When the music starts Elizabeth McKibben and her Australian Shepherd Harper and her Border Collie Fanta come alive. The 16-year-old from Dayton, Ohio, and her dogs are active competitors in Musical Freestyle competitions. McKibben and Harper have earned their fourth Musical Freestyle Championship and Fanta is about to earn his first Musical Freestyle Championship.
Bringing together tricks, obedience skills, musicality, and artistic rhythm, Musical Freestyle is a less common dog sport that McKibben is showing that kids of all ages can participate in.
McKibben got started showing dogs when she was just 13, after years of longing to do so but not knowing quite how to get involved. A dog club near her house hosted 4-H groups, and that club is where she got her start and began attending classes. McKibben’s passion for training dogs and musical freestyle has been supported by her parents.
“My mom has helped me with costumes and my stepdad has helped me with props for my freestyle shows,” she says.”They always want me to take the opportunities that I get and have stated they plan to attend my shows even well into my adulthood.”
She also notes that her mentor and close friend Ashley Huehn was instrumental in her success. “She’s so inspiring and such a wonderful human being,” McKibben says. “She’s always there for me, whether it’s dog related or not.”
May I Have This Dance?
For Musical Freestyle, McKibben gets to choreograph her own routines to perform with her dogs. As the first sport she trialed, it has had the biggest impact on both her and her dogs, and is, naturally, her favorite sport.
She loves the unique creativity and challenge that comes with training and competing in this sport. “Canine Musical Freestyle is an extremely artistic sport, budding with creative opportunities where your imagination is the limit. It has also brought me closer to my dogs than any other sport has.”
In addition to Musical Freestyle, McKibben and her dogs stay busy with a variety of dog sports. She and her dogs train and compete in Agility, Fast CAT, Disc Dog, AKC Rally, Obedience, Dock Diving, and Barn Hunt. McKibben also continues to be involved in her local 4-H club and has been invited to do canine entertainment performances with her dogs.
Harper is the first dog that she has trained, and the firsts they have achieved together remain some of her proudest moments, like when they earned their first Musical Freestyle championship title together. “She’s a dog I’ve had so many firsts with,” McKibben gushes. “Reaching a high-level title with the dog that was there from the very beginning was very emotional for me.”
Another favorite memory for McKibben has been when a talent scout from America’s Got Talent reached out to her wanting her to audition for the show. Although they didn’t make it to the live auditions, she says it was a huge honor to even be considered.
It’s The Journey, Not The Destination
No matter what sport McKibben is involved with, for her, it’s the connection to her dogs that makes it all worth it. “My favorite part of showing dogs is the insane bond it gives me with my dogs,” she says “Every time I step into the ring with my dogs, I can’t help but grin. It brings me such a sense of joy and belonging that can’t be replicated.”
McKibben has already learned one of the most important lessons of competing — that what actually happens in the ring, isn’t always the most important thing. This was a lesson that McKibben had to earn on her own.
“I wish more people would stop prioritizing ribbons over the experience,” she says. “The biggest challenge we’ve overcome was to stop taking dog shows so seriously. Of course, you want to take competitions seriously and do your best, but sometimes I took it to a degree where it was no longer fun for me or my dogs.”
Recognizing this, McKibben shifted her approach, and that has turned things around for her completely. Her and her dogs now having more fun than ever. As the fun increased, so did their success.
Healing Through Dogs
For McKibben life outside of dogs hasn’t always been easy. McKibben has struggled with anxiety her entire life and was only recently diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That has made going about her daily life a struggle for her, but dog sports have helped to open up her world.
“Going to public places, long car rides, school, and so many other things were hard for me, and it caused me to have a terribly negative mindset,” she says. “Dog sports have opened a world of healing and new perspectives that have helped turn my life around.”
She believes dog sports have made her a better person, and helped her learn to live with and work through anxiety and depression. It’s something McKibben knows she can always turn to, even on hard days. “It feels a little cheesy to say, but dogs have given me a purpose in life,” she says. “I have this passion that I can always rely on to help get me out of a low place. Without dog sports, I do not think I would be here today.”
Encouraging Others to Freestyle
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of other junior handlers involved in Musical Freestyle, but that doesn’t mean the sport isn’t welcoming to kids and teens who want to get involved. “The community has been nothing but hugely supportive of me and my dogs, even on days we’ve struggled. It’s truly like a second family,” McKibben explains.
Although currently there are only a few junior handlers involved in the sport, McKibben hopes that will change, and hopes to encourage other junior handlers to consider putting together routines and dancing with their dogs. For juniors interested in getting involved in Musical Freestyle, McKibben encourages them to go for it and to try and inspire others after joining.
“If you’re kind and encouraging to people, kindness will come back to you in return,” she says. “The friendships I have made through dog sports have been the most meaningful to me. So really, throw kindness around like confetti.”
She encourages junior handlers to stay away from any dog sports drama, and instead focus on the dogs and the genuine friendships that can be made. This is the same encouraging and kind attitude she hopes adults will take when it comes to engaging with juniors. Support from adults could mean everything to a junior handler.
“I would ask for more adults to be more patient and welcoming with junior handlers,” McKibben says. “There have been some shows where adult competitors have been the opposite, and it was very discouraging. We really crave to learn, and we value your views and advice. The adults in my dog sports journey have been the most influential and have truly made me into the competitor I am today.”
Hopes for the Future
McKibben has big dancing goals for the future with her dogs. “My biggest dream is to one day be invited to compete in Canine Musical Freestyle at Crufts. It is a hard goal to achieve, I have never seen an American compete in their freestyle competition.”
In the meantime, she plans to continue building their performances, while prioritizing having fun together, growing, and most of all continue savoring every moment she gets in the ring. She also hopes to continue to inspire others to consider starting to dance with their dogs, and if it feels hard to keep going.
“I want people who are struggling with their dogs to know that I’m so proud of them,” she says. “Everyone grows at their own pace, and every dog and human is different. Keep working towards your goals, I believe in you.”