My beagle and I try America's weirdest pet hobby.
Uno, a ridiculously cute tricolor beagle from Columbia, Mo., won "Best in Show" this week at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show—a first for the breed. In a 2005 "Human Guinea Pig" article, reprinted below, Emily Yoffe tries to teach her less-than-champion beagle a few dance steps.
My beagle, Sasha, and I were going to try the sport of "canine freestyle." (You could call it "dog dancing" but just not in front of anyone who does it.) The materials from the Canine Freestyle Federation suggested that when our performance came together, Sasha and I would flow to the music in a pairing of such joy that we would experience the kind of transcendent unity that used to be described in the final chapter of marriage manuals.
Things looked unpromising from the start. The thorough instructor, Mary Sullivan, called me the night before the first class to assess Sasha's level of preparedness. I suggested it might be best if Sasha just audited, since it's not clear she knows what her name is. I was also worried about us as a dancing team. You could say I have two left feet, but Sasha actually does.
Mary assured me there would be dogs and owners at all levels of ability, and she was excited by the challenge of a beagle doing canine freestyle, since beagles are a notoriously difficult breed. She asked if Sasha had had any training.
"She can sit," I replied.
"Does she focus on your face?" asked Mary.
"No," I said, although I wanted to add that she would if I had a frankfurter sticking out of my nose. But Mary seemed confident, and she told me to bring a bag of treats to class.
I discovered the world of canine freestyle one night while watching an episode of the cartoon King of the Hill, in which Hank Hill and his beloved bloodhound, Ladybird, entered the vicious world of competitive dog dancing. I was admiring the show's brilliance at inventing the dog-dancing concept when it suddenly dawned on me: They were not making this up. I went to my computer and searched for "dog dancing" and discovered there are international competitions and even warring leagues.
Not only that, one of the earliest, and still continuing, venues for freestyle instruction was the Capital Dog Training Club in Silver Spring, Md., about 20 minutes from my home. Freestyle, which began in the early 1990s, has not caught on with dog owners like "agility" and "fly ball." Watching a video of freestyle highlights, I understood why. I had imagined I could just pick up Sasha's front paws and we would box-step to victory. In freestyle the dogs aren't doing four-legged versions of human dances, but a complicated choreography of twists and side steps and pirouettes—think of it as Balanchine for bichons. I was strangely moved by the menacing sexuality of a Doberman dancing to "Goldfinger."
The Canine Freestyle Federation, which was founded in 1995, has an almost ascetic aesthetic. The emphasis is on showing the dog's skill with a variety of required and optional moves. The handler, who is dressed conservatively, is not supposed to dance along to the music or even touch the dog during competition (thus ending my fantasies of dancing cheek to snout with Sasha).
This is in contrast to the World Canine Freestyle Organization, which has a more Las Vegas approach to the sport and even uses the term "dog dancing." Under WCFO rules, both canine and human can be covered in sequins and engage in flamboyant displays of jumping and rolling. The Canine Freestyle Federation regards the WCFO much as the National Collegiate Wrestling Association views the World Wrestling Entertainment.
About eight of us—seven women—and our dogs had signed up for Mary Sullivan's beginner class, but within minutes it was clear that only Sasha and I were true novices. I was immediately intimidated by the showmanship of Edgar Allan Poo, an 8-year-old miniature poodle, and Joell Silverman, his 75-year-old owner. I watched, while Sasha whined and pulled at her leash, as Edgar and Joell, to a polka tune, worked on a routine full of twirls and passes and changes of direction. Edgar concentrated on Joell's face with the same intensity that North Koreans are supposed to have when they gaze upon their Dear Leader.
When I talked to Joell I found out I wasn't the only reporter to have been taken with Edgar's charms. The poodle had already been profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for his prowess in his previous sport, fly ball.