Dalmatian lovers know that the breed’s history is one of hard work and endurance. The distinctively coated dogs ran alongside carriages protecting the precious cargo within – their masters. Modern breeders and owners keep this tradition alive by participating in activities such as the Dalmatian Club of America Distance Log Program and Road Trials.

Peggy Strupp chose her horse for road trials to match the spots on her Dalmatians. Photo courtesy of Peggy Strupp.

Peggy Strupp is a Spanish teacher in Montana, but when she steps out of her classroom, the teaching doesn’t stop. She spends almost all of her spare time outside the classroom training her Dalmatians for DCA Road Trials, testing what she’s taught them, then going to trials, and working with them in competitive obedience.

“‘Teach, train, test’ is my theory,” she says. “The test part is the part people sometimes skip.” When Peggy was preparing to take her newest dog to the Dalmatian Club of America National Specialty in 2012, she loaded her horse into a trailer and drove 20 miles to a city park, so her dog could have the experience of traveling to an unfamiliar place and having to perform the exercises she’d learned at home.

Now chairman of the club’s road trials committee, Strupp has had plenty of time to refine her method.

Dalmatian Club of America Road Trials are performed with the handler on a horse or in a cart or carriage pulled by a horse, or in this case, a mule. Photo courtesy Peggy Strupp.

She’d had Dalmatians for eight or nine years when she read an article about the road trials being revived by Linda Myers, chair of the committee that drafted the original regulations in 1988. “I had a horse and have had horses for years and years, so I wanted to do it. I had no idea there was a history of connection between Dalmatians and horses,” she says.

Peggy recalls her first experience riding with 3-year-old ‘Toscanini’ – Ch. Harmony of Cheshire T. Redrock – “Tosc” for short. “I took him out with the horse, and he ran off. I sort of ran after him, then I got off the horse, patted my legs and sweet-talked to him and put the leash on him. He was like ‘Gosh, we can go this fast, Mom?’ When you’re on a horse, they’re like ‘We can really run.’”

The next time she took Tosc out, she kept him on a leash and did obedience exercises from horseback. “Eventually we worked up to where I dropped the leash and he dragged it.” She also learned that if he – or any of her other Dals – didn’t respond to her commands, she could just stay on the horse and go after them. “With a horse, you can chase them down,” she says.

Tosc went on to earn his Road Dog and Road Dog Excellent titles.

Peggy Strupp and her two Dalmatians, 7-year-old ‘Rad’ and 2-year-old ‘Luan,’ at the 2012 Dalmatian Club of America National Specialty. Photo by Turley Photography.

Today, she uses clicker training with treats, but Tosc’s first road trial was in 1992 before that method had caught on.

While Strupp says she’s always loved horses, she admits, “My first Dalmatian was simply a substitute for a horse.” She chose the breed because its “beautiful lines” are similar to those of a horse. It has “the beautiful coat of a paint horse,” she says, “the endurance of an Arabian and the speed of a Thoroughbred. It’s a pretty dog and a flashy dog. And I’ve always liked flashy horses.”

Peggy proceeded to teach herself how to train her dogs to do the five exercises that make up the road trial because, at the time, nobody anywhere nearby was doing it.

Road Dog Title Exercises

During a road trial, the dog and rider perform five exercises. They begin each exercise with 100 points. Points are deducted for various faults, depending on the exercise. A score of 51 is qualifying, and the pair must qualify in all exercises, plus do a long-distance ride on the same day, to earn a title.

During the hock exercise, the dog must stay within one horse length of the horse. Photo courtesy of Peggy Strupp.

One of the more difficult exercises for many dogs is hocking, although it depends on the dog, Strupp says. As the rider and horse trot along a 200-yard path, the dog must stay within one horse length. If the dog goes wide – too far to one side or the other – or lags behind, points are deducted. During trials, Peggy’s seen dogs that never actually get into the hock position, or decide they just have to relieve themselves and get left behind.“We do have a number of dogs who don’t pass the hock exercise because they’re just not prepared to stay with the horse,” she says. “They have to learn that you require that they stay with you.”According to the DCA Road Trials Rules and Regulations, “If a dog is unmanageable, or refuses to hock, the dog must be scored zero on this exercise.”

Peggy Strupp’s dogs keep up with her as they do the speed exercise during a road trial. Photo courtesy of Peggy Strupp.

While hocking can be tough for dogs to master, it’s the speed exercise that most challenges riders, Peggy says. It’s especially tough on people who learn to ride so they can participate in the road trials with their Dalmatians. The rider and dog must move at a gallop for 100 yards. Dog owners new to the back of a horse often aren’t comfortable riding at that gait. Minor point deductions come from the dog not keeping up with the horse completely or interfering with the horse’s progress along the 100-yard track. If the rider only proceeds at a slow lope, rather than a gallop, that’s a major deduction. If the dog makes no attempt to keep up, the pair gets a non-qualifying score on the exercise. “But the dogs love it and do it automatically,” Peggy says.

For the recall exercise, you can either send your dog away from you – if you’ve taught him to do that – or put him on a Sit-Stay, then ride away from him. When you call the dog, he should return promptly. “Substantial” point deductions include the dog wandering back to you, rather than proceeding directly, or heading off in the middle of returning to investigate a smell, for example. The judge uses her own discretion as to how well a dog returns to its handler, but must use the same scale for each dog trialing. Issuing a recall command multiple times and talking to the dog as it returns are also deductions, according to the regulations. “The recall is hard for dogs that want to stay with the horse,” Strupp says.

When riding in a cart during a road trial, the handler can be a passenger. Photo courtesy of Peggy Strupp.

The other two exercises for earning a Road Dog title are a long sit – of one minute – and the distraction exercise. While the first is pretty simple – the dog must sit or lie down for one minute while the handler rides away – the second is more complicated. As the rider and dog proceed in the hock position, a hiker with an on-leash dog approaches on the right side, no less than 15 feet from the horse. The rider can give the dog a “Hock” command, and the dog must stay with the horse until the hiker has moved about 20 yards beyond, according to regulations. If the dog moves toward the hiker at anytime, but returns, that’s a minor deduction. If he, however, leaves the horse and walks all the way to the distraction dog, it’s a major deduction. And, if he should attack the hiker or dog, or refuse to hock, he gets a non-qualifying score.

Coaching Certificate or Road Dog?

A Coaching Certificate is the first step for a dog new to road trials. All exercises for the Coaching Certificate title are judged as pass-fail, and the handler can ride a horse, drive a carriage or cart, or be a passenger in a carriage or cart. Up to three dogs can test for the CC with a single handler at the same time.

One exercise for the CC is different from that for an RD. Rather than testing for speed, the dog is tested for a change of pace over a 100-yard course. “At the start of the measured distance, the team shall be moving forward,” the regulations explain. “On order from the steward, the handler shall increase his speed sufficiently for the dog to show a change of pace, allowing his dog(s) to run in any position they choose. When the handler has passed the trail marker indicating the completion of this exercise, he shall reduce his speed.” The point of this is to show that the dog or dogs understand that the job is to stay with the horse, regardless of how quickly or slowly it is moving. A dog fails if it doesn’t try to keep up with the horse or it doesn’t increase its speed during the course.

A distance ride is part of a road trial. Dogs earning their Road Dog titles must walk or run with their handlers for 12.5 miles. For a Road Dog Excellent, it’s 25 miles. Photo courtesy of Peggy Strupp.

The distance requirement for a Road Dog title is 12.5 miles within three hours. For Road Dog Excellent, it’s 25 miles in fewer than six hours. The American Kennel Club recognizes DCA Road Trial titles.

These days Peggy shares her home with just two Dalmatians: 7-year-old Ch. Koira Redrk Radagast the Brown, CD RD RDX RN, ‘Rad,’ and 2-year-old Aberdeen’s Let’s Make A Deal, RN RD, ‘Luan.’

She still loves horses – and her Dalmatians.

“This event has changed how we look at the history of our dogs, I believe,” she says.

To see some Dalmatians in action, watch a video of some road trial exercises and this demonstration Peggy Strupp did at the 2012 Horse Extravaganza in Sidney, Mont.