Downeast Dog News


History of freestyle in Maine
By Judith Stoodley | May 01, 2018
Photo by: Gunther T Weimaraner Photography

About twenty years ago, I was working the graveyard shift as the night reference librarian in the Unity College library. Once the minimal tasks that had been left for me were completed, I had permission to play on the Internet and familiarize myself with the library’s new computers. It occurred to me to check out what was going on in the world of dog training. Although my family was never without a dog for any length of time, I had put my own competition goals on the back burner while I raised and homeschooled my daughters, and they were now old enough (each with a dog of her own) that I could think about getting back in the game. I discovered two amazing things in my research: clicker training and canine musical freestyle. The first changed forever the way I train; the second shifted my training interest toward a sport that I find sufficiently challenging and rewarding so that it is, in one form or another, a regular part of my daily life.

The performance which caught my attention with the engagement, level of training and joy it showcased was one that has hooked many dog people on freestyle. The performers were Carolyn Scott and her now-deceased Golden Retriever, Rookie, performing to “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease. You can watch it here:

At the time that I learned about freestyle, there were, I believe, three freestyle organizations in North America; today, there are at least a half-dozen freestyle or freestyle-based venues on the continent, some of which extend internationally, in addition to ones based overseas. Resources generally, and especially in northern New England, were few and far between in those days, and the handful of trainers in Maine who wanted to try the sport were largely self-taught.

In southern Maine, a small group formed and reformed several times in an effort to bring the sport to Maine. In 2011, the meetings became a little more focused, and the introduction in 2012 of the new sport of Rally-FrEe, which followed a rally obedience format, but with spins, leg weaves, circles, bows, and other basic behavioral vocabulary featured on the courses, provided some achievable target goals. The meetings morphed into get-togethers for the purpose of filming each other’s runs for Rally-FrEe competitions, and over several years, eight members (Dancing Paws of Maine was voted into being in 2014, with a mission to “promote and support the spirit and sport of canine musical freestyle” and related activities) earned Rally-FrEe titles at various levels on ten dogs, and three members’ dogs (two Standard Poodles and a French Bulldog) were among the first eleven dogs to earn Grand Championships in the sport. In the meantime, three members turned their sights to Cyber Rally-O, Dance Division, and became the first participants ever to earn Gold medals in that sport, while four members competed successfully in RFE and/or WCFO freestyle, where the club can also boast one Grand Champion and other titles.

In 2016, the club hosted internationally recognized trainer and freestyle competitor Michele Pouliot for a workshop and private lessons. This October, we look forward to having Michele and co-presenters Julie Flanery and Diane Balkavich for an event we have called Trifecta! Freestyle Retreat, which will take place in Milford, NH. Working and auditor spots for this workshop sold out within days of registrations opening, but there is a waiting list.

Dancing Paws members now get together about once a month at MainelyAgility in Raymond, Maine where open training follows a short educational program on a specific topic led by a club member. Club meetings are conducted as part of these get-togethers on an as-needed basis. The club hosts a website ( We welcome inquiries on our FB page (Dancing Paw of Maine) or by email (

Training the freestyle dog

Since freestyle is not a cookie cutter sport, training for freestyle is largely up to the individual and depends on the end goals of the handler and the abilities of the dog. Some trainers enjoy teaching and incorporating flashy tricks into their routines, while others focus on showcasing the particular style and movement of their dance partner. In either case, a basic foundation in obedience with lots of emphasis on play and engagement makes a good starting point. The goal in most freestyle venues is to have the dog work on verbal cues as much as possible, freeing the handler to interpret his end of the music without hands and body, and proximity to the dog tied to having to lure the dog into a behavior such as a spin; in fact, lure-lie cues will have a negative impact on the team’s score in competition. As a result, modern trainers have a basic toolbox of equipment and techniques which allow them to maintain a neutral body position when introducing new behaviors while using their voices, markers, and treats or toys to signal that a correct choice has been made. These tools, which include platforms, perches, training gates, targets and shaping, make it difficult for the dog to make an incorrect choice, especially in the early stages of training, promoting what is sometimes called “errorless” learning. Positive reinforcement is the method of choice for training the freestyle dog; in fact, one of the stated objectives in the Dancing Paws of Maine bylaws is “to encourage positive, motivational training methods.”

The dog should learn early on to work on all four sides of the handler: left heel, right heel, center (front), and behind. All are referred to as “heelwork” in freestyle. Beyond that, there are no required moves although a useful basic vocabulary of behaviors which includes spins, circling around the handler, and weaving through the handler’s legs facilitates moving the dog from one position to another and the team around the ring. The sport of Rally-FrEe was created in 2012 by Julie Flanery of Philomath, Oregon to assist aspiring freestylers in developing these skills, a list of which, both in their most simple form and with various embellishments, can be found on the website. Click on “Rally-FrEe” in the menu at the top and then on “Sign Descriptions” to find them. There are also videos of the individual behaviors being performed in another area of the website.

Dancing Paws of Maine’s membership is happy to assist newcomers in training any of these skills.


Judith Stoodley is a Certified Rally-FrEe Instructor and judge, as well as a Certified Trick Dog Instructor. She began her love affair with dog training when she was fifteen and acquired her first dog, a basenji. She has titled dogs in conformation, obedience, tracking, agility, barn hunt, tricks, rally-free, and freestyle. Her current dogs include two Standard Poodles, Luna and baby Penny, and a French Bulldog named Wiggin. Luna is also a Trick Dog Champion and Rally-FrEe Grand Champion and currently competes in agility, barn hunt, and freestyle. Wiggin is mostly retired although he still loves to train. Judith has been the president of Dancing Paws of Maine, a freestyle club, for the past five years. Photos courtesy of Gunther T Weimaraner Photography