Dancing With Dogs

Aug 6, 2011 | 2011 Articles, Contributors, Pets, Sandra Murphy

by Sandra Murphy

Kevin Costner danced with wolves. On television, there’s dancing with the stars. I danced with dogs at nursing homes, hospitals and special needs schools. Hollywood and ABC never called.

When you have two left feet and cannot hear the beat in a song, the biggest plus of dancing with a dog is no one is watching you—they only have eyes for the dog. They’ve not seen the routine, have no idea if you should start on the left foot or right, and won’t care if you’re having a Bad Hair Day—heck, they won’t know you have hair—but the dog will remain in their minds.

Sandra's dog Izzie

Whether you dance for entertainment only, like I did, or perfect your moves and win titles, dancing with your dog is good exercise for both mind and body for dog and human. It’s fun, you have to laugh, the dog will embarrass you in a number of ways. If the dance move you’ve bragged on goes south, think fast and come up with a new line of patter. Pick a song you can hear a thousand times, something your audience can identify with – I suspect when I’m in a nursing home someone will be dancing to “Inna Godda Da Vida” or the Bee Gees high pitched “Stayin’ Alive.” Costumes are important, they add color to your routine. Your dog will remind your audience of dogs they had, bringing back memories and maybe a few tears. Be ready for those.
What impresses an audience? Dogs who sit and stay, wear sunglasses or hats, who can be near other dogs and even cats without being out of control.

The purpose is to entertain special needs children or nursing home residents, not to humiliate the dancer, although when working with dogs, humiliation is pretty much guaranteed. And before imagining waltzing with a Whippet, cha-cha-ing with a Chihuahua or a Terrier two-step, let me say, the dogs are in heel position. They heel, sit and stay, jump or do tricks. It’s the heeling patterns that make the dance impressive.

How does someone become a dog dancer? It wasn’t my idea; in fact, I fought it at first. I had taken my dog to obedience class, then advanced obedience and a trick class. I saw many of the same people and dogs at every session. We talked about what to train next and decided on pet therapy. We affiliated with Love on a Leash, a California based pet assisted therapy group, formed a chapter, evaluated teams and started to visit nursing homes and schools. When “What’s next?” came up again, a drill team was mentioned. I said, “Not me!” I was talked into it “just so we’d have enough dancers.” In spite of being without grace, style or rhythm, I found myself enjoying it.

The main thing to remember when dancing with dogs is the audience. They are focused on the dogs and music, remembering dogs they’ve known. So far, no one in our group has fallen off the stage, when we’ve had one, or run into a wall when we didn’t. I don’t count the time I scraped Martha and Brett off the end of the pinwheel, forcing them out of the room through an open doorway. The room was crowded and we picked them up again on the next turn anyway. Exaggerated moves can bring a lot of laughter, both from the dancers and the audience.

While sweeping Fred Astaire type moves are impressive, the determining factor in dog choreography is the amount of space available. Nursing homes will say yes, we have a 15 X 15 space for dancers, please come. They lie. The space also contains an atrium, twenty wheelchairs and at least one person attached to an IV pole. That person will walk right through the middle of the routine and never notice eight dancing dog teams, all scattering to get out of the way.

Choosing a song is fun. Listening to it four hundred times while matching obedience moves to the beat is not. Pick music the audience will recognize and enjoy but won’t be annoying to dance to week after week. Once a nursing home finds out about dancing dogs, the phone will ring off the hook. Activities directors share news at blinding speed.

Children get bored—they want to throw things for the dog to fetch. During a performance, it’s good to have an audience participation number where kids can join in and burn off excess energy. One handler asks her dog, “What dance do you want to do?” It’s his cue to sit up and wave his paws. She says to the kids, “He wants to do the ‘Macarena’, do you know that one?” It’s humbling to look into the audience and see a five year old dancing with more skill and coordination than anyone on stage.

Dance steps can cause laughter just because of the size of the dog versus the size of the handler. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” calls for the handler to put the dog in a sit/stay position, then step in front of him. At the correct beat, the handler moves her feet apart and gives the command, “Through!” The dog runs between her legs and back into heel position. A very short woman with a very tall Golden Retriever is a guaranteed laugh.

Don’t worry about learning fancy footwork or repeating a move. What will most impress the audience is dogs in hats or sunglasses, dogs moving in unison, dogs who sit and stay when told, and dogs who work from hand signals. A Conga line of handlers and dogs makes a great exit. Changing music and props will make all the difference. Check carnival supply houses or craft stores for tiny cowboy hats or sunglasses. Make sure at least one member can sew—matching scarves for handlers and dogs look good in photos.

When visiting with the audience after a performance, remember a handler is merely the dog’s chauffeur and translator. People will not remember the human but always remember the dog. Make business cards with the dog’s name and picture to hand out—it’s a nice souvenir of the visit.

Bloopers will happen; it’s part of the fun. As “St. Louis Blues” cued on the tape player, I started off in march step only to feel the leash tighten, never a good sign. I turned and saw my dog, sitting up, her back to the audience, engrossed by a fish tank. We’d forgotten to train for fish distraction.

Our biggest blooper happened when we performed The Shootout. Joyce aimed her finger at Maggie and yelled, “Bang!” Maggie just looked at her. Joyce aimed and fired again. Maggie looked at the ceiling. After the third shot, Maggie laid down slowly, dramatically. Instead of putting her head down, she looked at the audience of retired nuns and then threw one back leg into the air and, well, you can guess what she did then. I whispered to Joyce, “I think you shot her in the butt.” Like I said, when working with dogs, humiliation is pretty much guaranteed.

To learn more about Love on a Leash check out their website.

Sandra Murphy lives in the shadow of the arch, in the land of blues, booze and shoes—St Louis, Missouri. While writing magazine articles to support her mystery book habit, she secretly polishes two mystery books of her own, hoping, someday, they will see the light of Barnes and Noble.


  1. I enjoyed your article. I am trying to teach dance to my dog but there are no classes here so haven’t gotten very far but will keep at it, its fun.

    • Look at the things your dog does already – does he spin in one direction? sit and stay? heel? It’s mostly obedience set to music. With us, the wow was six or eight dogs working in (sort of) unison. Believe me, the dogs were more talented than the handlers and knew the routines better! Take two things he knows and see what move will hook them together. Pick a simple song that people will recognize. It’s easier than you think once you get the first couple of moves down.

  2. This article made me chuckle. You described it in such a way that I thought I was there watching the performance. Lots of good tips. Always about the dog. Thank You.

  3. Thanks, I will keep teaching her

  4. Feel free to ask questions – I’ll help if I can.

    • Thanks 🙂


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