Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Strictly come barking!... or how I taught my mad mutt to ballroom dance (with a little help from Britain's Got Talent's Tina and Chandi)




Anne Shooter is trying to teach her dog Rufus to dance

For the past 18 months I have been trying to teach my beloved but rather excitable dog, Rufus, one simple trick: not to jump up all over every person he meets.

I know that practice makes perfect. But some days, getting Rufus to sit quietly on his mat, instead of pouncing on every unsuspecting guest, has seemed harder than climbing Everest on a pogo stick.

So what am I doing, standing on stage in a freezing church hall in Shropshire, dangling a piece of chicken above Rufus’s nose and pleading with him to jump up on me?
For that matter, why am I dressed in a spangly waistcoat and waving a silver cane?

I am, in fact, trying to teach Rufus to dance. That’s right, we are having a dancing lesson. And not from just anyone. This private tuition is from the nation’s best-loved doggy dancing pair — Britain’s Got Talent finalists Tina and Chandi.

Slight, unassuming Tina Humphrey wowed viewers of the ITV show last spring with the amazing connection she had with her beautiful border collie, Chandi.

The pair were like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, executing their charming and amusing routines in perfect unison.

I fear my bruiser of a dog and I will draw rather more comparisons with Ann Widdecombe and Anton du Beke. But that’s OK. I can steel myself for the inevitable withering verdict.

Tina, 38, assures me that any dog can be taught to dance — in fact, she has brought out a DVD to teach dog owners how to do it — so I try to be positive.

And so it is that Rufus and I are somewhere near Shrewsbury, where Tina and Chandi live, learning how to foxtrot (or at least to do the Labradoodle boogie).

As we introduce our two dogs, my reprobate hound bounces around and tries to sniff Chandi’s bottom while Chandi backs off and starts yapping.

‘Since my other dog died four years ago, Chandi hasn’t been overly friendly with new dogs,’ explains Tina, apologetically.

Anne and Rufus are having private tuition from the nation's best-loved doggy dancing pair - Britain's Got Talent finalists Tina and Chandi

Her embarrassment is nothing compared with my humiliation when I spot Rufus rummaging in Tina’s rucksack, only to emerge with a box of cheese pieces (Chandi’s favourite treat) in his mouth.

‘Don’t worry,’ says Tina, before adding damningly: ‘He simply hasn’t been taught otherwise. Chandi never takes any food unless I tell her she can. She waits for my permission for everything.’

A touch smug? Well, I remind myself that Chandi is an international champion at competitive obedience work who has won more awards at Crufts than any other dog in the country.

The bond Chandi and Tina have is extraordinary. Chandi never takes her eyes off Tina. She responds to the softest command, skipping, dancing on her hind legs and trotting when asked.

Not bad for a dog who was picked up at the pound as a puppy and was so unresponsive Tina thought she might be deaf. So, how did all this competitive ‘dancing’ come about?

Tina — who has a degree in music from Oxford and is a violin and piano teacher when she is not being Chandi’s dance partner — is not sure.

‘As I started to teach Chandi the basic commands to sit, heel and so on, I realised she was particularly responsive,’ she says. ‘I began to work more with her and started to see that she has some kind of gift.’

Tina says any dog can be taught to dance. She has brought out a DVD to teach dog owners how to do it

I have to admit that Chandi is a truly remarkable animal. She understands some 350 commands — everything from beg, sit up, turn round, skip, trot and so on — and words including tree, cat, lamp post, dustbin, phone and keys.

Tina’s latest project is teaching her two-way communication. If Chandi is asked a question such as ‘is this a drain?’ while Tina points at a bin, she will answer no by touching Tina’s finger with her nose. If the answer is yes, she gets excited and touches Tina’s thumb.

It’s real Dr Doolittle stuff. And yes, it might even be a bit weird if it wasn’t for the fact that Tina seems likeable and down to earth.

True, she is 38 and single, but that is more down to her fussiness, she tells me, than not wanting a man in her life.

‘I know how blessed I am to have such a special relationship with Chandi. I think of her as my soulmate,’ she says. ‘But I haven’t stopped looking for a partner. I am sure there must be someone out there who is right.’

On Chandi: 'She wags her tail the entire time we train or perform and always looks relaxed and focused. It's a purely joyful experience,' said Tina

One thing’s for sure: any prospective husband would have to accept there would be three of them in the marriage — particularly as Chandi sleeps on Tina’s bed.

Catering for Chandi isn’t easy. She eats an exclusively raw-food diet of fresh meat, vegetables and fruit. And that’s before you factor in visits to her canine massage therapist, chiropractor, holistic vet and U.S.-based nutritionist (Chandi has, would you believe it, a Hollywood-style wheat allergy).

This is one pampered pooch — in fact, Tina tells me, all her money goes on Chandi. Her last investment was a special ramp for entering and leaving Tina’s car.

I ask Tina if it might be considered cruel, asking a dog to dance, all the more so when it’s at the rather advanced age of 12. After all, I venture, most women of an equivalent age — 84 in human years — might find all that skipping and trotting a bit exhausting.

Tina is adamant that Chandi loves it.

‘I don’t think she would do it if she didn’t want to,’ she insists. ‘She wags her tail the entire time we train or perform and always looks relaxed and focused. It’s a purely joyful experience.’

'After his moment in the spotlight, Rufus is back to thinking it's de rigueur to jump up on everyone he meets,' said Anne

I can’t say I wholly share Tina’s enthusiasm, but it’s time to see if Rufus can rise to the challenge. Could he be the canine equivalent of Strictly’s Matt Baker — or will he be more John Sergeant?

Tina explains that you start by teaching the dog a verbal sound which means he has been successful. Do this by making the sound and giving your dog a treat, she commands.

You then introduce a different ‘support signal’ to encourage the dog as it moves towards doing the correct thing, increasing the pitch and intensity of your voice.

Our first basic move involves trying to teach Rufus to follow my hand, as I move it in front of him. Once he’s got the hang of that, the dancing begins.

Well, I say dancing. What this mostly involves is Rufus standing on his hind legs and jigging up and down. It’s hardly going to win over Craig Revel Horwood. But while it may look ungainly, Rufus loves it. After just a few minutes Tina admits he ‘has potential’.

We press on to even harder challenges. In less than an hour we have Rufus sitting up on his hind legs to the command of ‘beg’.

'I know how blessed I am to have such a special relationship with Chandi. I think of her as my soulmate,' Tina said

Then we have him standing right up, front paws on my chest or on the glittery pole, to the command of ‘up’.

Tina even has him turning circles following her fingers, and he is halfway to marching on the spot.

The only downside to our foray into the world of doggy dancing?

Well, after his moment in the spotlight, Rufus is back to thinking it’s de rigueur to jump up on everyone he meets.

In fact, he looks astonished not to receive a treat for doing so.

Perhaps he’s not ready to become a dancing star after all — and I can’t help thinking that might be for the best.

Tina And Chandi Teach Your Dog New Tricks is available to buy on DVD at £19.99.

source: dailymail [endtext]