By Charlene Dunlap
September 2009

Beautifully groomed Poodles are charismatic, almost mystical-looking creatures.  They are graceful, athletic, and intelligent, their appearance and personality instantly attracting attention.  What better place to use these star-like qualities than in a performance venue such as a dance-based variety show.

Most musical canine freestyle routines are designed for, and performed at, competitions. Routines are subject to guidelines of the hosting freestyle organization and are evaluated by a panel of judges. Audiences for freestyle are made up mostly of those who attend dog related events.

My friends Lynn Franklin and Joan Rose wanted to bring freestyle to a wider audience. Along with their dogs Sam, a Standard Poodle, and Tucker, a Miniature Long-haired Dachshund, they created a freestyle-based variety show and began performing at different venues. They have performed several times to a packed house at the famous National Theatre in Washington D.C., done the intermission show for Shakespeare on the Boardwalk, and have performed in numerous other venues. They have received praise from Readers Digest and The Washington Post, invitations to perform in England and Europe, and, most importantly, smiles from the thousands of audience members who have attended their performances.
Over the years, Lynn and Joan have perfected what works best in performing for different types of audiences. On a recent visit, I asked them for tips I could pass on to those who would like to use musical canine freestyle for entertainment/education shows.

Your Audience

When performing before an audience, you need a name for your group – Lynn, Joan, and their dogs are known as the Boogie Woogie BowWows
. Having a name makes you memorable.

Gear your show length according to your audience’s age and expectations. Schools and theaters, for example, prefer 45-50 minutes whereas nursing homes and special-needs venues usually prefer shows 20-25 minutes in length. Since most forms of entertainment these days are fast-paced, you need to have a lot of movement and action in your show to hold the audience’s interest. At the end of your program, you can include a ten-minute period for people to interact with the dogs . . . if that is something you feel comfortable doing. Some dogs enjoy audience interaction and some don’t. You need to know your dog’s limitations about what he will tolerate from children and older adults.

Each show should have an overall theme. One of Lynn and Joan’s shows is called Dancing with the Dogs, a take-off of Dancing with the Stars. They invite three audience members on stage to "judge" certain dances. Naturally, each judge’s paddle only has "10" on it.

Before they perform each routine, they tell the audience a little about the dance type, i.e., tango, waltz, swing, etc. They demonstrate the moves the dog will be doing for that style of dance . . . for instance, a "moon walk" for a Michal Jackson number or a lot of front feet lifting for a march. (This also serves as a warm up for the dog.) Then one partner works the boom box while the other performs a 40-second routine containing these moves: she is also ready with the microphone to make a spontaneous remark in case the performing dog makes an error.

In your rehearsals before a show, think about what to say when the dog messes up. (He sometimes will.) However, Lynn and Joan specifically avoid saying that a dog messed up; instead they say the person messed up. For instance, the partner announcing the other’s routine can say something like, "Opps, Sam likes to lead and it looks like Lynn’s trying to lead again. Shall we give her another chance?" Or, "Tucker choreographed this cha cha – he may walk off if Joan messes up." The audience sympathizes with the dog, and the human partner has a chance to start over and get it right.

It’s up to you to humanize your dog’s personality so the audience can relate to him. Your dog is the character the audience wants to see, not you, therefore make him as interesting as possible with your dialog and the actions you have him perform.

Throughout the show, Lynn and Joan try to keep the audience constantly engaged. They take turns between talking and performing. While one talks to the audience, the other one gets ready to perform. While that one performs, the other works the boom box and gets ready for her own performance. (While one dog is performing, the other dog should have a special mat or chair in the back where he can go to relax while he is not on.)

Between routines you can educate the audience about dogs, dance, and whatever the sponsoring venue is promoting, such as reading for a library show. Although the basic framework for all their shows is the same, Lynn and Joan gear individual shows to the audience’s age and expectations. They never read from a script. They either memorize what they will say or ad lib. This back and forth patter should be well-rehearsed before the show. The entire show – patter, movement on stage, etc. – should be practiced many times with and without the dogs before going to the venue to perform.

Routines for entertainment shows

Routines for entertainment should be short. If choreographed to fit one verse, one chorus, and the ending of a piece of music, the routine ends up being about 40 to 60 seconds long. Short routines are easier to train, to keep the dog focused, and to maintain the interest of the audience. Using short routines allows you to feature several of them in one show.

As the routines are short and the available space often limited, you will want to use mostly flashy moves with transitions that take you and your dog smoothly from one move to the next. You want pizzazz and action to keep your audience’s attention. Unlike in freestyle competitions, you can discreetly use food rewards in your shows . . . people expect you to reward, and it is a good way to educate them about why paying dogs for their actions is good.

It’s best to use music that your audience can identify with. Generational music is often a good choice, and music with a definite beat works best. Marches work well in almost any venue as they have a strong beat that most every generation will feel. Also, show tunes and children’s music often have catchy melodies that even adults will end up humming afterwards.

Costumes make your show look more professional. When incorporating several short routines into a program, the flavor of your costume should fit the type of music for each routine. If you wear basic pants and shirt, you can quickly change into a hat and a vest that fits the type of music. These can even be changed while you are talking to the audience. The dog can wear the same sparkly scarf, vest, ankle bands, etc. for each performance or they can be quickly changed. (For ease of getting in and out of costumes, Velcro is a great invention.)

Before the show

Check the size of the room before you commit to a freestyle performance show. Walk through it so you can map out your routines and walk through them in that size space. If it’s not possible to walk through the actual venue before the performance, get measurements of the space from your organizer, map it out at home, and walk through it. For inside warm weather venues, emphasize to your sponsor that you must have air-conditioning: wilting dogs do not perform well.

The day before the show, make a list of everything you need for the show and the trip, and mark each of these off as they are loaded into your vehicle. You don’t want to arrive at your venue only to discover you’ve forgotten something vital.

Get to your venue early enough to setup your equipment and have time to get the dogs acclimated so they can be relaxed before the show. Let the dogs check out the room before people come in. Ask your sponsor to have the audience come in at a specific time and, while they are getting settled, take your dog around to show him the people. Preplan with your sponsor so your dog’s performance has the best chance for success.

Don’t rely on others. Take your own boom box with a sound amplifier and plug-in mirophone. Remember that sound does not carry well from the floor so set the boom box up higher. A room of people deadens sound so play the music louder than you think is necessary. You can always turn it down. Bring a backup of all tapes – think of all possibilities as music is critical for freestyle performances.

The show

Each show venue will be different; however, if you have a basic framework, you can adjust it for each show. Lynn and Joan are constantly refining what they do for different type venues.

Pre-program an audio tape for your show. Before the performance is to start, set your tape to play a fanfare after which it announces that the performance will begin in five minutes. Have it play soft music for five minutes followed by a short segment of dramatic music or fanfare music to get people’s attention. If possible, after you’ve started your tape and it is five minutes before the program starts, go into another room or behind a screen. That way you can make an entrance.  Lynn and Joan have a specially made curtain for this.

After the fanfare, let the tape announce that (the name of your group) is about to perform. The tape then introduces the first routine, and people and dogs come on stage to do a short routine together. The tape is then turned off, the microphone picked up, and one performer begins talking to the audience.

Whether or not you are experienced with public speaking, you want to develop and practice patter that leads your audience from one dance to another and that involves them with the onstage action. This means saying more than "And here is . . . . " To get some ideas on how you might do this, search the web and listen to a variety of MCs to find a style that you are comfortable with. Remember that your audience will only be as comfortable as you are.

Plan to begin and end your show with flashy routines that you and your dog consistently perform well. You want to grab the audience from the start and leave them with a positive memory.

Plan how you will exit the stage. Will you allow audience members to pet the dogs or not? If so, include this segment when timing your show and decide how to facilitate this without creating a mob scene. If you choose to not have a "meet and greet," have the dogs’ crates nearby to whisk them safely away when the show ends.   (If you plan to let your dog interact with audience members, you must have personal liability insurance.)

In conclusion

Creating an entertainment/educational program that uses freestyle as its basis takes a lot of thought, effort, and planning; however, once you have the framework for a workable show, the possibilities for fantastic musical productions are endless.  

White curtain in background is used as a logo for the group and to come from behind to make an entrance.

Article written for
 Poodle Variety Magazine
Oct-Dec Stud Issue 2009

See routines at:

Article written for
The United Poodle Breeds Association
Fall 2009 Newsletter

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