The DogWork Toolbox & This Thing Called Improv

Play with the Joy of Improv: Trish & Boon
Photo by The Dog Sport Photographers

By Patricia Koontz, Carolina Canine Freestyle Guild

Creative studies, called "improv" in DogWork, seem to be the biggest challenge for many folks in our sport, including me. I feel like I am only now becoming a bit fluent in using the skill of improv and I know exactly why that is. It's because I had a fear of it and thus I never practiced improv with my canine partner outside of class until very recently. Well, lightbulb moment, albeit very late in the game: You can't improve at improv if you don't practice!

I do believe that DogWork improv is a skill that must be learned along with technical skills, applying concepts, enhancement, artistry, and the rest of our freestyle skills. Not that movement must be learned; as Joan so often tells us, we have had the movement right there in our bodies since we were children. What must be nurtured with practice is the method of creating with freestyle improv (more on this below), the mindset for creativity, and the full acceptance of the dog as a true partner in creative work.

If you study textbook definitions of improv you'll see that they accurately describe what we are doing in DogWork creative studies. Improv basically means to create something new and unrehearsed and, very importantly, unplanned by the human, using the tools and foundation of the discipline.

I've (finally) come to realize that there is always "help" in place for freestyle improv. I've never had any reason to be afraid of it. At retreats, seminars, and classes with our talented DogWork teachers, we are often reminded of the "structure" of freestyle, the definitions and concepts, the technical training, the true essence of partnership. All of these we can use as TOOLS to develop an improv. We have a huge toolbox in this sport!

The concepts are always one guideline; use the one being studied in the lesson or choose one yourself for independent studies. Another guideline is an intent chosen by student or teacher - take a few moments before you begin your improv to envision playing with your partner and expressing that intent. Can you close your eyes and really see your dog expressing joy? Or elegance? Fluidity? What are you doing in your play session vision that enhances your dog to express this?

A teacher might give you a small piece of direction for a tool to use in improv, or you might choose one yourself, such as, "Create a short phrase using the shape of the first letter of your dog's name." Lately, I have been thrilled to go back to my potpourri bag from the retreat a couple of summers ago and pull out one of those little slips of paper as a tool and inspiration for setting up my improv. I also love to look back at all my class notes from several years in the sport and just choose one idea, one thing that inspired me enough to write it down. So many tools = endless inspiration for improv.

I have only recently realized that we are never left helpless when setting up to do an improv, although it certainly can feel that way in the beginning! Hmmmm, what took me so long? Not sure about that; perhaps just too many years of too little creative fun and too much time spent on doing things "the right way". Successful DogWork lessons set students up to relate their improv to the concepts of the lesson, technical skills for the lesson, and intent. We can do the same thing for ourselves when we are working on independent study. Drawing on awareness of the DogWork toolbox for creative studies is a way we can also support other teams when we are sharing open work time together.

I'm very thrilled to be training to become a teacher of DogWork. I now know that the more that I can facilitate students to do improv from the very beginning, the more tools I'll be giving them for developing a movement vocabulary and for crafting choreography. Learning to do improv is sort of like learning to "fly" on a trampoline. My job as a teacher is to help them, through movement, see how the concepts, definition, technical skills, and intents are the way you build and anchor your trampoline. The freestyle toolbox is the safety net. You build with these tools so that you can get on the trampoline and create joyful inspired movement which is also grounded. At first a teams' creations may be small and hesitant but gradually they will learn to trust their foundation and their partners - they will learn how to fly high with improv.

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