One of the aspects of freestyle that causes some people to adversely comment about the sport is that of the handler’s costume. Over the years this side of the sport has developed into one of the essential parts of a good routine. In the beginning it was okay to just wear smart clothing but nowadays with more handlers performing theme based routines a relevant costume helps to sell the routine to the audience.
Over the years I have judged many different routines and sometimes the costumes have distracted from the dog which for me is not a good thing. This sport is all about showing off your teamwork and creating a routine which showcases your dog’s strengths. During a routine you don’t want to be overlooking one participant but you should be drawn to them both as a whole. I was once told a saying which has stayed with me and this was ‘The handler should be the frame and the dog should be the picture’. For me this totally encapsulates what the role of the handler is during a routine as after all this is a dog training sport so it is the dog that we should be showing off.
When picking an outfit for a routine there are many factors that need to be taken into consideration. First, the colour of the dog needs to be complemented by the colour of the handler’s clothes. I often see handlers wearing black trousers when they have a black dog which does not show off the dog as it tends to blend into the handler’s legs. Choose a colour that will allow the audience to see the dog clearly even if it is close to you. Second, think about the moves that you will be doing as if they involve you running around or bending over then you want the clothes free enough for you to be able to do this.
When looking at trousers for a routine outfit try and make sure that they are a similar width to the ones that you normally use. The reason for this is that I have seen many handlers have wide flowing trousers which cuts down the area between their legs for the dog to go through. Sometimes especially with the smaller dogs you can see them thinking that going through their handlers legs is like running through a pair of curtains not knowing what is on the other side. This also applies to the handler’s upper body garments as some ladies’ tops can have very baggy sleeves which fall over the dog’s head thus obscuring the dog’s view of the handler’s face. Shirts that have tassels on also want to be avoided as these can cover the dog’s head and with the more excitable dog you might find that you end up with a dog tugging your sleeve as it thinks that the tassels are a play toy!
Of course the routine you are doing might not lend itself to a pair of trousers for example if you were doing a piece from snow white and the seven dwarfs and wanted to play Snow White, trousers would just not fit the look. This would mean that you would then have to wear a skirt which can often cause immense problems for the dog. If you have a medium sized dog, in order for the dog to go through your legs it is going to need to duck very low. Of course one option is to lift the skirt which can sometimes be a little dangerous as items that the handler doesn’t want to show off go on show! So skirts on the whole are not advisable for a routine but it does depend on the height of the dog and the length of the skirt.
I tend to advise handlers to try and make sure that their lower half is not too bright as this is where a lot of the moves by the dog will be done. When I was working my clown routine I used a pair of old jeans which I shortened and then added some patches just to make it look more like a circus clown. The colours on the upper body can be a little more vibrant if you so require but still think about the overall look of the costume with the dog. It’s often a good idea to video your routine with the outfit on or at least take a picture so you can see if all the colours complement each other.
Hats can also form part of a costume and like with anything that the handler is wearing they need to get the dog acclimatised to them wearing it before they enter the ring. The main problem with hats is that they can fall off just when you don’t want them to so make sure they are a snug fit. Don’t forget also that a hat can be a good tool for covering signals, just by taking off the hat and holding it in the air you can cover the signal for the dog to go into the high position. Also the hat can be used as a marker for the dog to go to or for the dog to go round in various directions.
There are also various other items that form part of a costume such as necklaces, bangles etc. Anything that is going to be on the handler has to be looked at for potential hazards. Necklaces can often hit the dog on the head if they are quite long as the handler leans over the dog. It has been known for things to get stuck in the dog’s coat especially if the handler is kneeling on the floor and the dog is doing close work.
Shoes are another part of the costume which many starter handlers overlook. The thickness of the sole of a shoe can affect the way a handler moves. Often handlers wear thick soled trainers which have very limited flexibility thus making all their movements look clumpy and heavy. Of course sometimes you can use this to your advantage, when I did a light hearted farmer routine I wore a pair of Wellington boots. By wearing these they naturally made me move in a different manner and also helped me to get into the character of the routine. If the routine requires a bit more movement and rhythm it is often advisable to wear as thinner soled shoes as you can find. I learnt this when I went to classes to learn Salsa where the thin soles allowed you to bend you foot much more. Try out various types of shoe and see how you move in them.
There are of course people who do not want to dress up in anyway to do a routine and that is fine. There are styles of music which lend themselves to the more conventional way of dressing that these people feel more comfortable performing in. If you are in this category of handler then try and find something in the ‘top and tail’ type music of Sinatra/ Sammy Davis Junior. For this type of routine a white shirt with a black bow tie is sufficient to represent the genre of music you are using. It cannot be denied though that an outfit can assist in presenting the dogs routine and done in the right way can really bring it together.