Corgi dancing

What do the musical compositions "Waltzing Matilda," "You’re the One That I Want" from the hit movie Grease and Mozart’s “A Musical Joke” have in common? They have all been used to soundtrack some intricately choreographed freestyle routines. In other words, they’re tunes that pet owners choose when they dance with their dogs. 

Nicknamed “the tail-wagging sport,” canine freestyle — also known as musical freestyle or heelwork to music — is a choreographed routine set to music that comprises athleticism, creative costuming, teamwork and stylish interpretation of the music’s theme. Now in its 25th year, the sport incorporates elements of traditional canine obedience exercises — such as heeling — and the equine practice of dressage, often described as ballet for horses.

Freestyle may be perfect for dogs who excel at walking on their hind legs, backing up, spinning, rolling and jumping. And it’s perfect for people who like to have fun with their dogs. Of course, check with your vet first to make sure your pup is healthy enough for this activity before embarking on your musical journey.

How do you know if your dog can do the two-step? Most dogs who participate in freestyle tend to be quick learners with nimble bodies and a love of attention. Breeds frequently seen in freestyle competitions include Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, Papillons and Dachshunds, but you’ll also find Great Danes, Mastiffs, Rottweilers, Greyhounds, Salukis and Shar-Pei dancing the night away. People have even trained blind dogs and three-legged dogs to freestyle. With a little basic training, any dog can get moves like Jagger.

Can-Can Canines

You may have heard the saying that Ginger Rogers just did what Fred Astaire did — but backward and in high heels. As hard as that sounds, imagine the prowess it takes for a dog to walk backward on his hind legs. Many dogs can do it, though, and some are really good at it. builds on a dog’s natural moves, including spins, rolls, jumps and bows. Dogs learn to spin clockwise and counterclockwise, to jump through or into a partner’s arms, to bow before a waltz and to place their paws on a partner’s arm or back. The only limitations are the trainer’s skills and the dog’s abilities.

Take heeling: Simply walking at a person’s side can take on myriad forms, all of which can be incorporated into a freestyle dance routine. A dog can heel forward, backward and sideways. Then there’s left heel, right heel, face to face, dog and person facing forward, dog behind person, rear to rear, cross body, and perpendicular. The dog can weave between the human’s legs in a figure 8. The possibilities are numerous.

One of the keys to a successful routine is the music — and some dogs seem to be particular about their tunes. If you’re a country and western fan and your dog likes disco, you might not be a match on the dance floor.

“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.”

Getting Started

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.

The Benefits of Doggie Dancing

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) dance partner than your spouse.