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Flanked by the judges, far left and far right, Cathryn A. Knight and Nancy Cheski, Team Cruise takes a break after placing first in Team Obedience at the Nashville Dog Training Club Show in Franklin, Tennessee, in January. The Cruise family, from second left to right, are Katelyn (12) and Mississippi, Emma (14) and Copper, Alana (10) and Cowboy, and Jennifer and Bailey

The 2019 AKC National Rally Championship takes place March 15 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you can’t attend, tune in to the live stream by going to AKC.tv on any device or download the AKC.TV app on RokuApple TV, or AmazonFireTV.

Rally has taken on an entirely new meaning in recent months for the Cruise family of Blountsville, Alabama (pop. 1,684).

For several years, it has been the sport of choice for mom, Jennifer, and three of her five daughters: Emma, 14; Katelyn, 12; and Alana, 10. But late last November when the family home burned to the ground, it has been all about the dog community rallying around in support.

The Day of the Fire

Last Thanksgiving, the family took a camping trip with their dogs nearby, but due to inclement weather, they decided the dogs would have more shelter at home in their kennels rather than under the camper awning. So they brought the dogs home a couple of days early.

Because they have many farm animals – six horses, three goats, 34 hens (before the fire) and dozens of cows – when the family camps, it returns daily to attend feeding chores. On Monday following Thanksgiving Robert Cruise returned home early to begin his work day. Meanwhile, Jennifer and the girls packed up their camper at the campground and prepared to head back.

“We had just checked out when Robert called to ask where we were and did I have all the girls,” recalls Jennifer. “He told me our house was burning down and to get home quickly. He had been gone to lunch and run errands in town for an hour. My brother-in-law, Chris Miller, was at our feed store three miles away when he saw a black cloud of smoke. He immediately drove toward the fire and was the first on the scene.”

At that point, the house was totally engulfed in flames. The dogs were in their kennels, attached to the carport alongside the house. He immediately ran to turn the dogs loose (by then the plastic on the dog houses had already started to melt from the heat) and they ran to the herd of horses near the barn until Robert’s sister Melissa Miller arrived to put them in the barn tack room.

“The girls’ greatest concern was the safety and well-being of their dogs. When we arrived home, they were relieved to see they were safe,” adds Jennifer.

The Team Cruise four-legged contingent from left: Copper, Bailey, Mississippi, and Cowboy take a timeout for a photo shoot at the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Dog Club Rally Show in 2018.

Rallying Around the Dog Community

And here’s where the dog community showed its strength on this emotional teeter-totter.

Immediately upon hearing of the fire, the family’s trainer, Kitty Thompson, of Arab, Alabama, (about 20 minutes from the 400-acre farm) emailed her contacts who knew the Cruises. “Within days we began receiving checks to replace lost equipment and supplies,” says Jennifer. “Others donated collars, leashes, crates, dumbbells, and toys. There was so much to replace for five dogs and four people!

“A few of the local dog clubs replaced ribbons from shows in which the girls had competed. Even judges sent condolences and donations to help us get back on our feet and begin showing again. It was incredible, and shows how tight-knit dog competitors are. Sure, we compete against each other in the ring, but we are friends and have each other’s back in times of need.”

The family even received enough funds to allow four of them to compete in the AKC Rally National Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma, March 15. “We definitely would have had to postpone showing and training if it had not been for continued financial support of the dog-show community,” she adds.

Add the AKC to those who answered the call. It replaced the girls’ title and registration certificates with no charge (a $360 value) and promptly retrieved their junior handler numbers, allowing them to compete.

Beyond Competition

Team Cruise attempts to compete in Rally and/or Obedience trials monthly in the Southeast. The Tulsa trip will be the furthest the quartet will most likely travel this year.

Cruise control on the road has Jennifer, five daughters aged 5 to 14, and four to five dogs in a 12-passenger Chevrolet Express van. Most trips are daylong. However, for two-day trials, they haul a 34-foot travel trailer behind the van.

This marks the fifth year of the family’s participation in AKC Rally. It all started when Emma, the oldest daughter, was invited by her cousins to bring her Pembroke Welsh Corgi Copper to agility lessons nearby. Mom recalls while Emma and Copper were outside doing agility, her sisters were inside observing Rally classes. The instructor invited Katelyn, the second oldest daughter, to work with her Labrador Retriever during that time.

And since then it has been nonstop for Team Cruise – on the road and on the farm. “Our goal is to begin using the Border Collies and possibly the Australian Shepherds in assisting with herding cattle on the farm,” adds Jennifer.

Jennifer is effusive with praise for Robert’s role. “He is our biggest cheerleader, dog holder, little sister caretaker and driver to many events. When he is unable to attend, he holds down multiple jobs – fulltime pastor of a local church, owning and running the ranch, co-owning and operating a feed store, and volunteering as a county police chaplain.

While Mom and Dad have been behind the scenes championing their daughters’ show careers, it was Dad who edged Mom into the sport two years ago on Mother’s Day when he bought her an Australian Shepherd puppy named Bailey, saying it was time she joined the girls in training and showing.

From left, Jennifer and Bailey, Alana and Cowboy, Emma and Copper, Katelyn and Mississippi vie in Team Obedience at the Franklin, Tenn., show in January.

All in the Family

Before joining her daughters in Rally, Jennifer was a horse-trainer-turned-riding instructor for years. “When our fifth daughter was born, I was hauling five little girls 9 and under along with four horses to shows for students, and that world became more than one woman could handle,” she says. “Thankfully, we were directed to the Rally world where we could enjoy animals and competition in much more feasible environment. And with me being a part of their world, well, what more could a Mom ask,” she smiles.

For Thompson, the trainer, the relationship with Team Cruise has been a “labor of love.

This family has changed my life. I have been impressed with their dedication to training and the sport of dog showing. They have made me a better trainer and better person.

“When any of them is having an issue with a particular exercise, they will not hesitate to ask questions and are willing to pursue different methods for fixing a problem,” Thompson notes. “At trials, it does not matter if they do well or not, they have great attitudes and offer help to other exhibitors. They walk dogs, help set up crates, haul supplies in and out to vehicles. You do not see that often in young people these days.”

For fellow competitors, it is an emotional conundrum when Team Cruise is on the scene, according to Thompson. “It is refreshing to attend a trial and have people ask if the Cruises are coming – some because they are so great to be around and it is a delight to watch them show. Conversely, for others, when they are not in the arena others see it as a chance to place or win a class.”

Thompson admits that the girls delight in beating her at trials – and it has happened more than once.

The trainer’s close relationship with the family left her concerned that the mental dynamics of the home loss would force them to abandon training and showing for several months. That didn’t happen. They missed a few weeks and returned as if they did not miss a beat, Thompson recalls.

Q&A with the Girls

Emma, 14

Emma Cruise and Copper, her Pembroke Welsh Corgi, placed seventh at the 2017 AKC Rally National Championship in Perry, Ga.

What year did you begin Rally? 2015, at age 11.

Why did you pick a Pembroke Welsh Corgi with which to compete? He was given to me as a puppy when I was five and my cousins talked me into taking classes when he was six.

What have you found most challenging in Rally? Heeling off-lead.

Has there been a top highlight for you in Rally? Getting seventh place in Novice at the AKC Rally Nationals in 2017.

Katelyn, 12

At the South Paw Obedience Training facility in Arab, Alabama, Katelyn and Mississippi get in some practice before the AKC Rally National Championship in Tulsa, Okla., in mid-March.

What year did you begin Rally? 2015, at age 9.

Why did you pick a Border Collie with which to compete? I knew Border Collies were high-spirited and I needed one to work on a farm. I also just fell in love with the dog in pictures.

What have you found most challenging in Rally? Heeling off-lead.

What has been a top highlight for you in Rally? Going to the 2018 AKC Nationals in Wilmington, Ohio. I learned that showing a dog is not about showing and winning but rather to shed Jesus’ light. I do love to win but I also got to have good conversations with people about God. Overall, I learned to just have fun and not stress.

Alana, 10

Alana Cruise and Cowboy, a Border Collie, relax at the Honeycomb Campground in Grant, Alabama, last November.

What year did you begin Rally? 2015, at age 6.

Why did you pick a Border Collie with which to compete? I knew Border Collies are good on farms.

What have you found most challenging in Rally? Competing against adults. I’m only 10 and most of the people I compete against have RAEs (Rally Advanced Excellent) on their dogs. I’m in Advanced now.

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