The Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Chesapeake Bay Retriever is an American original


The shot rang through the cold, crisp autumn air, and the goose plunged into the bay. On the hunter's command, the big dog leaped into the water, breaking through the fragile film of ice at the marshy edge.

The dog plunged towards deeper water, sending spray everywhere. When his feet no longer reached the muddy bottom, he swam with powerful strokes towards the floating Canada goose. Reaching the big bird, he grabbed it gently, firmly, and turned towards shore where the hunter awaited.

Swimming, wading, then walking out of the reedy bay-edge, the dog brought the goose to the hunter's hand, then went smartly to heel position on the hunter's left side. Only when he was released did he shake the icy water from his dense coat.

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is as American as apple pie and Norman Rockwell. He was born in the heart of the original colonies, on the threshold of the nation's capitol. He developed as the ultimate duck and goose dog to serve the rough-and-tumble watermen who tamed the area after the Revolutionary War, men who depended on waterfowl as meat for the table and took great pride in the ability of their dogs to retrieve shot birds for hours.

The original duck hunting dogs in the Bay area were described as spaniels and probably resembled some long-gone curly-coated dogs of France or England. The descendants of these dogs were ultimately crossed with two Newfoundlands that were saved from the shipwrecked Canton, an English brig bound for home with a load of codfish, in 1807. The dogs had been purchased for the ship's owner and were on the way back to England with the cargo.

The ship's captain sold the dogs to a Marylander, and he in turn gave the female, named Canton, to a local doctor and the male, named Sailor, to a friend. Sailor eventually became the property of the Maryland governor, who traded a Merino ram to the dog's owner in one of the best bargains a dog breeder ever made. Sailor was described as dingy red in color, and Canton was black

The two dogs ended up on opposite sides of the great bay and were probably never bred to each other, each left a distinctive mark on the dogs that came to bear the historic Chesapeake name.

There's some question about the heritage of the two Newfoundlands. Although it was common for the dogs to make their way to England on the codfish ships, the Newfoundlands of yore differed from the breed that bears the name today. Thus the two dogs that were rescued off the Maryland coast may have been smaller and of different appearance than modern Newfs.

In any case, both Canton and Sailor were top notch retrievers, and they passed this ability to their offspring along with their light-colored eyes and dense, water-resistant coat.

Descendants of Canton and Sailor competed in the Poultry and Fanciers Association Show in Baltimore in 1877, and spectators marveled at their similarities. Fanciers got together and devised a standard for the Chesapeake Bay ducking dog and registered the first of the breed with the National American Kennel Club in 1878. Six years later, the breed was one of the original to be registered with the newly formed American Kennel Club.

The first standard divided the dogs into three classes according to coat color and type. The otter dog was tawny sedge color with wavy hair and the curly dog and the straight-haired dog were both reddish brown.

Although the otter dog had great influence on the modern Chessie, the breed is a careful blending of the three types. The Chessie excels as a waterfowl specialist in terrain and climate similar to that of the region where he was born _ marshy shorelines, freezing waters, changing tides, and gray, windy, bone-chilling autumn days.

The breed standard

In general appearance, the Chessie is a well-balanced and muscular medium-sized dog with a broad skull, strong jaws, deep and wide chest, and a short, dense coat that is wavy over the top of the body. In color, he ranges from deadgrass to brown shades that allow him to blend in with autumn field hues. Eyes are yellowish or amber, a direct legacy of Canton and Sailor, and the hindquarters can be slightly higher than the forehand.

Males range in height from 23-26 inches at the shoulder and weigh 65-80 pounds. Females are smaller at 21-24 inches and 55-70 pounds. Dogs outside this range are seriously faulted in the show ring.

The body is slightly longer than it is high and gives the appearance of both strength and ability. The tail is of medium length and moderately thick at the base. It should not curl over the back. The feet are webbed and large to aid in swimming.

The Chessie coat is unique. It is double, thick, and short. The overcoat is wavy over the neck shoulders, back, and loin, and the undercoat is woolly, a combination eminently suitable for work in frigid conditions. The coat's natural oils keep water from penetrating to the skin; when the dog shakes after a plunge in the bay, his coat should be damp, not wet.

The Chessie color is also unique. Any color of brown , sedge, or deadgrass is acceptable. A white spot on the chest, belly, toes, or back of the foot are acceptable, but solid color is preferred. Black color or any other white markings disqualify the dog from the show ring.

The Chessie temperament is different from that of the other retrievers and of sporting dogs in general. He shares the sporting dog's friendly demeanor and love of work, but combines it with a sense of protectiveness about his family, home, and possessions. He is sociable, but chooses his friends carefully and ignores those who are outside his circle. He can be aggressive to other dogs and stubborn, traits that make him more suitable for experienced owners than for novices.

Chessies at work

This temperament makes the Chessie a delightful all-around family companion. He guards the children, is intensely loyal to home and hearth, and enjoys whatever work his owner gives him to do. Chessies are consummate hunting dogs but also excel as sentry dogs for the military; drug sniffing dogs for law enforcement agencies; therapy and assistance for ill and handicapped people; and even as sled dogs or livestock helpers.

Eriez Sir Thunder Thor worked with the New Jersey State Police to find caches of marijuana, hashish, cocaine, and other drugs and was responsible for the confiscation of $3.5 million in dollars and nearly that much in street value of the drugs he found. He also demonstrated his sniffing skills at area schools and placed first in the 1989 Narcotic Detection Competition in the state.

Farmers have taught Chessie to help with the chores, and the dogs have done a variety of tasks from turning cattle out to pasture to rounding up escaped chickens and herding them back to the pen. Glory, the chicken herding Chessie, also helped her owners find eggs that the hens had laid in hidden spots.

Owners who don't hunt or live on a farm can provide their Chessies with jobs through organized competitions. Although they may tend to be bored by the novice level exercises, Chessies can do quite well at open and utility competition where the exercises require retrieving and jumping. However, many owners do not get past the novice level, as boredom can make the dog ring sour. Only 20 percent of Companion Dog Chessies go on to higher competition, and the breed has only 141 CDX titles and 36 Utility titles out of 736 CDs from 1980-1992. Chessies also enjoy tracking and, with effort on the part of the handler, can earn an advanced tracking title. The trick is to avoid boredom and keep the training lively.

Buying a Chessie puppy

The same advice applies to buying a Chessie as applies to buying or acquiring any puppy: Buy from a breeder who knows the breed, who tests for genetic abnormalities, who backs up his dogs with a contract and a promise to take the dog back if he doesn't work out, who socializes the puppies, and who runs a clean kennel.

Although basically a healthy breed, Chessies are still susceptible to hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy, cataracts, and eczema. The best chance of getting a healthy puppy is to buy from a breeder who has dogs examined for eye problems and x-rayed for hip dysplasia before breeding. Hip x-rays for certification by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals must be done after the dog is two years of age.

Every Chessie puppy should be well-socialized by the breeder both to encourage his natural affinity for people and discourage his slight dog-aggressive tendency. Pups should remain in the litter for at least seven weeks to learn dog-to-dog interaction from siblings

New owners should enroll the pup in a puppy obedience class that emphasizes good manners and social skills and follow with at least one regular obedience class to establish a working relationship with the dog. Without such training, the stubborn Chessie may become an uncontrollable Chessie who runs the household his way.

For more information about the breed, get The New Complete Chesapeake Bay Retriever by Janet Horn and Dr. Daniel Horn, published by Howell Book House

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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