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Dancing with Dogs! Heelwork to Music – Everything You Need to Know About Canine Freestyle

practice anywhere heelwork to music

Heelwork to Music is a great enrichment activity that teaches your dog how to work on their obedience skills while having loads of fun. It’s the perfect way to keep your pup entertained and have you both learning something new at the same time.

Heelwork to Music (HTM) is a relatively new competitive activity where participants choreograph routines (up to four minutes long) with their own choice of music and perform these routines with their dog.  It’s also called Canine Freestyle.

HTM is divided into two categories – heelwork to music and freestyle. In this article, we will be looking at what these are, how to get started, and where you can compete.

Read on to learn more about HTM and start dancing. Who knows you might be the next champion!

The History of Heelwork to Music 

Mary Ray, a leader in the dog world, helped elevate Heelwork to Music as an internationally respected sport when she first demonstrated it at Crufts in the early 1990’s.

The Rugby Dog Club was the first kennel to hold a competitive show for Heelwork To Music at their 1996 show.

2005 was the first year that heelwork to music became an official Crufts competition. Tina Humphrey won the grand prize in that inaugural year with her blue merle Border Collie, Bluecroft My Blue Heaven in a horse themed routine!

As a result, in 2006, heelwork to music was officially included as an event at the Crufts main stage.

What is Heelwork to Music?

The name of the sport itself describes what it is. Heelwork to music consists of a routine that choreographs heelwork, which are some behaviours dogs do when they walk at your side such as circling and positioning themselves under or beside you, with movements set to music and performed in front of an audience. The routine can be up to four minutes long.

HTM was originally based on harnessing obedience skills. It is a dog sport where the handler creates a choreographed routine using any of the eight “qualifying” heelwork positions selected by their own discretion, to music.

The majority of a routine, at least two thirds, must have the dog staying in heelwork positions at all times. The remaining one third may be freestyle moves of your choice.

Heelwork to Music vs. Freestyle

Heelwork to music (HTM) is divided into two different styles: Heelwork to music, and freestyle.

Heelwork to music (HTM)

The Kennel Club defines heelwork to music as “Heelwork to Music requires a dog to walk/trot at heel in any of the eight prescribed heelwork positions and the handler to choreograph that heelwork to a piece of music. The dog must be in a heelwork position for at least two thirds of a Heelwork to Music routine. The remaining one third may be freestyle.”

Watch the 2020 Heelwork to Music winner at Crufts here:

Canine Freestyle

According to the World Canine Freestyle Association, freestyle is defined as “Musical Freestyle is a choreographed musical program performed by handlers and their dogs. The object of musical freestyle is to display the dog and handler in a creative, innovative and original dance, using music and intricate movements to showcase teamwork, artistry, costuming, athleticism and style in interpreting the theme of the music.

Heelwork-to-Music incorporates traditional dog obedience and the art of dressage with the inclusion of musical interpretation, dance elements, and costuming with an emphasis on non-standard obedience movements.

Both Musical Freestyle and Heelwork-To-Music routines should create a visually exciting display which is enjoyable to watch and which is equally enjoyable to dogs and handlers executing the programs. Canine freestyle is a showcase that truly demonstrates the joys and fun of bonding with your pet.”

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Participants are encouraged to create their routines with a theme, an interpretation of lyrics or a story.

You can watch the Crufts 2020 international freestyle competition winner for inspiration here:

What makes a successful heelwork to music routine?

There are two main criteria for a successful heelwork to music routine: the dog’s precise execution and content. The more points that can be earned from both of these, the better!

Content is evaluated on three levels:

  • Technical Merit
  • Content
  • Entertainment value.

The dog’s performance in a heelwork to music routine should be clean with little or no distance, weaving / in-between legs or arms. See below for more details on judging and how routines are scored.

What kinds of dogs and people can do heelwork to music?

Dogs of any size, shape and age can do heelwork to music.  The more experience they have in performing a variety of obedience exercises such as weaving on the table or around obstacles, the better their chances are at achieving success.

How do I get started with heelwork to music?

To get started, you will need to enroll in a Heelwork To Music class.  These can be found at local dog training facilities or by searching online for “Heelwork To Music Dog Classes Near Me”. You may also find classes via Facebook and other community events listings.

How do I compete at heelwork to music in the UK?

Be prepared to spend time and be dedicated to properly preparing your dog for the task of competing. It is essential that your dog has been well socialised and you have control at all times, especially as they will be off lead.

Thinking of taking part? Below is a list of things you need to know first (courtesy of the Kennel Club UK). 

  • Any dog can take part in heelwork to music
  • Your dog must be registered on The Kennel Club Breed Register or the Activity Register
  • Competitors taking part in any event licensed by The Kennel Club must familiarise themselves with The Kennel Club rules and regulations beforehand. The Heelwork to Music Regulations bookletis available from The Kennel Club’s publications department
  • Dogs can start competing in heelwork to music from 12 months of age and freestyle from 18 months of age
  • No previous experience is necessary!

Competing in the USA

The World Canine Freestyle is a global charity founded in March 2000. It’s mission is to globally promote the joys and fun of responsible pet ownership through musical canine freestyle, both as a sport and an entertainment medium.

For full details on training, events and competitions head to their website.

Heelwork To Music Routine and Moves Guide For Beginners

A HTM routine should be done with the dog and the handler in close proximity to each other throughout the routine. On all moves, the dog and handler team should move as one entity throughout the routine, displaying heelwork and creativity in the many positions and behaviors possible in HTM.

Heelwork is defined as any position between the handler and the dog within 360 degrees radius and includes, but is not limited to: right heel; left heel; face-to-face; face-to-back; back-to-back; back-to-face; and all angled positions between handler and dog within 360 degrees.

HTM routines may include:

  • Sustained close-in heelwork sequences, with the dog and handler moving together in sustained parallel position to one another (straight, curved or circular patterns);
  • Moving or stationary close-in heelwork behaviors done next to the other or together (for example, spins, turns, pivots, paws or hands on moves etc.);
  • Close-in connecting moves (either stationary or in motion) that connect heelwork sequences together;
  • Other creative and/or original close-in moves.

Basic Heelwork to Music Positions

The following positions are considered to be heelwork in HTM:

  •  The dog has his right shoulder parallel with the handler’s left leg.
  •  The dog has his left shoulder parallel with the handler’s right leg.
  •  The dog has his right shoulder parallel with the handler’s right leg facing opposite the handler.
  •  The dog has his left shoulder parallel with the handler’s left leg facing opposite the handler.
  •  Between the handler’s legs with both shoulders parallel to the handler’s legs.
  •  The dog is in front of the handler, with his side to the handler. If the dog is facing right the dog’s right shoulder should be off the handlers right leg at all times, and vice versa.
  •  The dog is behind the handler, with his side to the handler. If the dog is facing right the dog’s left shoulder should be off the handlers right leg at all times, and vice versa.
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learning heelwork to music
Practice your heelwork everywhere!

How are Heelwork to Music Routines Scored?

To give you an idea of what you should include in your heelwork to music or freestyle routines, judges mark all heelwork to music performances using the following criteria:

Cooperation and coordination between dog and handler

The routine should clearly demonstrate the dog’s and handler’s attentiveness to each other – so the coordination/cooperation in the routine is as fluent as possible.

  • Presentation: The routine flows naturally without abrupt breaks/stops, the dog and handler are confident in their performance and know their routine. The handler/dog makes the performance seem easy.
  • Signals: The signals between dog/handler are discrete or they are put into the choreography so they do not distract from the routine.
  • Focus on the dog: The routine is performed so the focus is on the dog. It is not the handler who should attract attention.
  • Show quality: The team has appeal and performs an excellent routine that appeals to the judges and the audience. The handler’s performance is appropriate.

Content (Technical Merit) – MAXIMUM SCORE: 10 points

  • Degree of difficulty (for freestyle)
  • Amount of tricks: The number of tricks is appropriate – not too many in a short period of time, or to ” fill ” the time.
  • Quality and degree of difficulty (for heelwork): The more precise, difficult and the higher the quality of the heelwork, the higher the points.
  • Use of available ring space: Routines should make good use of the available ring space.

Music and interpretation – MAXIMUM SCORE : 10 points

  • Interpretation of the music: How the music is interpreted. Steady/emotional presentation to emotional music – enthusiastic/powerful presentation to music with more power.
  • Choreography: The choreography is designed so the heelwork and tricks have no abrupt stops but are integrated smoothly – and the routine is made to suit the dog and its movement. The choreography varies so the routine is interesting.
  • Is the routine suited to the music?: The routine is in harmony with the music. All the tricks are based on the music and the inspiration from the music. The routine is created and presented so the dogs movement, the handlers movement and music become one.
  • Is the music suited to the dog?: The music is suited to the dogs speed, movement and enthusiasm.
heelwork to music

10 Good Heelwork to Music Songs to Get You Started

When choosing your music you need a song that has a steady beat that you can easily walk to and helps if the audience can sing along. Show tunes are great as they are designed to be danced to. Here’s 10 songs to play with:

  1. Footloose – Kenny Loggins
  2. Walk Like An Egyptian – Bangles
  3. Hit the Road Jack – various
  4. I get around – Beach Boys
  5. Happy talk – from South Pacific.
  6. Hair – from Hair the musical
  7. Jump – Pointer Sisters
  8. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy
  9. Addicted to Love – Robert Palmer
  10. Supercalafragalisticexpaladious !

Are you ready to get dancing?

Whether you compete or not, heel work to music with your dog is a great way to bond and have fun. With our guide on how it’s scored and where to compete, getting started should be easy! And if all this talk about bonding has got you in the mood for some fun together time? Search online or locally for classes near you and get ready to have lots of laughs while preparing your pup for their next show.

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