The Top Dog in Heelwork to Music: Interview with Lorna Syrett

Heelwork to Music Freestyle champions Lorna Syrette and Nora
Image Credit: BeatMedia

Heelwork to music is a dog sport that involves performing a pre-choreographed routine with your dog to a piece of music. If you and your dog have a close bond and love nothing more than spending time together, Heelwork to Music might just be the perfect activity for you to get involved in. That’s exactly what Lorna Syrett did back in October 2018, and now six years later, she holds the national and international Crufts titles for Freestyle Heelwork to Music with her dog Nora. We caught up with Lorna to discuss all things dogs and dancing!

How it All Began

Back in 2018, Lorna got her first dog, a border collie puppy called Nora. “From the research that I had done, I knew that a border collie needed to have a job and be involved in an activity,” Lorna tells us. “I was originally going to do agility but after going to a small Heelwork to Music class and having one lesson, I loved it and became hooked. Nora, who was six months old at the time, also loved it and we have never looked back since.”

It wasn’t long before Lorna and Nora started competing together. Heelwork to music competitions involve performing a routine with your dog to music, to be marked by judges. There are two types, Heelwork and Freestyle. “Both work in a very similar way in terms of progression and level,” Lorna explains. “The main difference is that in Heelwork, the dog has to work in any number of eight heelwork positions for at least two thirds of the routine. For Freestyle the dog can only be in the heelwork positions for no more than a third of the routine.”

Handlers and their dogs are marked out of 30, with 10 marks available for each of the three following categories:

  • Content and flow – Points are awarded for the types of moves performed, and for how well they flow in a natural manner.
  • Accuracy and team performance – This category is about performing the moves accurately, and making sure that the dog and handler work together in harmony during the performance.
  • Musical interpretation – The choreography and theme of the routine should match the music chosen.

Up to four marks can also be deducted if the dog barks or makes noise during the routine. The team that scores the highest are the winners.

“Heelwork to music is a sport that, within reason, anything goes,” Lorna explains. “There is no set move list or requirements that handlers have to follow when choreographing their routines.”

This freedom allowed to performers means that the range of routines you’ll see at a Heelwork to Music competition vary hugely, making for a very entertaining show. “One minute you will be watching a team gracefully dance around the ring to Swan Lake and then the next it’s a fast paced performance to Bat out of Hell,” Lorna laughs. “All it requires is a dog, a handler and a want to have fun.”

Heelwork to Music Crufts Champions and Beyond

From that first session, Lorna and Nora have gone on to achieve amazing things. They first qualified for Crufts in 2023, coming third in the UK national final, before qualifying again for Crufts 2024. “We got to achieve a dream of winning the UK National Freestyle final on the Friday in the main ring,” Lorna recollects. “This also meant that we had qualified to compete on the Saturday in the international final to represent the UK. Beyond my wildest expectations we also won this, making us the International Crufts 2024 Freestyle champions!”

The prize-winning pair were also selected to be part of the Freestyle UK Team, heading to Italy in October 2023 for the European Open Championships. “We placed eighth individually and the UK won gold as a Team,” Nora says. “We have been selected to once again be on the UK Team for the championships that will be held in Germany in August this year.”

Dancing the Way to a Documentary

Image Credit: @abcnewsstudios on Instagram

On top of becoming international champions in their sport, Lorna and Nora were also recently asked to take part in a documentary series, available on Disney Plus. The duo appeared in ‘The Secret Lives of Dancing with Dogs’, which follows the journeys of seven handlers and their dogs from around the world. One of these journeys is that of Lorna and Nora as they make their way to their first Crufts appearance in March 2023.

“It was amazing to be a part of,” Lorna tells us. “I think the best part was being able to tell people Nora’s story and show everyone just how special she is.” She adds, “Nora loved being in front of the camera and getting lots of attention!”

As well as enjoying seeing Nora in the limelight, Lorna was also thrilled to see her favourite sport get recognition. “It is lovely that Heelwork to Music is getting representation in such a positive light and being shown as a fun and serious dog sport for people to get involved with.”

‘The Secret Lives of Dancing with Dogs’ is available to stream on Disney Plus.

A Life-changing Sport

“There are so many amazing things about the sport that I could go on forever,” Lorna enthuses. One of these, she says, is the people you meet. “The community is definitely something that always keeps me coming back for more. Everyone is so friendly and understands how nerve-wracking it can be going into the ring to be judged. You never know if you are going to have a good day or a bad day but no matter what happens, everyone is there to cheer you on and support you,” she says fondly. “It is like one big family. Win or lose we all have a great time.”

The strong bond Lorna and Nora have built together is another reason that Heelwork to Music occupies such a special place in her heart. “It’s a great way to build an amazing relationship with your dog,” Lorna explains, adding that this bond was a real lifeline for her during a tough time. “For me, doing Heelwork to Music with Nora got me through a hard medical diagnosis that I continue to live with to this day. Having something to focus on that both of us enjoyed, and working towards building our routines was life changing and kept me going through some dark times.”

Getting Started in Heelwork to Music

Having reaped the rewards of this lively sport herself, Lorna is keen to encourage others who are considering getting involved. “Don’t be afraid to give it a go,” Lorna urges. “A lot of people watch Heelwork to Music and think that they would never be able to do it with their dog. But it really is a sport for any dog and any person, no matter size, age, skill or ability.”

We asked Lorna what sort of things people can look forward to if they take up Heelwork to Music. “Some of the things that I love about the sport,” she told us, “are the freedom it gives you to be creative, watching everyone’s very varied routines, spending one-on-one time with my dog, learning more about how my dog learns and what moves they like and dislike, and learning how to be flexible and work with my dog.”

As a first step, Lorna recommends reaching out to some trainers, even if they are not local to you. “While they might not be close to you, we all offer Zoom classes that can help get you started,” Lorna promises. “They will guide you from teaching your first move all the way to your first competitions and beyond.”

Wrapping Up

Lorna and Nora have achieved many amazing things since attending their very first Heelwork to Music session in 2018. From international titles to featuring in a documentary series, it seems there’s nothing the pair can’t do. If you have been inspired by Lorna and Nora, and fancy giving Heelwork to Music a go yourself, you can find more information, including locating your nearest club, on the Kennel Club website.

To discover more of the wonderful world of dog sports, and glean some pearls of wisdom from experts in Hoopers, Flyball, Agility and more, read our blog Top 9 Dog Sports to Try with Your Pet.