Jennifer Cruise has always been a horse lover. It’s what brought her to Alabama as a horse trainer 21 years ago and eventually led to meeting and marrying her husband, Robert, in 2000.
As their family grew to include five daughters, Jennifer said showing horses proved a challenge with so many little ones. But her love for animals and competitive nature found a home in a new show ring that allowed her daughters to join in.
“I never really thought about showing dogs,” said the Wyoming native. “When a friend gave Copper (a registered Corgi) to Emma (the eldest daughter), they began agility lessons, and it sort of started from there.”
Since then, the family has cruised the Southeast learning, practicing and showing dogs. Now, Emma, 14, and sisters Katie, 13, and Alana, 10, all show in American Kennel Club (AKC) rally and obedience classes. Jennifer, 43, also shows, while the younger girls, Hannah, 7, and Laura Beth, 5, pitch in where they can.
Robert, 41, is pastor of New Canaan Baptist Church in Somerville and operates a beef cattle ranch in northern Blount County just south of Arab. He said he loves a good farm dog, but he’ll leave the showing to the ladies.
“I’m happy they enjoy it, and I support them every way I can,” he said. “I prefer to ride horses, rope and tend cattle.”
The rally classes in which the Cruises compete include 10 to 20 stations. Each station describes a behavior the dog and handler must perform, and judges score each contestant.
In March, Jennifer, Emma, Katie and Alana competed at the AKC National Rally Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after accumulating enough points through state and regional competitions. Katie and her border collie, Mississippi, placed fourth. Emma and Copper placed ninth, and Alana and border collie Cowboy placed 13th.
The Cruise girls were among 12 young people who competed against nearly 400 adults in the national rally classes.
“We were thrilled,” Jennifer said. “They all beat me, but that’s OK. I’m so proud of them. Showing dogs also allows us to share our ministry and love for Jesus Christ. We don’t show our dogs on Sunday. That day is always reserved for church.
“We were told we probably wouldn’t qualify to go to nationals if we didn’t compete on Sundays, but we managed to get that done and did pretty well on the national level.”
Purebred dogs aren’t required to show in rally or obedience classes. Even rescue dogs compete, Jennifer said, adding it’s been a great experience for her girls. The Cruises receive a lot of encouragement from trainer Kitty Thompson of Arab, with whom they take lessons twice weekly.
“I love showing dogs because it creates a bond between me and my dog, Mississippi,” Katie said. “I love competition and showing with adults. They are always encouraging me to do better.”
A successful season of showing wasn’t without its setbacks. The Cruises’ home burned just after Thanksgiving. The dogs were in kennels inside the carport attached to the house. The flames were so hot, some of the plastic dog houses began to melt just as a relative who spotted the smoke arrived to turn them out.
“The girls’ greatest concern was the safety and well-being of their dogs,” Jennifer said. “We were all so relieved they were OK.”
The family lost everything but the clothes they had on and a few dishes found in the rubble. Their home was insured by Alfa Insurance ®, and their new home is under construction near the old site. It is expected to be finished this fall.
“Alfa ® has been wonderful through all of this,” Robert said. “Our agent, Lee Cox, and adjuster Jeremy Hayes both came out the day of the fire, and they’ve been extremely helpful through the entire process.”
Dog show friends helped replace grooming equipment and supplies, and AKC replaced the dog’s title and registration certificates for no charge.
The Cruise family is already practicing for next year’s competition.
“Showing dogs helps the girls learn responsibility, dedication and how to get along with people,” Jennifer said. “It’s a family atmosphere we love. Even though you’re competing against each other, everyone wants you to do well and will do anything to help you.”
Visit AKC.org for more information.