The Chameleon Cavalier 

by Meredith Johnson-Snyder

When I entered my mid life crisis, seeking new thrills and challenges, I entertained many options for change in my life. Instead of changing husbands as seems to be the trend, changing jobs which didn't make sense, changing homes which at the time was not desirable, I changed breeds. I discovered the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. My new passion filled me with enthusiasm; since the breed was not yet popular enough to see every weekend, I had had very limited experience with the breed and so much to learn. Once again I stayed up all night studying pedigrees and reading every thing I could about my new obsession. And obsession it did become! My whole life seemed to change with the advent of one pet Cavalier bitch we found in England. Suddenly, filled with zest, I immediately began seeking a show dog. Having never handled a dog in the ring, (now, really, could you see my chubby little legs racing along with a German Shepherd? I couldn't even race around the outside of the ring effectively double handling to the dismay of my handler), I began to take handling lessons as I knew I could keep up with a Cavalier. I even seduced my husband, remember mid life crisis here, into showing Cavaliers. Suddenly we were off to the old club specialties together, having fun, and occasionally winning. Just like the proverbial novice, I decided to take our new found husband and wife bonding experience, showing dogs together, into the next realm--breeding Cavaliers! 

Thus began the most masochistic venture of my life--ranks right up there with going to an all girls Catholic high school and college. I am sure that in my Catholic upbringing paying the penance of breeding and showing German Shepherds just wasn't enough for the Saints watching over me; they decided that breeding Cavaliers would certainly erase part of my purgatorial obligation for enduring the "Fires" of raising the chameleon Cavalier. I can't say I wasn't warned by a few well known breeders in Australia and Great Britain-- "Remember, dear, they don't breed true." 

I studied and studied, trying to fix on exactly what was correct breed type and could not imagine that if you bred a good dog to a good bitch, something good would not result from the mating. However, my breed mentors, had warned me. Unlike many breeds, a Cavalier show dog depends on cosmetics as well as structure and the all important temperament. A few freckles in the wrong place on the muzzle or on the blaze in a blenheim or tricolor, can ruin expression as can white on a wholecolor. When looking at Cavalier puppies, what one sees is not always what one gets. I have no idea how some Cavalier breeders sell eight week old puppies as show dogs, and believe it some do, when we often run puppies on until adolescence and beyond until we're sure we have a contender. Even as experienced as we now are at looking at our puppies, we are amazed at the changes they go through. The recessive genes in this breed are always lurking, just waiting to come out and shock the breeder. "Where did that come from??? 

Although we have bred in much more predictability in our breeding program, we still have had raging arguments over which puppy to keep in a litter. I always run on some puppies who exhibit rather unexpected nuances of breed type, just to see what they will finally do. My loud "I told you so's" are vehemently expressed if my hunch turns right and the puppy discreetly and quietly sold to a pet home if I make the wrong call. 

If a puppy makes it through all the standard health checks, the breeder may breathe a real sigh of relief and gratitude for a healthy puppy, but the real fun is just beginning as the breeder begins to obsess over bites, ticking, freckles, nose pigment, high rear ends, nose length, eye size, mismarks, attractive markings, coat texture, gay tails, and, of course, correct structure and movement. Sound familiar to all breeds--the difference is that the Cavalier resembles a chameleon as it goes through stages of development testing the breeder's nerves, resolve, and sanity at every stage.

Let's start with the head. The head of a Cavalier, except for the temperament, is probably the most distinguishing characteristic of the breed. The head of the Cavalier should be luscious--large, round, dark, eyes set wide enough apart to give a soft, appealing expression. Fat little cheeks cupping a muzzle of about 1 and 1/2 inches long with a black, black nose, cushioning under the eyes--all roundness and softness with the rather high set ears framing an adorable face with melting expression. So what can you get-- short noses that resemble English Toys or long noses that resemble Brittany Spaniels for starters. Black noses that go off, turning an unattractive shade of mauve. Small, beady eyes, set close together, or ringed with white giving a startled look. Earset resembling a Cocker. Clear muzzle until nine weeks when freckles multiply with abandon. White on wholecolors that never goes away as it is supposed to do. Scissors bite that goes off and stays undershot and an undershot mouth that goes right, but not until the gorgeous dog is neutered and in a pet home. Humility is developed when you get seven beautiful puppies in a litter who are all undershot (out of two parents with scissors bites, I might add), and then decide to wait it out because seven puppies cannot all wind up undershot. So, at seven months, all seven develop seven gorgeous scissors bites. Then there is the absolutely perfect bite in a pick puppy that goes undershot and never comes right. 

Length of muzzle is tricky to predict. I remember the night I talked with an established breeder of terriers who, after deciding to enter the world of Cavaliers, was shocked at the terribly long noses of a new born litter of Cavaliers. He had a hard time describing the puppies. I had already "been there, done that," and asked him if the puppies resembled porpoises in the heads. He said yes, and knowing the bloodlines assured him that his litter of porpoises would all grow up to have correct nose length. You see, my own little porpoises had already turned into lovely headed Cavaliers. Some Cavalier puppies have longer appearing noses, little stop and no cushioning looking rather like Beagles. Just when you are ready to throw in the towel; their heads break almost overnight and the questionable heads blend into lovely proportions. A Cavalier is not a Cavalier without the correct, beautiful head so distinctive to our breed. Some puppies are blessed with gorgeous heads that never change, but there are those who go through stages that strike fear in the breeder' heart. 

Good structure is imperative in any breed, but especially so in the Cavaliers as breeders have worked valiantly on improving structure, soundness, and movement. Cavalier puppies can do amazing things with their bodies. Angulation disappears overnight--I mean totally disappears. I have pictures of one of our beautifully angulated champion bitches taken at seven months looking like a terrier stacked on the table, only to develop once more into flowing curves. We all know that the fronts and rears of puppies in many different breeds can develop at different rates; however, the Cavalier takes high in the rear to a new art. The rear end goes up--perfect Old English topline-- and can stay up sometimes until almost two years. (Sometimes the rears never come down, but those puppies always belong to other breeders!) Nothing destroys the necessary correct outline of a Cavalier standing and especially moving, as a high rear end, not even commenting on what kind of movement results. Outline of body is so important in our breed. Cavaliers should move like little sporting dogs, covering ground soundly. 

Tails can be a nightmare! Puppies who carry their tails curled over their backs can grow up with perfectly normal tail carriage, while puppies exhibiting correct tail carriage can suddenly fling the tails straight up and almost touch the back of their heads. Breeders live in fear of the day that their little macho show puppy learns about girls and signals the world he's ready by a high flying tail. Tails are worth obsessing over--they can drive the Cavalier breeder nuts. Predicting size in a Cavalier can be a real puzzle. Good bone is desirable, not weediness or coarseness. In one litter, however, you can get both ends of the spectrum in size--Papillons to Springers. Remember our breed was not resurrected until the 1920's--not a very long time span to train recessive genes. So your small pick puppy keeps growing and growing and growing, and the one that looked like a Clydesdale at six months stops growing at seven months at an ideal size. The Cavalier is a toy spaniel with good bone and substance. Big is not better nor is little and fine. The standard says: "height 12-13 inches at the withers, weight proportionate to height. A small, well balanced little dog within these weights is desirable . . ."

 Predicting size is just one more aspect of the chameleon Cavalier causing more worry for the poor, obsessed breeder. 

However, since Cavaliers entered my life, I don't have to worry any longer about getting old--the advancing years don't scare me. I'm much too busy worrying about freckles, not wrinkles; bites and not dentures; high in rear and not my own sagging rear; expression and not bifocals; crest of neck, not my dowager hump. Yes, Cavaliers have definitely been good for my mid life crisis--they've become it!