing to The Pink Panther. Today, demonstrations of dog dancing are popping up all around Australia attracting entries of twenty or more although official events remain rare.


Most countries recognize two flavours of dog dancing, Heel work to Music and Canine Freestyle. Heel work to Music is a direct descendant of traditional obedience put to music with an emphasis on precision heeling. Although there are no prescribed movements the dog predominantly stays in heel position only leaving the handler momentarily to perform twists and turns. While Freestyle also incorporates traditional obedience as its foundation, choreography is bound only by the handler's imagination and creativity and the abilities and safety of the dog/handler team. The dog may work at any distance from the handler and perform any jumps, tricks or manoeuvrers which are in keeping with the music. Both Heel work and Freestyle are judged out of a perfect score of 10 on Technical Merit and Artistic Impression. The emphasis is on the athleticism and artistry of the dog and handler working as a team in rhythm and harmony to the music. Dogs who achieve a certain standard will be granted titles such as Musical Freestyle Dog, Musical Freestyle Excellent and Musical Freestyle Masters. Why dog dancing?

From the first performance, it was evident that dancing with dogs was going to have enormous spectator appeal. Many people take up dog dancing as a way of improving volunteer demonstrations at community fetes and council days or to enhance performances at nursing homes and hospitals. Even simple obedience steps and tricks start to look impressive when put to an up-beat tune. Secondly, its fun. Adding music takes away a lot of the seriousness and tension that can creep into obedience training for both you and your dog. Finally, dog dancing provides an exciting, new training challenge unrestricted by set exercises and protocols. Your creativity can run wild as you choreograph dance steps for you and your dog limited only by your imagination and training skills. Getting started

The great thing about dog dancing is that you can't really make any mistakes as long as you and your dog are having fun. While a few instructors and clubs are beginning to offer lessons, for most people it's going to be a matter of checking out Freestyle websites on the internet, buying videos (see insert) and simply playing around with dog dance steps. Pal up with a fellow dog dance enthusiast and you can work together, critiquing each others routine. Alternately plan a group dance. Having a few owners working together is a great way to build skills and confidence, provides a support network to keep you practicing and enhances the fun/social aspect of the sport. Country western dances, square dances and line dances are all great places to start and can often be done on lead for dogs with less advanced training.

Don't be put off if you have a slower or smaller dog. While herding breeds such as Border Collies (who have been bred for generations to read and react to movement) seem to excel at this sport, any type of dog can be involved from Papillons to Great Danes. The trick is to design a routine that showcases your dogs own special qualities and movement through your choice of music and steps. Planning a dance routine.

Choosing music

Perhaps the most important element of your routine will involve choosing the right music. Listen to lots of different types of music from the classics to movie favourites to modern chart toppers. As you listen, move with your dog to see how the music fits. Consider choosing something that:

  • You like because you will be listening to it over and over again as you perfect your routine.
  • Has clear phrasing either words or instrumental sections that will be easy to identify and match with special movements such as spins, twists or weaves
  • Complements the appearance of your dog. If your dog is big and powerful you'll want powerful music either classical or strong beat rock such as Queens We Will Rock You. If your dog is dainty and light like a whippet you might choose something softer like The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.
  • Complements the personality of your dog. Sometimes even dogs of the same breed can have very different personalities - one can be shy and submissive the other outgoing and confident. How would you describe your dog - fun-loving, elegant, athletic, genteel or irresistibly cute ?
  • Complements your own appearance, personality and physical skills. Like it or not you'll be in this dance too so you'll have to find the best compromise for music that suits both you and your dog.
  • Creates the mood you want to convey - comic, entertaining, magical, spectacular, endearing ?
  • Either tells a story such as The Phantom of the Opera might or
  • Dictates a style of dance such as disco music, tango, waltz, or square dancing music. Specific dance music often makes it easy to choose dance steps that match that style.
  • Has a suitable tempo for you and your dog. Although you may love rock and roll the tempo may be too fast to suit either your dog or yourself. Set realistic goals to have a dance that will showcase your team at its best.

There is no one right way to go about choreographing movement to music. The following suggestions are simple and do not require any previous knowledge of music or dance. Take a piece of paper and form two columns.

On a computer or CD player, play your chosen music and write down any words plus the number of beats per bar or line in the first column.

In the second column write the dance moves or dog skills that you want to perform at that point in the music. (See Skills List below.)

A rhythm will become evident usually 8 beats per line. You can now plan your routine by comparing the number of beats in each line with the number of beats you require to complete your planned dance move. This allows you to initially practice your routine even without music. A hand held CD or tape player with footage and a pause button is extremely useful when fine tuning your performance.

Linking behaviours - sequencing and presentation

On a piece a paper draw the shape and relative size of your performance area.

Mark several points on your map to help plot and direct your movement. For example you will want to note your centre point, four corners and mid points.

With a PENCIL (cause its going to change a lot) imagine your routine moving from point to point and see if you can link the steps together.

Note where you will start and finish. Note your best big movements and where you want to perform them plan these first. You may like to keep at least one big movement for your finish. Be aware of where the audience will be you want them to have a clear view of your best big movements such as a jump over or bow.

Link your big movements with smaller movements such as heeling to help you get from one point to another. Try to use the WHOLE of the area nothing looks worse then having a dance team stuck to one spot simply performing tricks.

You don't have to keep coming up with new behaviours for the entire length of the dance (usually two to three minutes). Sometimes repeating certain steps at the same point in the music is even more effective and authentic. You can add variety to your routine simply by altering the direction of the behaviour - either forward, backward, parallel to your side, moving diagonally or in a circular rather than linear fashion.


It is rare for the dog to wear anything in a dog dance other than perhaps a bow tie collar as it would be disastrous to restrict or detract from his movement in any way. Your choice of dress however can significantly enhance or detract from your performance. Choose an outfit that will suit the music you have chosen as well as your own personality. If you are dancing to country and western music you'll probably choose jeans and a cowboy hat. If you choose a mix of seafaring tunes a sailor's outfit may be appropriate. If your dance tells a story you may choose a costume that will clue your audience into the story quickly. For instance well known English dog trainer Mary Ray was dressed as a magician complete with magic wand when she performed The Sorcerer and Her Apprentice at Crufts.The music, the dance and the costume told a complete story. If your music does not have a strong theme, a simple black tie outfit is a safe choice that allows the movement and flow of the dance to be the centre of attention rather than a gimmicky costume. Props

In Mary Ray's dance, her magic wand was in fact a target stick (see Dogs Life Issue July/August 200 Indoor Winter Games for more information on targeting skills) she had used to help teach her dog some of the more complicated moves in the dance. Popular choices for props are canes, (dogs can circle around, jump over, follow) hats, (can be knocked-off, retrieved) and flags which can become the focus of a few impressive tricks. Be careful however not to allow your routine to become a conglomeration of doggy tricks with a musical background. Dog dancing is about the harmonious union of canine movement and music.

Training Dance Steps

For people who love training dogs this is probably the easiest part of dog dancing.

Make a list of behaviours your dog already knows.

Make a list of behaviours you want to train specifically to compliment your dance.

Let your imagination run wild! You'll have time to work on these skills while perfecting your master plan.

Don't be in a hurry to link all your skills and movements together with your dog until you've perfected everything separately. Putting it all together

The hard work is all but done. You have your music, your choreography, your outfit and your skills list now it's just a matter of practice makes perfect!

Work through your routine phrase by phrase mostly without your dog.

You can practice phrases in your lounge room and even put the routine roughly together by keeping count of the number of beats

for each section. To get your timing exactly right however, you will need to practice from time to time in the full sized area.

Put markers out to mark the corners and mid points of your area to help you plan.

Practice sections of your dance with your dog at any time , however practice the whole dance to perfection on your own first to

avoid drilling and dulling your dog.

You will need to occasionally check the timing of your routine by including your dog which usually adds time to your routine. Your footwork, timing of signals, turns, spins, skills and steps should all be fluent however before you regularly practice the whole sequence with your dog.

Don't forget to have several dress rehearsals. Your costume can affect the way your dog reads your body cues. For instance if you teach your dog to weave through your legs wearing jeans then in your dance you wear a skirt, your dog may at first fail to understand what you want. You need to emulate performance conditions as much as possible before the event if you want to achieve a picture-perfect routine.

Dog dancing is a fun activity that can be enjoyed by anyone with a little time and the desire to give it a go. Hopefully by following the tips listed above and checking out a few websites you'll soon be asking your dog 'Shall we dance?' DOGGY DANCE STEPS A SKILLS LIST The sport of dog dancing is still in its infancy and people are coming up with new and exciting moves everyday. Clicker training and targeting have proved invaluable tools in training advanced skills quickly. Below is just a short list of dog dance steps that you might consider adding to your performance.

  • Heel left side/right side, forwards, backwards, slow pace, fast pace.
  • Spins next to you right/left side, in front of you, at a distance.
  • Half spin a good way to change direction.
  • Weave thru my legs with handler standing still OR moving forward OR backward, OR dog weaving backward.
  • Horsey handler stands over dog's back and they move together forward/backward/ pivot on the spot.
  • Jump over handler's back, legs, arms, thru a hoop.
  • Roll over once, twice, one direction, two directions.
  • Lift front paws.
  • Touch your paw to my hands, feet, nose.
  • Kiss.
  • Hop - on hind legs.
  • Stand in front move forward, move backward, move sideways.
  • Shake.
  • Side steps toward me, away from me, diagonally.
  • Come thru legs.
  • Pivot on the spot both directions.
  • Retrieve.
  • Circle around me, around a prop, at a distance, either direction.
  • Bow.

Useful Websites:


  • Heel work to Music/Freestyle Mary's Way The Sorcerer and her Apprentice Mary Ray
  • Heel work to Music the Moves- by Carolyn Scott
  • Rhythmic Paws by At till a Szkukalek
  • Dancing with your Dog: Getting Started Sandra Davis


  • Team Dance: A Guide to Canine Freestyle by Ekard Lind
  • Dancing With your Dog The Book by Sandra Davis
  • Advance Your Freestyle by Donelda Guy