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Canine Freestyle Down Under

Canine Freestyle Down Under
By Richard Curtis

Freestyle has always presented me with many opportunities and when the invitation arrived to teach a couple of seminars in Australia it was with some trepidation that I accepted.  My main worries were that I would have to leave my dogs, which I never do lightly, and I often refuse to teach abroad as I would rather be with my own dogs in the UK.  Also there was the little matter of the twenty three hour plane trip to get my head around before I accepted the invitation.

Richard in Australia

At present Canine Freestyle or Dances with Dogs, as they call it, is a very new sport.  In some places there are groups of Freestylers who get together regularly but most of the time the handlers are forced to train on their own as they would have to drive many hours to attend a group session. The good thing about the sport being new in Australia is that they can take advice from the many countries that have already started Freestyle and can find out what has worked for them.

My Australian Adventure started with an extremely long flight to Melbourne where we were met by our host for the event, Sue.  I had arrived a few days early so that hopefully I could get over the jet lag a bit and if you are going all that way you might as well do some sightseeing.  On the Thursday we went on a steam train called “Puffing Billy” and had our lunch which was quite a feat keeping your glass and plate on the table while the train climbed up the side of the steep mountain.  The next day we went to the Healsville Wildlife Reserve which had all the native animals that you would see in Australia. I had fully expected for it to be hot but it seems we brought the UK weather with us as some of the days were, I’m sure, colder than the UK.

With the sightseeing over it was now the time I needed to knuckle down and concentrate on the reason that I was here as the next day the workshops started.

The first of the workshops was hosted by the  Melbourne Canine Freestyle group, although many people had travelled from outside the area to attend.  I’m not quite sure what they thought of this energetic Englishman at the start but by the end they were having great fun whilst learning about the many areas of Freestyle.     All the dogs had a good standard of control and, although for some this was the first time that they had been to a Freestyle workshop, they all performed well and with some training put together some very nice routines.
A wide range of breeds attended, including a new breed to me, a Koolie, which, although not recognised by the Australian Kennel Club, is gaining in popularity.  There were other unusual breeds such as a Chinese Crested Powder-Puff who could do some stunning heelwork with full attention and also there was a high drive Old English Sheepdog which I could have easily smuggled home!  On the second day the group was a little tired so I had to wake them up with my Freestyle wake up session which got them back on track, full of energy and raring to go.  By the end of the second afternoon each were performing short routines and had gained the confidence to move around the ring rather than get rooted on one spot.

It was a shame the workshop had to finish really as it had been such an enjoyable workshop to teach and the hospitality had been superb.

The next day it was another plane flight, this time to get to Sydney, as I had arranged a couple of days in the centre of the capital to do some more sightseeing.  As we started to walk around Sydney it was obvious that it was certainly warmer and over the next few days as we moved around it started to get warmer still.

The first day was taken up with going to Taronga Zoo and then we did the predictable sightseeing of the Opera House and Bridge but if you find yourself in ‘Oz’ make sure you go to the Botanical Gardens as they are extremely well cared for and impressive.

The next day we were picked up by our host, Joan, from the Sydney group and taken to the outskirts of the city near to the workshop venue.  We had a day of rest before the workshop so Joan kindly took us around some of the local attractions, one of which was the amazing Blue Mountains.  The view was magnificent, although I have never seen the Grand Canyon, it reminded us of the classic view you see in the brochures.

The location of this workshop was going to be at a facility owned by the Australian Kennel Club which is the venue for many dog events in the state; it would be brilliant if we had something like this in the UK.  The area was originally a horse stud and it has been developed into a showground with enough buildings to hold championship breed shows and all other dog sports; it even has its own resident flock of sheep for the herding tests.  One of the differences between the shows in Australia and the UK is that many of the shows there are held in the evening as the temperature can get too hot during the day. 

Some of the sports are also restricted to certain times of the year, one being the endurance test which I had not heard of.  This test consisted of a handler riding a bike for a total of 20km whilst their dog ran beside them.  The dog is regularly checked by a vet during the test so that any problems can be addressed.  It occurred to me that this was a good discipline for any of the working dogs’ sports, with Freestyle the dog performs many jumps and flexible moves that require it to be at the peak of fitness on order not to gain injuries.    The workshop was located in the original round riding school called the rotunda.

The first day started well with all the teams getting into the swing of things very quickly.  Unlike the Melbourne group, the Sydney Dances with Dogs group have been holding a competition for the last few years.  Interest in Freestyle has been slow but there is now a small band of very dedicated Freestylers who are developing the sport.  The workshop had also attracted some spectators from outside of Australia with a group making the trip over from New Zealand and one lady even came all the way from Hong Kong!  The group was of mixed ability with some people having their first taste of what the sport was about while others that had been competing were looking for new ideas and methods.

The temperature in Sydney was very much higher than in Melbourne and as the venue was inland the rotunda became very warm during the day.  At one stage a mini whirlwind came across the venue with people scrambling to shut doors and grab anything that was flying around outside.

By the second day the handlers were starting to get creative, which was great, especially during the concept exercise.  This is designed to get their creative juices flowing by giving them an idea for a routine, rather than a piece of music, and they have to brainstorm what music they could use but even more importantly what moves they could use and props etc.

One of the little stars of the workshop was a four month old puppy Border Collie called Muffin.  She was owned by Joan, who I was staying with, and from the time I had arrived I had been playing with her.  To give the handlers a rest I used Muffin to show some puppy training.  This puppy had endless amounts of energy and was soon running around with all the toys showing how easy it is to train the puppy without it even knowing that it is working.  Although Muffin was a sweet little thing, if I am right from reading her body language, she could become quite a handful in the months to come.

As usual the two day workshop was very tiring, even more so with the heat inside the venue, but everyone seemed to have great fun and pick up some different ideas.  The aim is now to build on the interest that this workshop has created in both places and hopefully more competitions and events will start.

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