HEELWORK TO MUSIC - its roots

with thanks to Dave Ray 

 

Well, it seems to be flavour of the day - the explosion in its popularity over the last few years has been quite phenomenal. But where did it come from, how has it developed, and what are the benefits?

 

The first thing you could talk about is the name. When it started, 'Heelwork to Music' was exactly what it was - a round of heelwork with music played. And that name has stuck all these years even though it is strictly no longer heelwork to music. Over the years we have had all kinds of names thrown into the hat to try to give it a name, which more accurately reflects what actually happens now. In the USA they have something called 'Heelwork to Music', but their rules state that it needs to be exactly as it stands, i.e. only heelwork to music is allowed with the dog not being allowed to leave the handler for any significant distance and perform any additional movements.

 

They also have 'Freestyle' as their other main class, where the dog is allowed to do virtually anything. In the UK we have also have two similarly named classifications (but with some very distinctive rule differences), although, if it were billed in this country at Crufts as simply 'Freestyle', the majority of people would not know what on earth they were talking about.

 

The other term that seems to have its head is 'Doggy Dancing' or 'Canine Dancing'. We think this is one terminology guaranteed to alienate everyone. It certainly will not promote HTM as a sport and there are too many connotations of circus acts for it to be taken seriously. At the end of the day, we do want to be taken seriously and we believe that HTM could be of great benefit to obedience in this country but more of that later.

 

In 1990, John Gilbert asked Mary Ray if she would take an evening seminar in the Bedford area, which he was going to title "An Audience with Mary Ray". Mary was quite shy and reserved (well, she was then anyway!) and was very reticent to actually stand up and talk to what could have been quite a number of people. John overcame this little hurdle by arranging with Mary that he would be a sort of Michael Parkinson for the evening and actually run the whole evening on an interview basis with Mary demonstrating. John was also captivated with Mary's two ticket dogs, which were a collie (called) Red Hot Toddy and a Tervueren (called) Roxy. In particular, he thought that Roxy's heelwork was so flowing that he would like her to do it to a piece of music, so he asked Mary to devise a heelwork routine for Roxy that lasted exactly 3 minutes 54 seconds and likewise for Toddy 3 minutes 54 seconds.

 

He picked 'Take your Breath Away' for Roxy and 'Eye of the Tiger' for Toddy. And that is exactly what Mary did. As part of a very successful evening, with over one hundred people in the audience Mary did a heelwork round to music. It is a fact that various people in the UK in the previous 20 years had trained with music playing including, we are told, Charlie Wyatt. And even though someone from Canada tried to say that they had thought of the idea first because they had a dream about it in 1989, Mary and John's was the first authenticated public performance of 'Heelwork to Music'.

 

It is interesting to note that probably the first person who had an idea of turning it into a competition suggested that to John Gilbert on the night, that was Nigel Cutts although he has probably forgotten that by now. Mary repeated this audience evening with John in 1992 and that was also the first year she did a demonstration at Crufts. This was followed by more demonstrations at Crufts in the following years and has now become a tradition watched all over the world as part of the Crufts media coverage.

 

Meanwhile, things were taking off in the rest of the world and, again, although handlers in other countries had been probably training dogs with music playing in the background, no one had actually formalised it into a working routine.

 

Canada: In late 1990 or early 1991, a trainer from the UK was taking a seminar and talked on that seminar about Heelwork to Music. At the Pacific Canine Showcase in Vancouver in 1991, Tina Martin and her golden retriever Cognac gave a demonstration using a routine adapted from dressage, as she had been a grand prix dressage rider. The events co-ordinator of the Pacific Canine Showcase was a lady called Val Culpin who also had an input into the first demonstration at the event. This was followed in 1992 by a Freestyle competition at the same venue and by 1993 an organisation had been formed in Canada called Musical Canine Sport International. Between 1993/94, this organisation established rules for Freestyle as a sport and the first formalised competition was held under these rules in Canada in 1993. Although interest in this sport seemed to wane in Canada in 1996, since then there has been a resurgence in popularity and Freestyle now has a dedicated following in Canada.

 

USA: They appear to have started in 1992, after seeing what was happening in Canada. This was followed by a first demonstration at a Cycle Obedience Event in 1993. Terry Arnold seemed to have taken a leading role in getting it established in the USA. At about this time, Brian McGovern, who was a regular visitor to the USA, tried to get some interest going in an international canine dressage competition. Also involved in this were Robert Harlow and they did speak to both Canadians and US handlers such as Dee Dee Rose as well as Terry Arnold. Brian became somewhat disillusioned when he saw the direction in which the "doggy dancing" was going in some areas. In 1994, with the sport progressing, Sandra Davies joined the Canadian organisation and began to train her dog Pepper in some of the moves. Since that time, Sandra has probably become one of the most well known of the US Freestylers, having made several videos and published several books along the way. In the early days, the main organisation in the USA, guided by Joan Tennille and Alison Jaskiewicz, was the Canine Freestyle Federation Inc and Joan and Terry Arnold were invited to organise a Freestyle demonstration at the first AKC Invitational. These performances were greeted with standing ovations. It was at this point that the CFF was founded.

 

Another organisation was eventually formed in the USA, headed by a lady called Patie Ventre. She worked for an agency that looked after the promotion of some sponsored events for Heinz Pup-Peroni, a pet food manufacturer. By this stage in the USA, a lot of events and demonstrations were being held and they also managed to get some good television coverage. It was around 1998 that Patie Ventre decided to form the World Canine Freestyle Organisation Limited (WCFO) to start to promote their own events, and also obviously with their own set of rules and giving their own titles. The style promoted by this organisation was more aimed at increasing the drama and flashy costuming and moving away from the obedience movements, which are still retained and promoted by the other US organisation CFF.

 

In 2002, some of the handlers who belonged to the WCFO decided to set up their own organisation, which they named the Musical Dog Sport Association.

 

In mainland Europe, it was very easy for the sport to spread from country to country due to the ease of travelling across borders and the initial ideas seems to have come from European handlers coming over to spectate at Crufts and seeing Mary Ray performing demonstrations in the special events ring.

 

Switzerland: In about 1997, Angela Schmid and a friend of hers came over and stayed with Mary and Dave Ray for a few days and Mary trained them up in the basics of Heelwork to Music. Angela has gone on to be an accomplished competitor and demonstrator at shows throughout the continent and has recently held several major HTM competitions in Switzerland.

 

Holland/Belgium: Mary, at the invitation of Brian McGovern, took a HTM training day in Holland, which also had some Belgian people in it in about 1997. They have since been holding their own competitions as well as several of the top competitors coming over the UK to compete in our competitions.

 

Denmark: Johanna Allenach started the enthusiasm in Denmark. Mary went over to take an obedience course for her and took with her the competition video from Coventry 1996. Johanna liked what she saw and she has now demonstrated at breed shows as far away as Italy.

 

Austria: Manuela Nassek saw Mary at Crufts in 1995 or 1996 and went back and started to train herself some of the moves and put them into a rudimentary routine. John Gilbert was at the time in Austria training agility and he then helped her with some of the more advanced moves and her choreography. She has since become the top exponent of HTM in Austria.

 

Jersey: Donelda Guy has been one of the driving forces in Heelwork to Music over the years and has held numerous competitions in Jersey under the auspices of the American organisation, the World Canine Freestyle Organisation Limited. Donelda started when she was asked to do a demonstration in Jersey in about 1995, Mary's demonstration routine at the time was with her Tervueren Roxy to Glen Miller's "St Louis Blues March". So Donelda came to spend an afternoon at Mary and Dave’s house, Mary showed her this routine with a view to Donelda using it in her demonstration. And, of course, from that point onwards, Donelda had the "bug".

 

Australia: Again, the initial idea seems to have been taken from Crufts after they saw Mary's "Riverdance" routine. Jill Houston then put together a team of handlers and their first routine was to "Riverdance. The Australians held their first formal competition in December 1998. There has being growing enthusiasm is the sport since with demonstrations being given at some of Australia’s premier Royal shows.

 

The same can be said about New Zealand although as well as it being seen at Crufts, following a visit from Mary and Dave Ray in 1998, a lot of the obedience people have been trying their hand at the sport. In the autumn of 2000, New Zealand also had a visit from Kay Laurence who, as well as taking clicker training seminars, also took some seminars on HTM. New Zealand has now had its first formal competition and there are regularly demonstrations of the sport at public events.

 

South Africa: Linda Squair visited Crufts and saw the "Riverdance" routine and was taken with the whole concept. Shortly after that, she invited Mary over there to take some dog training courses, which included Heelwork to Music. Again, the sport seems to have mushroomed with the group that are demonstrating in great demand at all kinds of events and they now hold formal competitions.

 

Back in the UK, although Mary was continuing to get an enthusiastic audience at Crufts, it was not growing amongst other people in the way it should have done and not enough people were deciding to have a go although there appeared to be plenty of people playing about with the sport. It was then that Peter Lewis made the suggestion to move it forward by holding a competition and an event was planned to be held at Coventry. This event proved to be a turning point in the UK, which was very fortunate in obtaining sponsorship from Pedigree enabling substantial publicity of the event as well as increased investment on the day to make it the success it was.

 

When the first competition was held in 1996, Peter Lewis applied to the Kennel Club for permission to hold a "special event". It was clear then that they could not get a licence as it was an unrecognised sport but as it turned out, they could not get the special permission either because, as stated by the Kennel Club at the time, they cannot give permission for something to happen when it is not a sport within their jurisdiction. However, they did say that they would look at it again if the sport became more popular. During 2000, there were probably around eight formalised shows and many training courses held throughout the UK and, of course, we know it is now becoming a feature at many dog training clubs. Today, there are numerous shows held all around the UK every year.

 

For the first three years Mary decided not to compete at this event but purely to give a demonstration. This would give a chance for other people to catch up as Mary had obviously been demonstrating for a few years at this point. This has now become a major annual competition held in February each year at Coventry and we have to acknowledge that this event was responsible for a big upsurge in interest. And, of course, in the last couple of years its growth has been phenomenal with this event now also hosting the Semi-Final competition for qualifying advanced handlers hoping to compete in the National Heelwork to Music finals held during Crufts, a competition which has only been running since 2005.

 

1999 also saw the formation of a club dedicated to the sport. This was instigated by Kay Laurence and the club, namely, "Paws-n-Music" is run as a club should be run, with a committee and now has over 200 members. Paws n Music has flourished since then and now holds three KC licensed competitions a year as well as generally promoting the sport at various other events and demonstrations.

 

In 2002, Paws n Music applied for Kennel Club registration and was the first dedicated club to do so. After much hard work and patience the club became the first KC registered Heelwork to Music organisation in April 2003.

 

Heelwork to music is the newest canine sport to receive official recognition from the Kennel Club and this is largely down to the dedication and hard work of people like Kay Laurence, Annie Clayton and Mary Ray. Some would say, with its growth in popularity, it was inevitable. This is probably very true, but taking the early days in Agility as an example, we believe that without our founders it could have been many more years before we got to the stage we are at now.

 

When the KC published the first set of agility regulations, they were very basic and did not even include a regularised classification of classes and this gave the chance for the sport to grow without being tied down with too many specific regulations, although the protection of a broader show regulation were in place. It was not until the sport was well established that specific classifications and regulations were put in place. Although in Heelwork to Music we now have official classes and our first set of KC regulations, as the sport progresses, the enthusiasts will continue to get together to ensure that any future changes to regulations are driven by the competitors themselves.

 

This new sport is also a unique opportunity to rejuvenate the obedience club scene as it is so closely allied with obedience that we can use it to its benefit.

 

'Heelwork to Music' is a golden opportunity to get some enthusiasm back for obedience. There are one or two people of course who say you cannot do obedience and something else as well, but they used to say that about agility and who are the top handlers in 'Heelwork to Music' now - they are also accomplished handlers in obedience: Mary Ray, Gina Pink, Donelda Guy, Lynda Edmondson, Richard Curtis, Lesley Brocklehurst, Carole Dodson etc. Some clubs are now putting 'Heelwork to Music' classes on and the participants benefit from a good basic knowledge first and this is now having a positive effect on their membership. People are staying on at the club after their pet obedience course to try to gain some additional skills.

 

If you have not got anyone in your club who is at this moment a HTM person, then there is plenty of information out there through organisations such as Paws n Music, as well as books and training videos from the top handlers like Mary Ray. There is no reason why you cannot start a basic kind of class, even if it is little more than doing an obedience round to music and then trying out our Progress Awards Scheme. The only people who can create the enthusiasm in your club are you, the people in charge of the clubs and the trainers. And certainly, it is a fact now that some clubs are managing to hold onto their pet obedience people and take them onto a Heelwork to Music class while at the same time interest them in obedience, which hopefully, will lead them into competition.