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“Trust me, they have definite likes and dislikes,” says Patie Ventre, who founded The World Canine Freestyle Organization in 1999. She recalls the time she was working on a routine to a Judy Garland tune. “I was practicing with headphones, and my dog never heard [the music] except once in a while, very low," Ventre says. "But when we got to the venue, every time Judy sang, my dog started howling. Every time it went instrumental, she was quiet. I had to do the routine seven times over three days, and I had such a headache.”
If freestyle sounds like fun for you and your pooch, start by getting a clean bill of health from your veterinarian. While just about any dog can do freestyle, it’s essential to condition your dog gradually and take his anatomy and health into account. For instance, jumping is not the best activity for dogs with short legs or knee, hip or back problems.
Wait until your dog is at least 14 months old before teaching any moves that involve jumping or standing on the hind legs. This helps protect developing bones and joints. Giant-breed dogs may need even more time to develop.
Sitting up or walking on the hind legs is hard work for a dog. Backing up and going sideways use muscles differently from walking forward on all four feet. Keep practice sessions short at first, increasing them gradually so your dog doesn’t get sore from working muscles in a way that his body isn’t prepared for.
Puppies can learn basic obedience skills such as heeling and sitting, and cute tricks such as spinning. Those early lessons can also help them develop precision and concentration, which are important for freestyle.
Once a dog is physically mature, freestyle can help him stay limber throughout life.
Freestyle is more than just a fun way to spend time with your dog. It gets both of you moving and builds strength, flexibility and endurance — and fosters the human-animal bond through training and teamwork. It’s also an excellent way to keep your dog’s mind engaged; the mental work of freestyle is just as tiring as the physical effort it requires.
Just as almost any dog can find a place in freestyle, so can any person. Competitors include people in wheelchairs, children and senior citizens. One of Ventre’s favorite memories is of an 86-year-old woman pulling her Pomeranian on a shovel to the strains of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons."
The mental workout is good for human participants, too. “It’s a happy thing to do,” Ventre says. “It’s also a great stress reliever. You have to think a lot, so it keeps your mind active.” Research backs her up: Dance has been shown to improve memory and cognitive function, reduce the risk of developing dementia, relieve stress, and boost mood.
For two-legged team members, it helps to have rhythm and an understanding of choreography. But even if you don’t plan to perform in public with your canine dance partner, freestyle is a great way to have fun with your dog right in your own living room— or just to find a better (or more willing) dancepartner than your spouse.
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