Do Dogs Dance To The Music?
By Dr Attila Szkukalek
How important is it that the dog hears the music whilst
practising a routine and do they remember any of the moves
by music cues as opposed to any we may give them?
The short answers to these questions are
¨ It is important for the dog to hear the music enough
times to enable her to associate the music with an
enjoyable routine-practice. It is not important to hear the
music so frequently that it would enable her to learn to
recognise aspects of music as cues for certain moves since
other cues (verbal, visual or tactile) can be used to emit
moves and control the dog’s actions.
¨ Most likely dogs learn to recognise and respond to well
noticeable tempo (speed of beats) or rhythm (pattern of the
music) changes or accents (emphasised or irregular notes,
beats) in the music as cues if they precede or overlap with
certain moves in the routine. Most dogs learn to associate
the beat(s) or a particular music pattern at the start of
the music as a cue to start the routine, and some other
well noticeable cue during the routine as a cue to carry
out a favourite move. This happens through associating the
noticeable cue with a highly rewarding action.
Since music (phrases, tonality, rhythm, etc) do not differ
greatly and are repeated within a musical composition,
music by itself cannot be used to cue all moves throughout
the routine. If the music varied throughout the
composition, theoretically it would be possible to teach
dogs to perform a sequence of moves on a noticeable music
cue, then start the next sequence again on a noticeable
(however different from the previous one) music cue.
During the routine, dogs enjoy performing certain moves
more than others; and the more times the routine is
performed, they learn that they can get to the favoured
moves quicker by doing shortcuts--performing incomplete
moves and/or leaving out moves in the sequence leading to
the favoured move. It is easier to prevent such shortcuts
from happening by keeping the dog concentrated on the
handler and by controlling the dog by cues from the
handler. Teaching or allowing the dog to concentrate too
much on the music might lead to certain independence, loss
of concentration on the dance-partner, and might increase
the risk of the dog’s-making mistake(s) in the routine.
However, having said this, it still might be beneficial to
teach the dog to carry out certain moves on music cues.
e.g. moves that the dog is reluctant to perform; moves that
tend to break down in the routine; move(s) that start the
finishing sequence leading to the favourite reward at the
end of the routine; or moves that are particularly
impressive if performed in tune with the music.
It has been shown that animals, similarly to us humans,
also have some innate disposition to harmonise their
movements with music. Agility competitors motivate their
dogs to weave fast by repeating the Weave word very fast in
high-pitched tone. If they would say the weave in a low
“loooong tone” the dog would be unable to weave fast. We
have to bear this in mind when we choreograph the routine.
If we want the dog to perform Tic-Tac (lifting her front
legs alternately) she more likely will be able to do that
to a loud beaty music when the beats match the required
tempo of lifting the legs rather than to a low long tune in
the music. Contrary if we would like the dog to lift and
hold up her legs for 5-10 seconds it is better to choose a
non-beaty long tune in the music than a highly spaced beaty
An important role of the music is the context effect, that
it becomes an occasion setter. It signals the dog that what
comes next is the enjoyable training / performance session,
including the enjoyable rewards contingent upon
performance. To teach the dog to recognise the music as an
occasion setter I start practising with music
¨ When I start working on sequences.
¨ When I make the training session enjoyable by varying the
sequences, and by using variable and high value rewards.
In contrast, however, I use lower value rewards, practise
longer sequences, and repeat the exercises more time (drill
practice) in the absence of music.
Copyright 2007 Happy Pets - Attila Szkukalek