We know the Chesapeake Bay retriever began in 1807, when two Newfoundland dogs named Sailor (male) and Canton (female) were rescued from a shipwreck off the coast of Maryland.
We know these two dogs went to opposite sides of Chesapeake Bay and, without ever being bred to one another, became the foundation stock of what eventually became the Chesapeake Bay retriever.
We also know the American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1878 when it registered its first Chessie, a male named Sunday.
But we know practically nothing about what transpired with the breed between 1807 and 1878.
Meat hunters, mostly full- or part-time market hunters, developed this truly American breed to help them eke out a living under the harsh weather and tough economic conditions of the 19th-century Chesapeake Bay area. They didn’t have time to keep breeding records — they simply used successful retrievers as sires and dams to produce litters. Then they used pups that matured into working retrievers as future sires and dams, and they discarded those that didn’t. Such a practical breeding program simply could not fail.
These colorful, old waterfowlers developed an amazing breed. Struggling to make ends meet or at least stay within sight of each another, they had little time for formal dog training, so they bred only those retrievers that naturally did what they needed. Consequently, Chessies have always marked and remembered falls extremely well.
They’ve also always been our most waterproof and weatherproof breed, our most tireless workers, our most determined and independent canines. Then too, because those market hunters’ dogs had to stand guard at home whenever the boss was away, Chessies have always been territorial and protective.
That these naturally gifted but also independent workaholics resisted formal training, especially rote drilling, mattered little to the market-hunting community. However, with the advent in the 20th century of retriever field trials and totally trained blind retrieves, trainability took on great importance among retrieverites.
Ever since, Chessie breeders have strived for that trait as well, with at least modest success. However, the Chessie still resists the blind retrieve’s rote drilling that Labs and goldens thrive on. On the positive side, he still excels at marking and remembering falls. And he remains unchallenged as our toughest, most weather-resistant retriever.
According to the AKC breed standard, male Chessies should stand 23 to 26 inches tall at the withers and should weigh 65 to 80 pounds. Females should stand 21 to 24 inches and weigh 55 to 70 pounds. If you hang around hunt tests and field trials, you’ll see some that are substantially larger.
At any size, they have great strength and stamina, which they needed to retrieve countless ducks — all day and sometimes into the night, day after day, in foul weather and heavy seas — for 19th-century market hunters. The Chessie has a double coat that protects him from water, wind and cold. A short, harsh and almost wiry outer coat overlays a dense, wooly undercoat. The AKC standard calls for any of three naturally camouflaging colors: brown, sedge or deadgrass (tan). The standard allows a small white spot on the chest, belly, toes or back of the feet.
The coat insulates so well that a Chessie owner in Oregon told me that when hunting ducks on the Snake River in frigid weather, she warms her hands by slipping them under her Chessie’s outer coat. Even after multiple cold-water retrieves, his undercoat is dry and warm.
The standard also calls for the hips to be higher than the shoulders, which gives the Chessie great drive from his hindquarters. Clearly, the physical qualities of today’s Chessie pay tribute to the unlettered genius of those market hunters who knew what they needed and figured out how to get it.
They also pay tribute to the generations of subsequent Chessie breeders who have kept the breed what it has always been, with only slight improvements to keep the breed current.
The Chesapeake psyche matches the Chesapeake physique perfectly. He’s as tough and durable inside as he is outside. Nineteenth-century market hunting was much more than a full-time job, with hunters often going well into the night searching for rafted waterfowl with spotlights and boat-mounted punt guns. As a result, those hearty souls had little time for formal dog training. Necessity forced them to breed dogs that not only retr
ieved naturally, but also uncannily marked and remembered falls.
Dogs with such natural talents are exceptionally independent, neither wanting nor readily accepting human guidance in their work. Modern breeders have tempered this independence to some degree, but today’s Chessie doesn’t take to the rote repetitions of training drills as agreeably as the Lab, let alone as ecstatically as the golden.
If you drill a Chessie like you would a Lab or golden, he will play games with you. He’ll change how he performs on each repetition. For example, in a lining drill, he’ll take a different path to the dummy pile each time.
One pro told me that he tricks Chessies into doing various blind retrieve drills by mixing in marks between each pair of drill repetitions. As I’ve written many times over the years, you can train a Lab or golden, but you can only negotiate with a Chessie. Perhaps that explains why so many who succeed in field trials and hunt tests with Chesapeakes are women.
Over the years, the Chessie has gone from a one-person to a one-family dog, but he still gives his entire heart and soul to only one member of that family. This tightly focused devotion makes him territorial and protective, a great watchdog. Although not aggressive or vicious, he has enough size and muscle to make a soft warning growl chillingly convincing to uninvited strangers.
The Chessie throws his all into everything he does. Sometimes after training sessions, as a tension reliever, I toss fun dummies for a dog, and when he returns with it, I encourage him to jump up and put his front paws on my chest. Dogs of most other breeds tend to slow down and jump rather gently. But not Beaver, my 80-pound Chessie.
Not winding down, he creamed me like a blitzing linebacker sacking a blind-sided quarterback. And like an oft-sacked quarterback, I started tossing another dummy as he approached me. That slowed him down enough to assure my long-term survival.
SUPERIOR GOOSE DOGS
Waterfowling today just isn’t what it used to be. Seasons are short, limits are slim and locations are shrinking. Even the most ardent devotee no longer needs a retriever that will retrieve countless birds all day, day after day. Even so, the Chessie still has significant advantages over the other retriever breeds in foul weather and heavy seas.
But perhaps he offers his most appealing advantage to the dedicated goose hunter. Goose dogs are born, not made, and a high percentage of our excellent goose dogs are born to Chesapeake parents.
Granted, almost any dog, probably even a birdy rat terrier, can drag in a stone-dead goose under reasonable weather and water conditions. But a real goose dog will make short work of a huge, slightly crippled and thoroughly enraged greater Canada — anytime, anywhere.
In such a situation, a self-respecting Chessie charges full-tilt into the angry bird, knocks it senseless and grabs it unceremoniously. He prances or swims triumphantly back to the boss, head held high while truculently tossing the subdued goose this way and that. The serious goose hunter looking for such a dog has a better chance of success if he starts out with a pup that traces back to "Sailor" or "Canton."
Then, too, upland bird hunting is not beneath the Chessie’s dignity. He can enjoy hunting to the gun, flushing birds and retrieving anything the boss shoots. He can run down cripples better than many and as well as any. And you can only pity the uppity rooster pheasant that tries to take a Chessie to the mat. Of course, to keep this single-minded breed within gun range, you probably need an e-collar, also known as a Chessie’s hearing aid.
That’s the Chesapeake Bay retriever. The Marine Corps of our retriever breeds, they’re unequaled in water, competent on land and semper fidelis wherever they have a job to do.
Jim Spencer’s books are available from the Wildfowl Bookshelf.