a long, long time ago, in a kingdom far far away………not really. it was actually morgantown, PA in 1991 at the wiz kids dog camp, where i saw musical canine freestyle for the first time. the camp’s obedience instructor, the amazing Janice DeMello with her heart dog, Trivet, demonstrated a routine set to music incorporating a variety of heelwork. at the time, i was working hard training my second obedience dog, a belgian tervuren named scorch. i loved competitive obedience and had a lifelong passion for music…….combining them sounded like a great idea! i was 11.
fast forward a few years to springfield, Mass, 1994 at the Gaines Eastern Regional Obedience championship. the cream of the crop obedience dogs and handlers are in the house, duking it out in the pressure cooker of the regional, the atmosphere is intense. at lunch time, we are treated to a demonstration of “canine freestyle.” i think there were 4 routines. the one that stuck out to me was donna duford and her pbgv Che. their music was In the Mood, and the routine opened with donna and che simultaneous lying down and rolling over. then che took OFF and zoomed around the ring like a nut. everyone laughed, including donna, she corralled che, attached a leash, and started the routine over again. donna’s attitude stayed upbeat, che’s tail went a mile a minute, and while their routine demonstrated various tricks incorporated with heeling, it also showcased a bond between dog and handler. both of them were so joyful it was impossible to watch without smiling. in the world of competitive obedience, no one ever laughed at themselves or their dog like that, they were too busy taking themselves ultra-seriously.
so i said to myself, “you could totally do that.” in scorch, i had a good obedience dog, but not one who would reach the top of the sport. but his heeling was GREAT and i had a love of music, so why not? i went home, picked some music, and started to design my first routine. my mom was my coach. neither of us knew anything about the sport other than what we gleaned by watching the demos. i taught scorch to heel on my right, spin, weave through my legs, and move backwards and laterally. we set it to music and had a routine!
enter patie ventre. in my opinion, without patie, there wouldn’t BE competitive freestyle today. she is a tour de force. patie told us to come to the eastern regional in Raleigh, NC in 1996, where scorch and i did our first routine in public, and man, it felt great! for the first time, i saw mike pape and his amazing border collie, ketch. ketch did tricks like you might see in a freestyle disc routine, jumping over mike’s body, standing on his hind legs and performing complicated tricks 50 feet away from his handler, and mike wasn’t just heeling around with his dog, he was DANCING! the crowd went wild and i went back to our crating area and immediately starting teaching my 11 month old border collie, sprint, every trick ketch did.
scorch indulged learning freestyle and he seemed to enjoy it, but sprint’s intensity and confidence made her a super quick study. anything i could dream up, she could learn in just a few minutes. our first freestyle routine was Kids in America and it was full of crazy jumps, distance work, and difficult tricks. patie ventre took us under her wing and brought us on as members of the newly formed pup-peroni canine freestyle team. don’t laugh, we had UNIFORMS, really cool ones……track suits and polo shirts, all embroidered with our snazzy logo AND our names, i’m tellin’ you, we looked sharp. this team of freestylers, located all over the country, traveled to demonstrate and teach the sport at various events. who else was on the team, you might ask? carolyn scott & rookie, sandra davis & pepper, mike pape & ketch, donna duford and chie, anna schloff & lacey………we were the shizz. sprint and i traveled with patie to pet expos, APDT conferences, dog show clusters, anywhere the sponsor money could send us to promote this fun new sport.
in 2000, the world canine freestyle organization was founded and i was a founding member of the advisory board. we worked really hard to come up with judging standards and criteria, performance guidelines, and titling requirements. i also became a judge. then i traveled around the country some more judging and teaching and dancing and teaching and judging and competing and judging. appeared on live w/ regis and kelli in new york (sprint landed on regis’ back, he was NOT amused), competed on pet star in hollywood.
Eureka, a picture! me and truffle the pig practicing a little freestyle dancin' in japan.
in 2003 i traveled to japan and had the pleasure of teaching and judging some extremely talented teams. then possibly got a little burned out. i came home from japan, moved to NC, got married and freestyle fell by the wayside.
SUDDENLY it is back. patie called me up and asked if i would consider attending the 10th anniversary celebration of WCFO freestyle in hershey, PA. the format? a no-rules, anything goes, audience choice competition a the banquet at groom expo. an event sprint won both times we competed, in 2000 and 2001. super fun. no judging or scoring (the worst part about freestyle competition, IMO) the only judges are the audience members.
it’s hard to say no to patie, it really is. i couldn’t. even though my beloved best freestyle partner, sprint, passed away 2 years ago, i knew i couldn’t stay away from this special opportunity. a few minor details; i don’t HAVE a dog trained for freestyle. i also don’t have any routines. and i haven’t done any freestyle in 7 years or so. i didn’t let any of these trifling facts stop me from saying, “of COURSE, patie, i will be there with bell’s on!” she asked me at the beginning of june. the event is september 11, 2010. i had 3 months to pick a dog, train the dog, pick some music, choreograph a routine, and polish the finished product to a high shine.
a month has gone by since then (maybe a month and a half) and we have made strides! visa, my 2 year old border-jack, is the shining star dancer in the house. she already had a knack for learning tricks, so she had a pretty good foundation on which to build freestyle skills. we picked our music (stevie wonder’s sir duke) and we’ve started putting tricks together into phrases to match the music. still working on a costume, but after watching so you think you can dance this week, i’ve decided the costume MUST include sparkly chuck taylors. they will probably have to be pink (kinda my thing). visa loves the heeling, she does great forward and backwards weaves, she can back up away from me all the way across our 60 ft training room. she works effortlessly on her hind legs and learns new behaviors so quickly. luckily, since the event is not a sanctioned competition, i’ll be able to carry a reward with me while we perform and that will be extremely helpful. we are having a blast with this project
developing this routine and working with visa has been very rewarding so far, and i remember what drew me to this sport in the first place. the creativity and freedom to develop your own unique style is so appealing. in a dog sport world dominated by rigid rules and handling systems, breaking away and doing your own thing feels pretty good.
*this post is bleak without photographic evidence. it sucks. there should be pictures. i’m working on it…….if you have any old timey pics of julie and sprint, send them to me! sorry!*