Man's best friend, new dance partner

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. The music swells and Annie Schlaff and her yellow Lab Danny slip into a lively cha-cha-cha.

Across the room, straight-faced trainers reveal the finer points of dancing with dogs to about 50 attentive owners here for the second annual International Canine Freestyle Conference.

Despite Danny's obvious talents, it's not quite like waltzing ol' Brown-Eyes across the Roseland Ballroom. The event organizer, the World Canine Freestyle Organization, calls it a ''choreographed musical program'' of animal and owner a mixture of obedience, timing, music and sometimes costumes.

It has thousands of fans, and it's growing.

Groups started, independently of each other, in England and Canada in 1989 and spread to the United States and Japan. Organizers figure there are some 9,000 adherents so far, maybe half of them in the United States.

It is judged, there is a hierarchy, and competition can be brisk.

Some dogs have learned to raise their paws in time to the music.

''That's the goal of everyone,'' said Judy Whipple, of Rainier, Ore.

Top canine freestyle trainers can command $800 a day, $2,500 for a weekend workshop. Dogs who are ''highly rated'' by judging panels carry considerable bragging rights for their owners.

Patie Ventre, of Brooklyn, N.Y., launched canine free-style in the United States in 1999 and recalls driving her dog, Dancer, to Washington and having him strut his stuff on the desk of an IRS agent to prove the organization was for real.

The group has had nonprofit tax-free status ever since.

At the weekend meet in Oregon, some dogs struggled with the freestyle moves, while others were, in their way, bound for glory.

Tag, a Pembroke Welsh Corgie owned by Ellen Perlson, of Petaluma, Calif., holds the World Freestyle Dog-Excellence rating and is one of only a few of the breed to compete, Perlson says.

''Can you wave, Tag?'' she asks.

Tag does.

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