For this week's show, I brought on 3 freestyle stars to talk about the sport, what got them hooked, and how they approach training.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today I have three musical freestyle stars here with me to chat about their sport: Michele Pouliot, Julie Flanery, and Dante Camacho.
Hi all, welcome back to the podcast!
Julie Flanery and Dante Camacho: Hi Melissa.
Michele Pouliot: Hi everybody.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, I'd love to have you each remind listeners a little bit about who you are, who your dogs are, maybe share a little bit about your background in musical freestyle. Julie, do you want to start?
Julie Flanery: I'm Julie Flanery and a lot of you know me. I'm a Fenzi Dog Sports Academy instructor, and I started in freestyle … let me tell you a little about my dogs first and what I'm doing now.
I have two dogs currently. One is Kashi, and she is a Tibetan Terrier. She just retired last year from freestyle. She has a couple of championships and a Grand Championship and an Elite Grand Championship in freestyle or In Sync or Rally-FrEe.
And then I have Phee, my little phenom, who is 2 years old, and she is just starting her competition career. She has two legs towards her Novice Freestyle title and she just earned her Novice Rally-FrEe title. I'm having a lot of fun with her. It's neat to take the things I learned the last 15 years with my other dogs, and through all of the great teachers I have had, and put that into her training at this stage in my career and at her age. So I'm really having a lot of fun with that.
I started in freestyle … I want to say about 2000, but in 1998 was when I saw it for the first time. The year previous, my training mentor then had given me a VHS videotape — that's how long ago this was — a videotape called Dancing With Your Dog. I looked at the videotape and I thought it was a gag gift. I thought, "Oh yeah, ha, ha, ha, dancing with your dog, how funny is that." I put it up on the shelf and I didn't even look at it. I just … like I said, you know how they have those empty boxes where it says something really crazy on the box and you just think it's a gag gift. I really thought that's what it was.
Later that year, at an APDT conference, I happened to see freestyle live for the first time. Carolyn Scott, who is a name that many are familiar with in the States here, I think for many of us it started back then. She introduced us to the sport. I watched her perform live with Rookie and I turned to my friend and I said, "I have to do that with my dog," and came back to Oregon. I was teaching a tricks class at that time, and that tricks class I twisted their arm into doing "Fun with Freestyle." We knew nothing about freestyle, there was nobody in the area to teach it or train it, and we went into it self-taught and had a lot of fun, and those people are still very close friends and freestylers today.
So that's how I got involved in freestyle, and then I stayed with it. I guess I've been doing freestyle since 2000, so 20 years, and I can't imagine not doing it at this point.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Michele, do you want to give us your background?
Michele Pouliot: Sure. The current dogs in my household are Déjà Vu, English Springer Spaniel, who's coming up on 12 years of age. She just retired from competition this past year, but she's still playing around with it because she just can't keep away from it. She loves it. And she's doing really well as an elderly girl.
My current competitive boy is Saki, an Australian Shepherd. He's coming up on 8 in July. It's like the pandemic pointed out that he's losing his prime year in live competition because of the pandemic. He's doing really well. He's already got two Grand Championships and he's now working on more of that.
And then I have a young dog, which I keep calling my puppy. She's a pandemic puppy and she's actually going to be 2 years old real soon, so she's not really a puppy, but she has certainly not gotten the typical socialization that my sport dogs would have had in the past. We're putting together her first routine right now, which will be on video competition.
So how did I get into freestyle. I did competitive obedience for about 20 years, and in the 1990s I took a break from dog sports and got involved with my horses and horse sports again. I just tired of the same thing over and over again.
And then on the Internet, it was probably around 2003 or something like that, I saw a couple videos on the Internet, and these were demos; these weren't competition things. In fact, one was Carolyn Scott and Rookie, that video, which went viral and famous, and I just thought, "God, that is really cool." The other one was very dancey and I thought it was really cool, but in the back of my head I said to myself, "I'm not a dancer. I can't do that, but it's really cool."
About a year later I saw Atilla's famous Charlie Chaplin routine to "Hooray for Hollywood." I watched that video probably four times in a row when I saw it. I was really into clicker training at the time. I had just learned about clicker training and I was getting to be kind of good at training tricks with it, and I said to myself, "I can do that." I was so excited after seeing that routine, which I've known for a skit style in my freestyle.
So that was my beginning. Comically, I live in basically the same area as Julie, no one to teach me anything, and I was really hungry. I went to a workshop that Julie gave in the Portland area, and I remember afterwards going up and asking her, "Could you come and give me lessons or something?" She was like, "I just don't come up here very often." So actually it was quite a long time until I saw Julie again. It was when I discovered their club and went down to her area of Corvallis and watched a competition. And then I started entering.
So that was my beginning, coming from a lot of dog training in other sports and other types of work, and then just discovering this really cool sport.
Melissa Breau: What about you, Dante?
Dante Camacho: I currently have five dogs. My older dog is 14. She just turned 14 yesterday. She is a Yorkshire Terrier. I have a Golden Retriever and she is about to turn 11. We have a mixed breed that is 10. I have a Border Collie that turned 9 in March. And our new addition is a Parson Russell Terrier and he's just past 4 months old.
Melissa Breau: A baby puppy.
Dante Camacho: It's an actual puppy. I don't know how long I'm going to keep calling him, like Michele, maybe ...
As far as competition, only my Border Collie is the one that has been trained and competed and done stuff. We have done a lot of agility competitions, and then some other performances and shows for general entertainment, like with tricks and races and stuff like that.
My main freestyle dog unfortunately passed last year. He was 16 already. His mom was a dog that I started doing freestyle with, and that was around 2002, 2003. The way that I got into this initially was because she was a puppy that had some health issues, some injuries, and she had to do a lot of physiotherapy and I had to teach her a bunch of stuff. She had one leg that didn't work properly, so she had to learn to walk again, use that leg. And then I started teaching her to move in different ways, and walk sideways, and walk backwards, and I thought, "This is starting to look like tricks," even trying to jump on things or stand and do stuff.
I think my first exposure was through Carolyn Scott and her video with Rookie. That totally blew my mind. I was new to dog training, actually, and that still blows my mind every time I watch it, because the most famous video … I just checked it on YouTube. It's more than 8 million views because … a good part of that, I'm sure, is from me. It's from me watching that video over and over again.
But that was the goal. To me, that was freestyle, so everything that she was doing there is what I was trying to accomplish, like teach all those tricks, because that was all I knew as far as freestyle. Eventually I started looking into this, and I found out about Mary Ray and what she was doing,
I found out about Attila, and then I also got the VHS videotapes, what they were teaching, and that's how it started.
Since here in Brazil there is no competitions, freestyle is not really an official sport. There's no clubs or anything like that. Anyone that does it has to do it on their own. There's even workshops; I can teach workshops, and there's other people that will teach, but we have to do it on our own, and basically do it for fun and maybe for any other entertainment for other people. So that's how it started. It took a big chunk of my dog training life until now.
Melissa Breau: I'm super-impressed that you all got turned on to the sport by the same person. I'll have to go track down that YouTube video that you mentioned, Dante, and share it when I share the podcast in the alumni group, so folks can see what it is that you guys saw.
I think a lot of the times people overlook musical freestyle, so I'd love to, as we start our conversation, just hear a little bit about what drew you to the sport. What is it that appealed to you so much about it? Michele, do you want to start this one?
Michele Pouliot: Sure. What appealed to me at first, when I saw these videos that were so impressive, it appealed to me about the fun, what looked like dog handler having fun versus the robotic faces of doing obedience. Or even in agility, you're watching the same runs, so if you're in the audience, sitting watching, you're watching how many dogs in a given class do the exact same run.
What was great about this was the idea that every single person that goes in the ring is doing their own thing. You could even have the same music, which actually happened to me once at one of my first shows at Julie's club. I don't know if you remember this or not, but I was appalled that the gal going in the ring before me was using my music. I thought that the music person made a mistake. I was like, "Oh, that's my music," and I had to go right after her.
But what I learned from that was it's totally different routines, totally different. It wasn't like it was a problem. It doesn't happen that commonly at a show or an event. But the thing is, it's yours.
It really stimulated my creativity and thinking out of the box to come up with new moves or new tricks or however you want to call them. And the fact that me and my dog have created this performance, it's like we created art. It's ours. It'll always be there.
To this day, when I lose dogs, and I obviously through the years have lost a few freestyle dogs, I can still pull up their routines, watch those routines again, and it is so emotional to me. I have tons of video from past competitive obedience, national obedience championships, so do I ever pull those up, look at those? No, but I will look at my freestyle routines. So it's almost like you're creating a memory that has a lot more feeling to it.
I love entertaining. A lot of people in dog sports are focused on the ribbons and winning, and let me tell you, it's great. I love ribbons and I love winning and I like getting titles. My favorite thing about freestyle is entertaining the audience. That's why I like live events. When I come out of the ring and someone says, "Oh, you made me cry," that makes my day that I made somebody cry, or I made somebody laugh, or I made somebody smile. That's what drew me to the sport is how unique it is as a sport, because you're doing your own thing.
Melissa Breau: What about you, Dante?
Dante Camacho: It's very similar, actually. I think the first thing was the idea of fun. And for that, that first video with Caroline is very responsible because it really looks like they're having a lot of fun. The dog looks very happy — not just excited, but happy.
The music, for sure. I think that if I had watched freestyle for the first time and it was a song that I didn't really connect or I didn't really like, it would probably have had a different impact on me. But that one made me want to dance with them, and that was probably what made all the difference. And then there is the whole aspect of music, because I really like music. I'm not a musician, but I feel like I'm very musical. And I really like the dancing aspect as well. So it kind of connects everything.
Plus the dog-training side. And of course the fact that it's totally open, that you can do whatever you want. That also makes it so much more comfortable because you work with not only what you like, but also what your dog enjoys most doing. That is so much more fun than trying to convince, "There's this one thing we have to do in this other sport, and I know it's not your favorite, but we still have …" You can just skip that and do exclusively the things you want and like.
Melissa Breau: I like that. How about you, Julie?
Julie Flanery: Very, very similar. Both Dante and Michele mentioned fun, and it is a lot of fun. The word that came to me originally was "joy." When I think about music and dance, I love to dance, and when I dance, I feel joyful. It brings me joy to dance and listen to music.
One of the very first freestyle routines that I saw, which was also another Carolyn Scott routine, was a pairs routine that Carolyn Scott and Deb Quigley did together to the music "Simply Irresistible." They both have Goldens, and Rookie, Carolyn Scott's dog, is a Golden, and they move very similarly. I just remember watching them and feeling such joy, watching them and seeing how they interacted with their dogs and with each other. The whole routine was just so joyful.
I think oftentimes … I enjoy dancing. I don't think of myself as a dancer. I think I'm a better dancer in my head than on the dance floor. So it's odd for me to watch my own freestyle routines because I'm always thinking, "Wow, I really thought I looked much better than that."
I remember one of the first times that I choreographed a freestyle routine and how disappointed I was that I could not sing along with the music while I'm doing my routine. I thought, "Oh yeah, this will be great. You can sing along, and you can dance and everything." But you can't. You're way too busy thinking about what move comes next, and cueing in a timely manner, and what is your part, and where are we in the music, where are we on the floor? You don't have time to sing along with the music. I remember thinking, "I don't know if I can do this if I can't sing along."
But I think it was that feeling of joy, both watching it and then also doing it.
Even in the training of it, I know that a lot of us — I think Michele does this also, and Dante maybe you do too — train with music playing in the background all the time. It just creates a sense of fun and joy and relaxation that you don't get with some of the other dogs sports. Certainly I didn't get that with obedience, and I dabbled in agility and I didn't get it there either. So I think it's that sense of joy that I felt from the get-go. And then that fantasy of maybe one day I can look like those other freestylers out there.
Melissa Breau: I love it. You all shared your backgrounds, and I think it's really interesting you all got into the sport about the same time, so you've all been in the sport for a while now. How has it impacted your training, and you as a trainer, with all of the things that you do, because most of you train things in addition to freestyle. Dante, do you want to start this one?
Dante Camacho: I would say it had a huge impact. I thought dog training was this thing that was strict, was in the box, we knew what to do, it was all there. You just had to do these things and you were doing dog training.
Because freestyle doesn't have those limitations, there's also different ways of perceiving the challenges that it brings. So when I do freestyle, I always think about how I'm going to do it as far as where — if I'm just going to do this at home with my dog, or am I going to present this to ten people at a birthday party, or to 12,000 people a concert.
Each situation brings a different challenge, and it's a training challenge. It's not just about teaching the dog the moves or the tricks. It made me have to realize that the performing part has such a huge importance in the training, because everything I do as a performer has to be trained. It would be nice if it was just dancing, but every single move or different breath you give, the dog sees it. It sees it. Maybe it's a move, maybe you're saying something, so everything has to be thought, it still has to be fun, it still has to look like dancing.
So these little things made me perceive dog training in a much more detailed way, and everything else that I do, all the other sports, in a way became a little bit more clear, a little bit easier, because I had these other challenges and that helped me improve, I would say.
Julie Flanery: A couple of different ways in which it's changed me and my training. Up until freestyle, training was … for me, anyway, training was what you did to the dog. You trained the dog. You were the controlling aspect of the training scenario. Freestyle, for me, brought the dog into a much bigger piece of it, more of a cooperative role in a freestyle routine than there would be in obedience patterns or even agility.
The training specifically, because there are so many options in what to train, and because, as Dante said, there are no limitations in what to train, you choose what you're going to train your dog to do. That means that the dog and their preferences and their strengths and their weaknesses become a much bigger part of your training.
You have to really take those into account for freestyle, because I believe what we are doing in freestyle routines is extremely difficult for both the dog and the handler, and if we don't take our dog's strengths and preferences into account as we're developing these routines, you aren't going to see that joy. You aren't going to see what it is that we all want to present to an audience and what we first saw in freestyle. So that was a big shift for me.
I came into training right around the time when the people that I was learning from were crossing over from traditional training into more positive reinforcement training. So when I first learned, I learned traditional styles of training, and as I went into freestyle is when I started to learn about clicker training and learn about more positive reinforcement training, and taking the dog's emotional state into consideration as part of our training. So that was a huge shift in me, and that all happened around the same time with freestyle and learning about clicker training and all of that.
The other thing that was a huge shift for me was again the fact that there are no limitations. I really had a very narrow view when I first started learning about training. Tricks were like the most creative thing, and that was actually one of the reasons I think I became more involved in training and a professional trainer was I was so enamored with some of the trick behaviors that you could do. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I didn't know a dog could do something like that."
And so for me, at that point, it was almost like I never would have thought to even train that. I never even thought I would know how to train something like that. I wouldn't have even imagined a dog could do something like that. That opened up just a huge world of training to me, and that world included not only the dog and what they're capable of, but all of the different methods.
My learning journey really started when I became involved with freestyle, because there are no limitations. And so with that came greater responsibility to learn about methods that are going to be dog-friendly, methods that are going to be effective and efficient and kind and get the results that we are striving for in a freestyle routine. So that was a huge shift for me in my training perspective, how I perceive training, what I thought training was, and how I practice and apply it.
Melissa Breau: Michele, how does it impact your training?
Michele Pouliot: I would agree with everything that Dante and Julie said, very similar. And the fact that the longer I did freestyle, within a few years of doing freestyle, I started realizing that I need to pay more attention to the opinion of my dog when I choreograph. In other words, I routinely now, when I choreograph a sequence, I run it by my dog before I say, "Yeah, this is going to work." Now I know that sounds funny, but it basically means I'm just walking through a sequence with food and I'm just seeing how they like the sequence.
I just did that this morning with Saki. We've got a new championship level routine we're putting together and we have this sequence. I'm trying to figure out what the final version is. I just ran through a couple options and he picked the one that he wanted. And when you know you're going to perform a routine many times, believe me, you want to pick the best option for that individual dog, because you know that you're not going to see that behavior or that chain break down after two or three performances because the dog's knowing it's coming and he's not all that crazy about that sequence, etc. So it impacted me as a trainer to be more of a 50/50 proposition between me and the dog. I still have the responsibility to come up with the ideas and to train the behaviors, but the dog can really give me information about how they feel about the pieces we're doing.
I think it made me, in my other types of training, which I trained guide dogs and taught other people how to train guide dogs for 42 years until I just retired recently, and believe me, that's a really serious type of training. You're training dogs to save people's lives. They're really taking care of people. But it rolled over into that training because it's actually the same thing. It's making sure that the way you train behaviors — even if they're behaviors you have to train, that they're required — you find a way to train them that makes the dog feel as happy and as joyful and they love that behavior. You figure out a way to make your training, make each behavior, as good as it can be.
So I'm better at that now than I was ten years ago, better than five years ago. I'm always looking at my partner and what they're telling me about the training, and I'm shifting quicker until it has to be some stupid thing that I finally go, "I don't think he likes this." So I'm better now at noticing things immediately when things are just "Okay, let me look at … there's something there. I need to pull that behavior out and make it a much more fun behavior before I try to put it with the other behavior as an example."
Julie Daniels: Sometimes it's really obvious and sometimes it's really subtle. There are times that I'll go through and I'll think, "She's just not used to combining the sequence," or "She's not fluent at this behavior, and that's why she's stalling out or she's not responding to the cue as quickly as I would like." And sometimes it's really obvious. It's like, "No, I'm sorry, I'm not doing that." Dead stop, not moving.
Just recently, matter of fact, I had to change a sequence because … and I went through all of the … I think, as trainers, we tend to go through, "Is there not a high enough reward history, a strong enough reward history, is she not feeling well today, is my transition into that move not effective." And so sometimes you try to tweak all these other little things first because you really, really want to include that move in that routine, and then finally they're just like, "No, we need to change this," and you do.
It's really amazing to me. This happens every time because, like Michele, I want to make sure that the routine is easy for the dogs to perform. It's a very hard sport and we want this to be easy, and we want them to enjoy performing these sequences and these behaviors. But at the same time, when you have a vision in your head of your choreography and you really want it to work this way, sometimes we're pretty thick in the head and try all of these other things first: "I'll raise the value of the reward, I'll add in this other behavior beforehand, I'll slow down the speed of the music." We'll do all these things first just to try and get that silly behavior in there.
And then you change it and it's like, "That is such a better choice for that sequence." Oftentimes the dog is the one that has a much better idea than we ever could. But I have to keep reminding myself, "Sometimes the dog is right. Usually the dog is right. Let's just go with that this time."
Melissa Breau: I think the basic concept of musical freestyle is simple enough: the idea of dancing with your dog. Once people can picture what that looks like, they've probably seen some of the videos that have surfaced on Facebook over the years. But I want to go a little bit deeper than that. So I'd love if you could each share what the hardest part of putting together a successful routine and preparing your dog to perform in the sport is for you. Dante, do you mind starting this one?
Dante Camacho: There's different elements, and I think for some dogs certain things are more difficult than for others, so I will go with the dog's strengths. Some dogs will have more difficulty with generalizing stuff, or some dogs, depending on the kind of move that you're trying to … or how active the move is, or how slow and thoughtful it has to be, it's harder or easier for the dog. So I think adapting to that is one part.
But then comes what I believe is hard for anyone doing freestyle is understanding how to maintain that quality of behavior, of performance, of emotional response from the dog throughout the whole routine. What I will do, one of the things, is try to understand how I can combine the order of things to try to get that flow where the dog is constantly feeling reinforced throughout the whole thing. I think that's probably the second part. Once I understand the strength of the dog, it would be being able to, no matter how long that routine is going to be, to be able to get that flow of behavior and an attitude of the dog to be constant throughout the whole thing.
Julie Flanery: I totally agree with what Dante said. I think freestyle, as fun and exciting as it can be for both the dog and the handler, it is a very difficult sport, and so maintaining that quality as you have reduced tangible rewards can be difficult. I think, in addition to that, something that I struggle with is taking the vision that's in my head and creating it in a way that that's what the audience sees.
What is in my head doesn't always translate into what's on the floor and what we actually put out there. For me, as much as I strive for that, I always feel like I left something out, like I wanted to portray something and I didn't quite get there yet. And so for me, a lot of my routines, I'm always striving to let the audience in on a little secret, on that little bit of magic that I feel when I'm doing freestyle. I think that's really, really difficult to take our vision and have it come to fruition for an audience.
But in terms of the training and putting it together, absolutely I think maintaining the dog's attitude and animation and joy as he works through these behaviors and sequences for sometimes up to three and four minutes — 50, 60, 70, 80, 100 behaviors in a routine can be really, really difficult. I find that to be challenging, and I find making sure that the vision that's in my head is what I'm actually putting out for an audience is what's actually happening.
Melissa Breau: Michele?
Michele Pouliot: I'm going to say ditto to what was already said. I'll just add that I think the hardest part … but I don't want the word "hardest" to mean that I don't enjoy this part, because I'm doing this currently. When I'm putting together a routine, I find it difficult and challenging to make those decisions on what is going to go where, and what's important to keep, to keep that feeling I want to show the audience.
Like what Julie's talking about, it's like you have a vision, so before I start putting any of these behaviors together, I already have a vision of what I want to do. It's not real specific, though. But it's a feeling, it's an emotion that I want to portray to the audience. And so the hard part to me is as I'm putting the pieces together, am I actually giving that vision, or am I becoming too hung up on what behaviors I'm sticking in. The important piece is what the audience is going to feel, what are they going to see and what are they going to feel. That's the challenge to me.
I think that things change a little when you're in the lower levels of freestyle. I don't want anyone hearing us talk to get scared away from the sport, because at the lower level … for instance, my puppy — my puppy, 2-year-old puppy, but anyway — my puppy's first routine is coming together right now, too, and I find it comically easy because the time is so short. She's only going to be working for a minute and a half. Now for her, that'll be a long time without reinforcement. But the fact is I'm having trouble just going, "Oh, darn it, I wanted to put that behavior in, and I don't have time to put it in." So I'm just much more relaxed about her routine because all I want to portray is just a little cuteness, and I don't have to worry about technical difficulty and all that we want people to notice, and if it's competition, you're wanting to get points for the difficulty and how many things you did.
I don't even think about that at the lower levels. I just put together things they do well and they had fun. But what's true is it gets harder as you get at the higher divisions. Or if you're going to give a performance like Dante has, in front of a huge audience for entertainment only, there's a lot of pressure there to entertain, so you have to put together movements that are going to have a "wow" factor to them where people are impressed. Otherwise it looks like you're just heeling your dog around a lot, and every once in a while he spins and he goes through your legs. And if you do that for four or five minutes, that gets really old to watch. So it gets harder the higher you move up in the division.
So I want people listening to not be afraid of the sport. Here we are talking about, "God, that's really hard." It's hard at the higher levels. When you're putting together a three- or four-minute routine, it does become a lot harder of a sport. It still is so gratifying. At the end, when you come up with this thing that is yours and your dog's, and you go in there and you have your audience react with comments like, "Wow, you just made me laugh so hard when you did that. That was so cute," it makes the whole thing worth all that effort, because that, to me, is what the sport did for me when I first saw it. It made me laugh, made me smile, made me feel fun. That's what I'm trying to do. So it does become harder the more advanced level that you're in.
Julie Flanery: I think that's true with any sport that you're serious about or serious competing in. For serious top-level competitors, it gets harder the higher up in the levels you go. However, I think that's tempered with all of the preparation that you do at the lower levels.
So yes, if somebody came in now and wanted to do a routine with their dog that Michele or Dante or I might put out with our dogs, you're going to have a really hard time doing that routine because you don't have the foundation underneath it that we all started with with our dogs at the lower level. And again, even though you have that foundation, the higher up you go, it adds difficulty to the task for the handler or for the dog.
But as Michele said, I find I have had the most satisfaction and gratification and joy from some of the routines that I have put together at the higher levels and they actually come together. They all come together and they just feel right. And so that difficulty, the challenge that we have putting it all together and practicing it and training it and making it just so — there's a reason we stick with it, and that reason is that feeling you get when it all comes together, and that's what makes it worthwhile. Like Michele said, it's challenging and it's hard, but what isn't that is at that level?
So I think new people coming in, there's a lot of support and a lot of foundation they can work on, and they can build their strengths to get to these higher levels, if they do it thoughtfully and methodically. But if you just go out and try and put together some of these higher level routines, which by the way I do see some beginners try to do, and I think they forget that it's not necessary to do that. They don't need to put out performances that champion freestylers put out. They need to put out level-appropriate work for them and their dogs. If you do that and you work up through the levels, then it's just the next step.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there … I was going to ask about the typical length of a routine. Michele mentioned ninety seconds, I think, for the earlier levels, and Julie mentioned working for three to four minutes. How do you work up to that without reinforcement? How do you approach training that with your dog?
Julie Flanery: Very slowly. In freestyle, depending on what organization you're competing under, you could be in the ring for as little as a minute to over four minutes. I think the way I look at this is early on in training, when I'm training my dog, foundation skills — not even freestyle behaviors, just foundation skills — I want my dogs to start to understand the concept of duration, that there are going to be times when you are going to work a little longer before you get reinforced.
That starts very early. That starts with when you're teaching a sit. It's not you sit and then you get rewarded right away. You might the first few, but fairly early in training I want to instill in my dogs the concept of duration. Yes, you sat, that's beautiful. Now you're going to sit for just a few seconds and then you get rewarded, and then you're going to sit for a little longer. This concept of waiting for release or a next cue or a reward. I think that concept of duration is huge in helping dogs learn about working longer for less reinforcement. If they have an early understanding of that, I think it's easier to build on.
As positive reinforcement trainers, we are great at rewarding. We love to reward our dogs, and we reward our dogs a lot, and we reward on a one-to-one ratio for a very long time. I think for many of us it's hard to step out of that one-to-one ratio. We want to reward, we want to reward frequently, we want to get that strong history of reward embedded, we want to fill that bank account. But I think if we don't think about early on how are we going to teach our dogs to work in the performance arena for that long for that many behaviors, if you don't think about that early on, that gets very, very difficult, and that's when we start to see flat dogs in the ring after the third or fourth behavior, because they've never been taught how to do that.
So that first step for me is teaching the concept of duration with simple behaviors. Other tools within teaching the concept of duration is ping-ponging, going easy, hard, easy, hard, but always building up in that duration. Interval training, where you're gradually increasing the time, making sure that if you are asking for more work that you are giving more pay.
I think oftentimes handlers have a tendency to give the exact amount and quality and duration of reinforcement for seven behaviors in a row as they did for one behavior. I think we need to up the ante for our dogs. When they are working longer, harder, more behaviors in a row, then we need to make sure that we are paying equal or greater value in reinforcement.
I know a lot of us freestylers use back-chaining to effectively turn a sequence of behaviors into a single behavior that is then reinforced at the end. While we don't back-chain whole behaviors, we can certainly back-chain sections of behaviors, maybe some of the more difficult sequences of behaviors, so that once the dog starts that sequence, they can anticipate where it's going and that there is going to be reinforcement at the end of that sequence. And if there's not reinforcement, then there is the start of a new sequence that signifies reinforcement at the end.
So those are some of the tools that I use. But personally I think most important early on in training is that as positive reinforcement trainers we understand that reinforcement is important. Reinforcement drives behaviors. That's what's going to build strength in these behaviors. That's what's going to create positive association in our dogs in these behaviors.
But I think sometimes we are "uh-oh" about teaching the dog the concept of duration early on, and there's an expectation in our dogs to be reinforced very frequently. And then we don't prepare them for what will inevitably happen when you step into the ring and you are asking for more behaviors in a very difficult setting and you're removing all your reinforcement. That's just not fair to the dog. I don't think that's fair to the dog. And I don't think we start early enough in the training process teaching them about that concept.
Michele Pouliot: The problem with what Julie was just talking about is that when people haven't prepared their dogs for cues and working longer durations, when they get to an event, or even if you're just doing a video, there are all sorts of environmental cues happening that are a little different than your normal training, and all of a sudden they're not getting reinforced the way they are expecting they should.
You are actually poisoning that environment. You're telling the dog that when I go in these two ring gates, there's no food. So you're actually hurting the dog for future performance because you have created a very clear cue that things are going to be different than they usually are. So early on, as soon as I have behavior happening on a dog, I'm going to cue it several times in a row and then give extra reinforcement for that. That's a subtle way of introducing a bit of duration work.
The other thing I do, and I'm doing this with my new puppy, is I'm using back-chaining to introduce the concept of duration, because it gives them focus on going somewhere. I do a lot of back-chaining, which a lot of people listening to this are going to go, "Oh God, here she goes on back-chaining." But I also use it just as an exercise for a young dog because I think it's a great way to introduce duration, because when I'm introducing the concept of taking the next cue to get to that other behavior — and now we're going to add another one, take the cue, take the cue, take the cue, there's that behavior again — and that the payoff becomes bigger as we add behaviors.
If I take a young dog and I do a four-, five-behavior back-chain exercise, by the time I have ten minutes of training done, I have a dog that wants to get to the end, and they've learned two things along the way. They've learned "I can take cue after cue after cue with joy because I can't wait to get to that behavior." They've also learned that if they try to skip a behavior to get to the final behavior, it doesn't work. We have to start over again. So they learn that they have to listen to me when things get exciting and they can't wait to get to that behavior, the one that's getting rewarded. So it's a great exercise not putting together a sequence for a routine, just as an exercise for duration of taking a cue, taking a cue, taking a cue.
I prefer introducing that to a young dog that way before I start clocking myself and saying, "Today I'm going to work Keiko for thirty seconds solid, and then we're going to have a big party." Before I do that, I want her already used to the concept of taking the cue, taking the cue, excited about the next cue. So the cues start becoming something exciting to hear because it means they're getting someplace.
I think it's one of the hardest parts of any performance sport is teaching the dog the desire to get to the end and enjoy the journey. So whether it's a one-minute performance or a four-minute performance, you have a dog that once you enter the ring, they are jazzed the whole time because they know where they're going and they're excited that they're going to get a jackpot somewhere at the end.
But I also think maintenance — and Dante mentioned this earlier — is really challenging, because when a dog knows something, people have a tendency to get greedy and they don't think they need to apply reinforcement. If you want that dog to stay joyful, excited, when you're doing the same thing again and again, it's really important to have a process of noticing the areas that you need to add more reinforcement during training, and yet not create a pattern to where the dog will have this hesitation at that point in the performance, if that makes sense.
If I pick, "He really has a hard time doing the rollover," I'm going to reward him every time he rolls over. But you're going to get to the performance and you have created a little hiccup there. So rollover, there's a hiccup going, "Where's my reward?" So we have to do it variably while we maintain their belief system that it could happen at any time. Cheese could fall out of the sky.
But we can't create the expectation that it should fall out of the sky. That's what happens to people who don't prepare the dog for duration performance. They go in the ring and it's really sad to watch, but when you see someone new in the sport, or even in other sports, you can tell they're new and the dog is real enthusiastic at the start. As they go through their routine, whether it's obedience or freestyle or whatever, you see the dog looking a bit baffled.
Sometimes they get through the whole thing and the dog does okay. Guess what happens Day 2 of an event? The dog goes in there and goes flat, usually ends up staring at the handler like, "I don't get it," or they try to leave the ring. All of a sudden everyone is, "He had the stress of the ring." Well, the ring didn't seem to stress him yesterday. It seems to be the fact that you've created an expectation in cues, meaning that "I took a cue, gosh darn, I should be getting my cookie really quickly."
The preparation is what is lacking in a lot of teams that are having trouble in those competition sports. As long a your dog is comfortable in the environment, they'll play with you in the environment, you can go right in that environment and play tug-o-war or whatever you normally do, then non-performance doesn't have to do with that environment. It has to do with the lack of preparation to work for an extended period of time.
That said, I don't compete every weekend. If I was going to campaign a freestyle dog, and every weekend I was going to an event, I'd probably have a hard time at an upper level. That's hard stuff. So I have to admit that in-between events, which is several months, I'm working on that whole maintenance thing to keep everything up. People who campaign their dogs, like competitive obedience, every weekend they're in an obedience trial, I have to give them … my hat's off to you, because all week long you're trying to get the maintenance work in, so that at that next weekend you've got a joyful dog when they perform.
Dante Camacho: I would agree with what Julie and Michele said. I believe what Michele was saying. I do think that dogs feel like they've been lied to, because you've been telling them one story all along and then suddenly it changes. Obviously it changes when all of this around changes, so it must be this environment or the way you're breathing or dressed up or whatever it is, or what people are saying. So yes, that has to be thought way before you think of competing.
I do think that starting, just like Julie said, creating duration, I think is also a little bit of resilience in a way. What I try to do is, as I start with a dog, with the very basic luring puppy thing, like you lure it to sit or to down or to spin or anything like that, as a trainer that wants to see perfection, I would reward every single move, every single thing the dog does.
But if I think that I want this dog to understand that concept very early, I would not worry so much about how it's doing things. I would prefer to get that dog, once it's been rewarded to sit, to down, to spin, to understand that it will have to maybe do it two times, or two different moves, and then it gets that reward and very early in the training, so that you're never really lying. The rules have been the same all along. It's not always, but it's always fun. You're not always getting food for everything you do, but it's always fun and there's always a chance that things are coming and will come eventually.
If you think about a routine, and I'm thinking of preparing a routine, what I try to do … and I've been influenced by other sports thinking about it, because since I've done a lot of agility, I always thought about the chain of agility and how dogs get excited about doing that, and they're not expecting anything in the middle. Or even when they end, a lot of them are thinking, "Let's do this again because this was so much fun."
So I will have some basic behaviors, and when I say "basic," it's not that they're necessarily easy, but they're important for me, and they're very likely to be used in many types of routines. I will make them and I will teach them in a way that it's so strong and it's so reinforcing that they are part of a chain of reinforcement, and that is very important.
That's the good thing about freestyle: if the behavior is not there yet, I don't have to use it, so I skip it. I just keep using the ones that I know my dog is going to feel reinforced. In the beginning I didn't see it like that, but I soon realized that I needed those behaviors in there to get that dog to continue to feel that each of those opportunities, each of those moves was an opportunity. Then I would use the ones that I knew I had that were very reinforcing for the dog.
Today I think each one of these moves that I intend to teach the dog, I work really hard to make so that the dog, if it was an obstacle, they would see it and say, "I want to do this, let's do this," just because it's got such a huge history.
When I start putting things together, I do use a lot of back-chaining, too, just the same way Michele was saying, not as thinking of the routine itself, but in the training. Each training is a different chain. It's just a behavior that tells the dog, "This is what is going to be reinforced at this point, right after this move." And then each day I will do … it could be a different move that will be the reinforcing one, and then I add stuff before, and the dog learns to understand that we keep going. It's just like learning in general, the science of learning. The next behavior becomes a cue to the next one and it's reinforcing in itself and all of that. So that's basically that.
Melissa Breau: Just a follow-up question. You were talking about having behaviors that the dog finds reinforcing. Are those different? Because you were talking earlier about how different dogs enjoy different things and you have to learn your dog's strengths and weaknesses. Are the behaviors that are going to be those core behaviors different from dog to dog?
Dante Camacho: Yeah. Of course that also has to do with us, because the better you get at teaching something, the better you get at making the dog love it. So it's likely that a lot of them will be similar, but there will be things that that dog in particular, because of the way it moves, will prefer to do, and then we'll work more with that.
Michele Pouliot: I would like to add just one more thing on this topic about preparing the dog for performing, which we didn't mention. If we train a majority of the time looking very unlike the way we're going to look in performance, that's a problem.
The first thing I'm going to bring up is holding reinforcement. If I've got a tug toy around my neck, or I'm holding food in my hand, or I've got my bait bag right in front like a kangaroo pouch, like saying, "It's here and it's available," if I train too long like that, and I think the dog is going into the ring and I don't look like that now and he's going to perform the same way, it's not going to happen.
Unfortunately, our human instinct is we feel secure holding on to that food and holding on to that tug toy and the ball or whatever we're doing. One of the first things that I am so observant when I'm training something with a lure — and I do a lot of lure training to start behaviors — in the first or second session I've got my light bulb going on: Get rid of the food in your hand and just use a gesture. Stop making your gesture look like a claw. Make your hand look like choreography.
So my brain goes very quickly to as a behavior progresses, I already am progressing to how am I going to physically appear in performance. It could be that I want to give no information. That just means when I'm training, I now want my hands passive, I want to be upright, I don't want to be bent over, I don't want to give information, so that I know that I'm actually teaching them a goal cue. Let's say it's a verbal cue. It could have a signal to it, too. But I want to have a signal that could be used in competition, if that makes sense.
A spin can be … there's plenty of information. Dogs love visual information, but if I keep doing this of turning around in a circle with my hand to get a spin for very long, that's going to be hard to get rid of. And even though that would be allowed at the lower levels, I don't want to take my young dog in the ring having that much work on them and know that I can stir the pot to get a spin.
It's just something I always want to point out to people that are having trouble is that what are you doing with your reinforcement? What do you look like? If you're always thinking, "I should start looking the way I'm going to look in performance," or at least give no information, reinforcement and the way it's held or carried on your body, or even located right next to where you're training — if you have a bucket of treats three feet away, they're not going to be there in the competition. So just thinking about that is an important piece of getting a dog ready for performance.
Melissa Breau: What about the opposite end? We've been talking about in the ring, when you're ready to compete or ready to perform a routine. What about when you're just starting a new routine? How do you approach that? How do you start to think about the music, the choreography, the variety of tricks? How do you make some of those decisions? You, personally. Michele, I know you're working on this right now, so why don't you start us off.
Michele Pouliot: I would say that most of the time, 99 percent of the time, my vision begins with music. It's a piece of music that either draws me due to the emotional impact that may be dramatic or fun or just the kind of song that when people hear it, they smile.
I pretty commonly use music that is recognized by the audience. The reason I do that is not only my own enjoyment of that particular music; it's also the fact that I know the audience, when they recognize it, it's like people wanting to sing along to a song that they know. I think they can enjoy the performance when they know the music. That said, I've picked music that people had never heard before. Usually when I do that, it's some dramatic piece that I think is beautiful and nobody could not listen to it and go, "Whoa, that's really cool music."
I have done a few routines where I started with the concept and I had a vision of what I wanted this performance to be. As I'm thinking about the vision, I go, "I can't even imagine what the background music to this is going to be," and I've had to actually work pretty hard at searching for the right music to be in the background.
I'll give you an example. Saki did his championship routine to a skit where I played a blind woman and he was a dog, and during the routine we come together and he becomes my guide dog. It was an emotional piece for me. I had just retired from Guide Dogs for the Blind, and I thought, "I'm really good with a mobility cane, I can look rather blind, I know blind movements," and I thought, "I really want this to be an emotional routine, but I don't want to make people cry." I wanted it to be a feel-good routine, and I did not pick the music for a while.
I was figuring out some of the sequences and some really cool behaviors I was already training for it. I was training Saki how to put the harness on his butt. I'd get it on the wrong end of his body and he'd walk me backward. That was the comical little piece of the routine that got it lighthearted.
It took me a while to come to something that was a nice feel-good song, but it had that bit of emotional to it. I ended up picking by IZ, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
When people saw the routine, they thought I picked the music first because it's like a story — this blind girl, somewhere over the rainbow she finds this guide dog. I didn't. I actually went through a lot of versions of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" to decide which one to use, because some of them were really too dramatic for what I wanted.
That said, you can do it either way. My tendency, though, is to go with music first. The reason is I listen to music all the time, and when I have a piece of music that evokes emotion in me, I start visualizing right away about how that could be a routine — "Ooh, I could do a routine to this." That's usually how I start. And then I just play with the music, meaning I'm playing the music, just training my dog, and that music is playing over and over, and I'm listening to it and getting an idea what we can do to the music. That's usually how I get my start.
Melissa Breau: Dante, what about you?
Dante Camacho: It's the same, actually. It's the music. To me, it's always the music first. I've tried the other way, but it never works. I always start, I get all these ideas in my head about things I'm going to get the dog to do, but it just dies down because there is no emotion attached to it yet, so it doesn't really go very far.
But with the music, it's the same. I hear a song, and if in any way a song touches me emotionally, it makes me happy or emotional or whatever it is, I tend to then visualize doing stuff with the dog. The second part, because that doesn't always work, because depending on the dog that I have, that song, it doesn't matter how much I love it, is not going to work with that one dog. Because of the way it moves and the things that I know we can do together, it's not going to work. So it has to also fit the dog. So it usually starts with the song.
I did work a lot, many years, where I didn't get to pick songs. I had to perform to songs that were picked by a producer, based on the theme of the year. Luckily, I guess if that song is played over and over and over, and you think so much about what you're going to do in it, you learn to enjoy it — at least I did. I ended up liking the song and knowing to anticipate moments, and then putting together a routine that way. But if I have to start on my own, then I always choose the song first.
Melissa Breau: I think that's really interesting. You had somebody else picking the music for you when you did some of the performances?
Dante Camacho: Yes. We had annual themes, so one year was a country theme, and then a hip-hop theme, and even throughout the year sometimes we would change the song throughout the year, so two or three different songs. But they are songs that are so stuck in my head that every time I'm listening to them everytime is like oh.
Anyway, I had to perform, and I learned as well to sometimes perform exactly the same thing, but just following a different flow, putting things in, waiting a little longer. The good thing about freestyle is you can do that and nobody knows. If it's a little bit more, or you ask for an extra spin, it doesn't really matter. Nobody knows.
That's another part that is important when I was saying about the dog enjoying it. It doesn't really matter if you put one extra move there. The dog is okay. It doesn't make that much difference.
I did enjoy also the fact that I could always change a little bit. I often had to perform two or three times a day, so it was hard to keep the dog doing exactly the same thing. So we would change up a little bit, and that way we kept things always exciting.
I don't know how much the dogs actually learned the music. That's something I always would like to know. Somehow they must learn because you repeat it so many times, so there must be some sort of cue for them as well. I always try to make sure that the only cues that are really relevant are mine, and everything else around will keep changing.
Julie Flanery: Pretty much the same. There's a saying among freestylers that once you start in freestyle, you never listen to music the same way again, because you're always visualizing, "What is the dog doing there? What can I be doing there? What sequences go well here?" It just happens. You hear music … I don't know about you guys, but when I hear music, right away I picture dog behaviors or a freestyle routine. So you don't listen to music the same way once you become involved in freestyle.
So the music is a huge inspiration and often a starting point for me, but I think within that even, as Dante said, the dog's personality, their physicality, how they move is really important too.
For me, when I'm working with my young dogs, like right now, even though you have lots of music to choose from, because she is a young dog, because she is really fun and happy, I'm drawn for her first routines on happy pieces of music. But that has to do with her and her personality and what I get and the vision I have of what I want to portray to an audience about my dog. That narrows my music choices quite a bit, so I would start listening to those types of music for her.
I think, too, for example, for the last several years I've been interested in doing more heelwork-to-music type routines rather than trick-laden routines. So pieces of music that have a change of pace, or have a certain flow or rhythm to them, and certainly a rhythm that suits my and my dog's comfort in our movement as well. I take that into account into my music choices.
Sometimes it might be a prop or a costume. I might see a costume in a thrift store and I think, "Wow, that is really cool. What type of genre could I be looking at in terms of music that I could wear that costume to?" And within that genre, what are the pieces of music that are going to fit my dog's style of movement and musicality and my dog's personality and what I might want to portray.
So I think there are a lot of places that you can find inspiration for your routines. The part that brings it all together, though, and solidifies it is your choice of music. I think as freestylers we spend a lot of time listening to music, making those choices, and it doesn't always stick. We think we've got it, we think we've got the perfect piece, you start working with it, and all of a sudden you're like, "No, that's not it at all." So then you go back to the drawing board on that again.
But I think there are a lot of places that you can find inspiration. One thing that is important, a couple of things, is that you do have to take the dog into account in your choices of music. You can create a routine to a lot of different pieces of music, but I have seen routines — the music is lovely, the costuming is great, the moves are wonderful, the choreography looks good, but it just did not fit that dog and handler team and the way they moved throughout the ring.
Video is your friend. If you find pieces of music that you think you will enjoy, then video. Video yourself and your dog just moving naturally, doing some behaviors you enjoy. What does it look like? I think people are surprised when they think a piece of music is going to work really, really well for them, and then they look at how they and their dog are moving to it, and it's not going to work at all.
The other thing, something Dante said too, is that you have to be willing to listen to this piece of music over and over and over and over and over again, thousands of times — not only when you're training your dog, but freestylers spend a lot of time working on their own part without their dog ever being in the room. And so make sure it's something that you like, that you enjoy. For me, I want it to fit the personality of my dog, the way my dog moves, my comfort level of movement. I think without being inspired by the music … you can be inspired by a lot of things, your costume, your prop, but if you're not also inspired by the music, it will be a little bit more difficult.
Melissa Breau: We've talked about music, we've talked about getting started, and we've talked about the ring. We have not spent a lot of time talking about the actual moves or the tricks or specific bits and pieces, so I want to go there next. Do each of you have a favorite routine or a favorite trick or a favorite dance move that you've done or that you do with your dog? Can you talk us through and describe it for us? Dante?
Dante Camacho: Favorite routine or trick: I think from when I started, and as I mentioned, watching Carolyn's videos, all the first contact that I had, the most obvious … that's one thing we didn't mention in the beginning, but one of the things that was really exciting about watching freestyle was to try to figure out how did they teach that, how did they get the dog to do that and move in that way. When you're by yourself and you keep having all these ideas and trying all these crazy things, and then you eventually realize it was much simpler, there's a right way to teach that.
But definitely my first one was just backing up, turning around and coming back and backing up through your legs. That, to me, was absurd the first time I saw it, because all I knew was basic obedience and maybe some agility. When you see that, and you see a dog walking towards you backwards, it was too much for my head, so of course that was the first thing I wanted to teach. I worked really hard and it was really satisfying to me when we reached that, and even more because my dogs loved that and I don't why, if it's the move or because I was teaching it so much and reinforcing it so much, but that was definitely the one thing that stuck for me, the one trick.
Once I got that, I really enjoyed having the variations of that, so continuation of that, of moving backwards towards and keep going, and doing things especially not looking at me. Those I find quite challenging but very exciting. So that's probably the things that I like the most. Even when I'm playing with my guys here, doing some fitness stuff, I always prefer the fitness stuff where the dog is looking away and he still has to keep position and do all this stuff.
Melissa Breau: I love that. Julie?
Julie Daniels: I don't know if I actually have a favorite trick. There are many tricks that I've seen or moves that I've seen or that I've trained that I really enjoy and that I love. I agree with Dante. One of the first behaviors that I saw in one of our local competitions … when we first started, there wasn't the Internet and all the YouTube videos that you could see, and so when you saw something in your little local competition, it was like, "Oh, wow."
It was very similar to what Dante said. She had a little Sheltie behind her, she was walking forward, the Sheltie was behind her, facing away from her. They were butt-to-butt, bum-to-bum, and the Sheltie was walking backwards toward the handler walking forward. So they're back to back and the dog is walking backwards and the handler is walking forward. Michele, I think you did that with Listo in your TV medley routine.
Michele Pouliot: Yes.
Julie Daniels: Didn't you do that with him? I thought that was a very fun, cool move. The moves that I really enjoy are the ones that make it appear as if the dog is dancing and performing on their own without cuing or instruction from the handler.
For example, I don't know if you're familiar with Sandra Roth and her dog Lizzy, who did a beautiful ballet routine. It starts with the dog at a distance, with the dog's back to the handler. The whole routine is just beautiful, impeccable, but it really creates the illusion of the dog as dance partner and not as being cued to perform.
Those are the types of moves and routines that I really enjoy, where it appears as if the dog is an integral part of the performance and they are making these choices on their own of what to do, and the handler is not cuing them in any way.
Of course you never forget your first, so Carolyn Scott of course had a move similar to that turn-back-through, and I remember thinking, "Wow, that's pretty amazing." So the same as Dante, seeing that move for the first time was like, "How did she do that? I've got to do that with my dog." So those are the types I really enjoy.
Melissa Breau: How about you, Michele?
Michele Pouliot: On the Carolyn Scott turn-back-through, I remember seeing that going, "How the heck did she do that?" Of course, now that is almost a standard move in the freestyle world.
My personal favorites … I think I've become a pose fanatic. I like teaching poses that are rather unique and can add drama or comedy to a moment. They aren't sudden quick things that are over with. They have duration to them.
I think the first one that I trained with Listo was an arabesque. He's standing on all fours, and then he raises a hind leg and extends it out behind him as a ballerina or something might do, straightening the hind leg so the hind leg is horizontal to the ground.
When I trained that, that was the biggest, coolest thing that I got done, and I never thought it was going to happen. I was working on it for months and I thought, "This just isn't going to happen." But then the light bulb went on and he got it. Since then, I've trained two other dogs to do that move. It's one of my favorite moves. It's physically hard because it has to be a very well-balanced dog to be able to extend and balance on three feet.
The other pose that is one of my favorites is a head-back pose, which my first Springer, Cavo, I captured that. He naturally did it stretching. My next Springer, Deja, who is still with us, she also did it naturally and I captured it.
And then I had people challenge me, saying, "Don't you think it's about time you taught a dog to do it?" So I did train my Aussie, Saki, to do that, and he does it really well, so I enjoy that.
There are challenges to poses, very much so, because to get a nice extremity to the pose so to the audience it's a "wow" factor, it's really cool. There's a move I taught Listo for one of my favorite routines that we ever did together. It's a routine where he's down, sphinx, at this point. At first he's flopped, like playing dead dog or hurt dog, and then he gets up into a sphinx.
In the music, the way the music goes, I taught him how to make it look like I was ratcheting him with a crowbar — but it's a cane in the routine — like I was getting his butt up in increments. It was extremely effective because of these little increments. He just doesn't go from a down to a head-down bow, butt in the air. He does it in time with the music. My current, Saki, can do a reverse bow, but he doesn't have that ratcheting that I really focused on for that routine. And in that same routine he does a fantastic arabesque.
So I had these two moves in that routine, and the music in that routine is still dear to me. The interesting thing about that routine is that it's from a division of freestyle called Heelwork To Music, or In Sync, which has some limitations to it. In other words, your dog can't do distance moves, things like that. When people see this routine to the music of Michael Jackson singing "Smile" — it's a Charlie Chaplin song, actually — when they see this, they think it's a great freestyle routine, and it's not.
So in a way it makes it all the more meaningful to me that it turned out to be such an incredible routine, because it's not even a freestyle routine. It had some limitations on the types of things I could do in that routine. I think to this day that continues to be one of my all-time favorite routines I've done. Listo was an amazing dog, so that adds to that too. Saki and the blind routine that I told you about earlier is probably with Saki my very favorite that we've done so far.
Melissa Breau: I love the variety in that, where everybody has their own different thing that's meaningful and exciting for them. I want to shift back to talk a little bit about competing. Obviously we've talked a little bit about how fun it can be to watch, but I don't know a whole lot, and our audience probably doesn't know a whole lot, about what things make for an exciting routine, or what makes for a high score and how you can be competitive or be showy in it as a sport. Julie, do you want to start us off on this one?
Julie Daniels: This can be a really difficult question in the way that it's phrased in terms of being competitive. In the freestyle world that I live in, in freestyle land, I don't think those of us that are competing at high levels think about the competitive part of it. I don't think we're trying to get high scores. We do want to qualify, but what I believe is more important is presenting that vision that you have and doing it in a way that draws the audience in and that showcases the relationship and training, the time and the energy, that you and your dog have worked together to create this for you.
Freestyle is an audience participation sport, and so I would say that most top-level freestylers, at least in the U.S. … I don't know about other countries, but in the U.S., we're not doing it to become top freestylers. We're not doing it to get high scores and get that first place or "I really want to beat Michele." Maybe I'm wrong, but that's not what I think about. But having said that, in order to show well in a level or a division or a class, if you're up in the advanced levels, there are certain requirements that you have to meet in order to qualify at those levels. And so you have to be thoughtful about what you're including in your routine.
I think some of the things that top freestylers think about that beginner freestylers haven't quite learned yet is that freestyle is not just a string of tricks. Yes, there are tricks in freestyle routines, but it's how these behaviors and moves are connected, how they flow from one into the next, how they are layered in the music, whether there are pace changes in that music to add interest and variety, whether there is layering within the dog and handler moves that create interest for the audience, whether there are breaks in flow that cause the audience to have the routine be halting or jarring. I think those are the things that advanced freestylers think about as they start to put their upper level routines together that beginner freestylers don't always think about.
What I found is beginner freestylers try to put a lot of stuff into their routines, and they try and put a lot of hard stuff in their routines that maybe they shouldn't be working yet. They don't have the foundation to build that on yet. They tend to pack their routines. I would much rather see a loosely choreographed routine that is done well, with precision and accuracy and flow and smooth transitions that take the dog into the next behavior, than a routine that is trick after trick after trick after trick after trick.
I think that as advanced freestylers, those are some of the things that we learn as we move up in the classes is how to put together a routine that is cohesive within what it is that we're trying to convey and how we are interpreting the music.
Beginner routines, it seems oftentimes you can take the same routine and just plug any music onto it, and you wouldn't have any type of interpretation of the music. It would just be a bunch of tricks with music in the background. I see that a lot in beginner routines because they don't quite know how to sequence the behaviors together in a way that interpret the music and showcase their dog's strengths and showcase the handler's strengths, and showcase what that team can do together. It's not about the dog doing a lot of tricks to music. I think advanced freestylers have learned that by their experience in moving up to the levels of learning about their freestyle partner, their dog.
Melissa Breau: It's really interesting to think about that, and think about that as the differentiator between the beginner-ish routine, the routine that comes across as more beginner, and a routine that comes across as more advanced and, for lack of a better term, I guess the word "polished" is what's coming to mind.
Julie Daniels: "Polished" is a great word, because oftentimes what you see in beginner routines is a little herky-jerky, I guess — stop-start, stop-start, do this and then do another thing and then do this. There's no flow, the transitions are abrupt rather than smooth, and I think that's because they don't know.
Freestyle is an interesting sport in that because you can do whatever you want, because you can train anything you want, people think there are foundation skills that you just pick and choose and "I'll train this and I'll train this and I'll train that, and then I'll put it all together and put it in a blender and have a routine."
It's not until you start to be a little more thoughtful about your dog, what they need in order to feel successful and have joy in performing this routine as well, that you start to become more thoughtful about how you're putting these moves together: what do the transitions look like, what do the transitions feel like for the dog.
Hopefully, I think now there are more and more instructors — Michele, Dante, myself, Sandra Hartman — there are more instructors teaching freestyle than there used to be. We just made it up as we went along. We didn't know. Now we know more, and now hopefully we can teach these newer, younger teams how to put together routines that are much more enjoyable for themselves, their dogs, and for the audience.
Melissa Beau: What about you, Michele? Are you the opposite of Julie?
Do you go to competition like, "I want to beat the pants off Julie this week"?
Julie Daniels: Yes, she does, as a matter of fact. It's the other way around: I want to beat the pants off of Michele!
What's really true, though, is I can totally relate to newcomers in the sport doing it with that mindset of another sport they've done: "Did I qualify?" "Did I get my ribbon?" "I got second place." That's fine. I was that way when I did my first two dogs in lower level.
But when you really start getting a feel for how cool freestyle is for another purpose, which is doing a better job of performing and feeling that vision come to life, and see that it actually was entertainment, if there is an element here of entertainment, which is different than other dog sports. You don't see people around an obedience ring stomping their feet and clapping while everyone is, "It was a half-point off, that front wasn't exactly …" Everyone is kind of the judge on the outside, and watching freestyle, people are relaxed and they're just watching it for what it is.
Julie covered a lot about the sport in general and beginner versus advanced. I totally agree with everything she said. I think once you go up in the ranks and you have experience, your experience makes you realize what is important about the sport. I think that you realize that what makes more entertainment is nice, smooth, everything goes smoothly. If it's abrupt, it's on purpose because of a section of music that that abruptness actually matches, so you're doing something like that on purpose, which is harder. It's a harder skill to do.
But what I don't want to forget to tell people about this sport is that as you enter the sport, you want to become a better ad libber, because nobody is watching what you're doing off a list of "This is what your routine is." It's not like agility, "You're off course, sorry." That doesn't happen.
So I have to say some of the best performances I've had, I had to tweak something on the fly that wasn't going well and ad lib for a moment, and maybe get back on track as the music progressed or something like that. If you do it well, there is nothing that is going to go wrong. It isn't like anyone even noticed. So even if the judge knows your routine because they've seen it a few times and all of a sudden something is different, they judge it for what is presented at that day and that time.
I'm going to tell you a funny story. This is really funny that this happened.
I was at the first day of a two-day event. My Springer Cavo and I were doing to the Cabaret song "Wilkommen," I was dressed up like Joel Grey, and I had my cane and we were doing our stuff. There's a part in the routine where I bend down and I hand the cane to Cavo and he follows me, carrying it, and then I turn around and he gives it to me and we proceed.
For some bizarre reason on this day, maybe I handed it to him not centered, off balance, I don't know. But anyway, he drops the came after he walks a couple steps, and I turned around in character and I made this big face like, "You dropped the cane!" And then I bent down and very politely, like I was being polite, handed it back to him. So the routine went on and he did fine.
That evening, after the judging, the judge approached me and said, "I just love that part where he drops the cane. It was so cute." And I said, "Well, you're not going to like the performance tomorrow."
The bottom line is ad lib. Don't react to mistakes. It's over with. You might as well just go forward. And I think the more people do freestyle, after they get out of the early levels, they realize that they can relax with it, and usually going into an ad lib can snap a dog out of maybe not responding or something, just doing something different, like running away from them for a few steps.
It is a hard sport in that you have all these behaviors in a row that you're doing, but understand you don't have to do them in that order. What's being judged is what happens out there, and if you react in a way that points out a mistake happened by trying to get the dog to do it, experienced freestylers know, "Didn't take the cue, on to the next thing." It's just information for training. It's not that I'm going to try to fix it and make them do it. I'm just going to go forward, whether that's an ad lib or not, or just move on in the routine.
That's a part of the sport that's intriguing when you're used to sports that everyone knows the moment you make a mistake and, "Oh, look, he blew that. He missed his contact. He didn't sit on the heel." All that stuff. The cool thing about freestyle is it truly is freestyle. You can go in the ring, play music, and just go, which is what I had a student of mine do recently. She was having trouble getting a video for a competition, and I was filming for her. The dog — you could tell he was getting kind of sour on the beginning, and the beginning, of course, the whole thing wasn't going well. I said, "You and the dog look really nice moving to this music. I want you to just ad lib the whole thing, just for the fun of it." The dog was high as a kite because she wasn't doing that opening sequence that he was getting sour on, and it went really well, and I think she submitted it and qualified.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I love both of those stories. Dante, you're coming at this from a little bit of a different angle, having done some high-pressure performance stuff and some of the competitive stuff. Do you want to talk about it from your perspective?
Dante Camacho: I think there's a lot of similarities, actually. What Michele was saying about count your losses, take information, the dog didn't do it, just keep going, of course if you're in a performance, you don't want to stop and train. You can't do that. You have to keep going.
I do think that interpretation of the handler has a big role. You want to make sure that what you're doing has to do with the dog, has to do with the music, has to do with the story, but does not overshadow the dog, but still helps people understand what you're trying to convey and make your dog look better. So when she does this, and "Oh my God, he dropped the cane," she made the dog look better because, "Wow, that dog dropped that cane on cue and it was great." The idea is that you also have to be a bit of an actor when you're doing freestyle. It doesn't matter how shy you are, that will count. People will be seeing you as well. You don't want them to see you too much, but yes, they will see you.
When I perform for people, one thing that I always try to make sure that is in my performance is that what people see looks like I'm having fun, looks like I'm playing with my dog, looks like it's very easy what we're doing, for me and for the dog it's very natural. It wasn't like that in the beginning. That I had to learn, because as a trainer I always liked to do the hard thing, "I train this so much and it's so difficult." But then you do it and if you're just doing it for a general audience, they're like, "I like the dog standing on hind legs. It's cute." Everybody claps for that. But all your intricate tricks, this thing you spent so much time doing, doesn't get the same reaction.
And it is about reaction. It is about, like we said here, the music gets the people going, and then you use your social cues to get people going with you. There were moments where it was basically saying, "Look at this amazing dog," and then I'm with the people watching how amazing this dog is, and all the things we can do together, and it's play and it's fun. That's how I see it, and it's very free because there's no judging, there's no specifics that you have to do, and if you're performing quite frequently, you can shape your performance based on what normally works, how people react, and then you just tweak things a little bit.
I normally have a couple of rules, like we usually start with a bang, meaning if people are on their phone, they'll get out of their phone because people are screaming next to them. That's what we want. We want them to "Whoa, what happened?" And when you go into your routine, there has to be a moment to catch people up in the middle, and also a very clear ending where it's not too flat. That's basically what I try to do.
When you're performing to a lot of people, like a general audience, it's harder and harder for people to maintain attention for more than two minutes today. It's very difficult. So you want to make sure you're not just throwing stuff, because then they can't understand. I tend to also repeat things a couple of times so people can see what just happened. But I try not to just do a bunch of things, thinking that they will be amazed. You have to measure: I give you something, you digest it, and before you leave, I throw you something else and then you stay with me for a little longer. That's my take.
One of the things that I enjoy about performing simply, not necessarily competing, is that flexibility of not feeling like there is a score or anything like that. Of course people are looking at you, and how they react will tell you how things went. But there's more freedom in that sense, at least in yourself, and the great thing is for the dog it makes no difference at all. Either way they're fine.
Melissa Breau: They don't care if the audience loved it. They had fun. To round things out, if we were to take our conversation from today and drill it down into one key piece of information you really wish all handlers out there, all the listeners, understood, what would that key piece be? Michele, do you want to start this one?
Michele Pouliot: Sure. I think the biggest problem I see in a lot of training is not planning anything before training, not thinking about what a goal is for today or what they're going to work on. They just have a tendency to start training. So I'm going to say one phrase: Before you train, use your brain. That usually will make things go a lot better if you just take five minutes to make a plan so that you know where you're starting and where you want to go.
Melissa Breau: I like that. Dante, what about you?
Dante Camacho: I would say … I agree with Michele. Especially if you want to take this more seriously and think about competing, it's essential, because that thinking in the beginning will make all the difference throughout your career.
Because we said so much that being a professional and doing this in higher levels can be quite difficult, I feel like I have to remind people that even though there is moves that you see that look so difficult and intricate, there's one thing that I've learned from other freestylers that I admire and that I always thought, "These people must know something that I don't. They must know these techniques. There's something there, because it's amazing what they can do with their dog."
Like what Julie said, the German girl, Sandra Roth, and eventually meeting people and knowing these people and talking to them and seeing them train, you realize that it's not that. It's understanding that it's a process, that you need consistency, you need to be clear, and in a sport like freestyle, your connection with your dog as a team, as partners in life, will make a big difference.
It's not like sometimes in other sports where people have a dog and they're for a sport and do this. I think when it comes to doing stuff where it may require so much from you as a team, having that connection and being really partners, and enjoying that and enjoying that process, and understanding that it is a process, things just need consistency and of course doing things right. But I guess it's patience and understanding and just be with your dog and really have fun. That seems simple, but it makes a huge difference in how you can perform later on, even if you're thinking about taking it to the next level.
Melissa Breau: I love that as a takeaway. Julie, you want to leave us with the last thought?
Julie Daniels: Last thought … obviously both Dante and Michele are fabulous trainers and what they said is so true. A couple of things: first, I think in any sport, especially in freestyle, to consider the dog. I think when we enter the world of performance sports, we don't consider the dog to the degree that we should. A lot of times the performance sport is about us, about our social life, that we want to get out there and do well, that we want to earn Q or a place, and I think we really need to consider the dog much more than we think we do.
Our dogs are going to do whatever we want. They love being with us, they want to do the activities, they try hard. I sometimes feel that we're not taking the dog into consideration in terms of what we're asking them to do, especially in the sport of freestyle, and that we're skipping on some of their education in what they need to learn and understand before we push them to new levels and new heights.
I think, like every sport, freestyle has foundation, and I think that freestylers tend to skip on foundation because they can teach their dogs to do anything they want, so they go for the fun, cool, sexy stuff. Those particular fun, cool, sexy, higher-level behaviors the dog will enjoy so much more if you give them the foundation and the education they need to do them well.
Clarity, I think, as Dante said, and consistency in their training of these advanced moves is imperative. Don't ask your dog to do calculus if you haven't taught them algebra. Don't ask them to do algebra if you haven't taught them multiplication tables.
I think freestyle is an easy sport to push your dog into areas that they aren't prepared for yet, and so I think that the work, the time, the energy that you put into freestyle — for many people it may seem very, very daunting and difficult, and there are so many sports that you can do now and have lots of success with, with very little time and energy put into it. There's still training involved and there's work involved, but there's a lot of time and energy that goes into freestyle because of the different components, like the handler components, as well as the dog training. There's stuff in addition to dog training you have to do in freestyle.
And so in spite of all the work that freestyle entails, the benefits, the rewards, that joy — I can't even explain sometimes the feeling you get when you go out and perform a routine and everything goes right. That feeling makes all of the work and the time and the energy that many of us don't have time to do other sports because of the time that we put into freestyle. That moment in the ring when it all comes together with your dog is priceless. Oh, that's a commercial, isn't it? We should make that a commercial.
Melissa Breau: Just take that last line.
Julie Daniels: Yeah, just that last line. It is a difficult sport and there are a lot of components to it that are not the same in other sports. And it is hard to figure out what the foundation is and what your dog needs to do well, and we do have to consider the dog to a really high degree in this sport, not unlike other sports, but it's a different type of consideration.
I think to many, many people it feels daunting, and sometimes it does feel that way. But I have to tell you, and I think all of us have spent time competing in other sports; it's not like freestyle is the only thing we've ever done with our dogs. We've competed in a lot of different sports, and I just keep coming back to the joy that freestyle brings me and my dogs. It's so worth it.
Melissa Breau: What a nice note to end on. Thanks you all, all three of you. We ran a little long, but I super-appreciate you all making the time and coming on the podcast and chatting about this, so thank you.
Michele Pouliot: You're welcome.
Dante Camacho: Thank you.
Julie Daniels: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week with Amy Cook to talk about living with and loving a reactive dog.
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