two dogs dancing together in a park

Can Dogs Really Dance?

You have probably seen YouTube and TikTok videos of dogs dancing to fun music. They are really cute and delightfully engaging. But are these dogs really dancing?

The internet is flooded with happy dancing dogs–chihuahuas dancing to salsa music and people dancing in step with their dogs. They all look convincingly real as proof that dogs naturally love to dance.

As inspirational as many dog dancing videos may appear, however, dogs cannot actually dance. Sad as this may seem, dogs can hear and sway to music but cannot create their own dance steps. Yet, dogs can respond to and move in time to a musical beat. And, many dogs have learned to move around the dance floor with their owners in a way that looks like dancing. But just know that this is a trained activity and not a natural, instinctive ability.

Most Animals Cannot Dance

‘Dancing’ is an untutored, spontaneous response where the animal moves on the beat, matching motion to music. So the animal can’t have a trainer.

Robert Krulwich

According to an article about animals that can dance by Robert Krulwich written for NPR.org, on April 1, 2014, only two animals have been observed to actually be able to dance. Sadly, dogs were not on this long list. The only two who were actually considered to dance were parrots and elephants. His article describes the popular parrot “Snowball” who could dance to The Backstreet Boys’ music. The study was done by Aniruddh Patel as part of a scientific experiment and the video went viral.

Krulwich defines dancing as mostly a human phenomenon, ” ‘Dancing’ is an untutored, spontaneous response where the animal moves on the beat, matching motion to music. So the animal can’t have a trainer. It can’t have a human in the room whose moves it copies. It can’t spend weeks exposed to the same tune. And when the music changes, it has to change with it, sticking to the beat. The ‘dance’ is triggered by sound, but the moves come from inside — from circuits deep in the dancer’s brain.”

Krulwich also sites Adena Schachner, a former psychology grad student at Harvard, who observed over 5000 video clips of 29 different animals to conclude that only parrots and elephants could actually dance by this definition

So all of the cute videos of dogs “dancing” online are actually dogs who have been trained to make certain moves. Some of the funnier videos have been edited to enhance the appearance of a dog dancing. Therefore, if you can’t get your dog to dance, don’t worry. He is not supposed to!

Evidence that Dogs Can Move to the Beat of Music

For dog owners who want want to ‘dance’ with their dogs, there is some good news! Even though your dog cannot dance on his own, dogs are one of the rare species besides humans who can move to the beat of the music. Therefore, your dog may be more talented than you think!

According to Wagwalking.com, a group of scientists did a research study on several animals in 2010. They discovered that dogs would actually move their bodies and wag their tails to the beat of the music. So many of the videos of dogs dancing are not so far off base.

How Trainers Teach Dogs to “Dance”

Eleanor Powell Trained Her Dog to Dance With Her

The 1940’s era famous dancer and actress, Eleanor Powell, filmed this video clip of her adorable dog Buttons dancing in her own living room. She had trained Buttons herself at home. Thus, the filming was done where Buttons was most comfortable. This amazing short film seems to prove rather than defy the notion that dogs can dance. Buttons certainly appears to be dancing!

But, again, the combination of being able to hear and sway to a beat and having great training, was the real reason Buttons performed so well.

There are four basic moves that dogs need to learn:

  • Stand
  • Spin
  • Weave
  • Jump

With these moves, a dog can stand on his hind legs and take small steps. He can then learn to spin around in a circle. The weave training teaches a dog to move back and forth through his trainer’s legs which mimics a dance move. And of course, jumping through his trainer’s arms or over his back can be pretty spectacular as an advanced move.

Trainers use a combination of hand motions and high-value tasty treats to teach their dogs these moves. It takes a lot of patience and repetition as this is not a fully natural activity for dogs. See this great post by wagwalking.com for some basic instructions to get started training your own dog.

Does it Hurt Dogs to Perform Dances?

As with any sport or agility activity, dogs can get hurt if overdone or practiced in an unsafe manner. Since walking on their hind legs is not normal, shorter sessions are better than longer ones. Starting slowly and gradually increasing the time of each move will help ensure the safety of the training.

Pay attention to your dog’s body language if you try to train your dog to dance. Make sure he does not have any pain or discomfort during and after training. Also, have your vet check that he does not have physical problems such as arthritis before you try this with your dog.

Do Dogs Enjoy BeingTrained to Do Dance Moves?

Most dogs love any form of agility training. They want to please and it gives them a focus and a “job” to do. “Dancing” is also a great way to release energy and get some good exercise. And since dogs seem to enjoy listening to music and swaying to the beat, adding some steps seems to be a fun thing for them to do.

However, some dogs may be reluctant. Like people all dogs have their preferences for certain activities, and dancing may or may not be their thing! See my post, How to Play with a Rescue Dog for activities that dogs like.

My own dogs do not like being up on their hind feet that much as they are a bit short and stocky due to their pug DNA. And as an example, they love chasing balls but they really hate swimming or doing anything water-related. Likewise, dancing is probably something they would not enjoy.

In Summary

Don’t believe every video clip you see. Dancing is not a natural, instinctive behavior for dogs.

However, dogs often enjoy swaying to the beat of the music, and many love to learn how to do dance steps. If your dog is so inclined, he can be trained to waltz around the room with you and have a lot of fun. Just watch Eleanor Powell and Buttons for some inspiration!