May 15, 2023
It was 3:00 AM at the launch. The tunnel vision from my headlamp beamed through the falling snow at Rob who was all business at his boat’s stern, focused on turning over the tiller. Just before his first yank, frantic yelping and splashing sounded to the left.
The beam from my headlamp panned over to Rob’s one-year old Chessie, Leo, swimming in tight circles. “What the…?! It’s 30 degrees out and we’re five states north from the nearest gator … Is he going through cold water shock (who wouldn’t if their package was submersed for the first time in that frigid stuff)?” My groggy mind zipped as quickly as it could while deciding to dash over to assist Leo.
Rob grabbed my arm. I panned back to him as both our headlamps blinded each other. “He’s okay—this is Leo’s ‘thing’.” Later, he did it again in the kill hole while we deployed the dozens of diver and dabbler decoys. He did it another half dozen times upon water entry for each retrieve.
I initially got annoyed. It was quite a racket watching him swim in tight circles and looking like a dog trying to swim for the first time. Kerplunk! Kerplunk! YIP! Kerplunk! And so on. At each yip, he’d try catching the water from each splash. But I realized later he was loving life—he’s a kid in a candy shop soaking up the experience.
I now love it—calling it “Party Time.” I’ve never seen a dog so in love with water than Leo. And rightfully so, it’s hard to argue any other breed so solely bred for the water than a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, outside of possibly the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. This is coming from someone that has grown up with hunting-bred goldens, a water spaniel, and owner of a British Lab.
The History of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Legend has it that the original sire and dam survived a shipwreck in the Chesapeake Bay—if they can handle that, they can handle anything. An account back in 1845 from George Law stated, “Both attained great reputation as water-dogs. They were most sagacious in every thing; particularly so in all duties connected with duck-shooting.” Although never bred to each other, the Newfoundlands were bred with local hunting hounds and Irish water spaniels. Their progeny spread to both shores of the Chesapeake that, in just 30 years from Law’s account of them, the Poultry & Fanciers Association Show in Baltimore found such commonality that they were recognized as one breed: the Chesapeake Bay Ducking Dog.
The same can be said with both working and conformation breed standards today—something to be esteemed considering how most other hunting breeds are opposite with their hunting and conformation specific breeders (e.g., a show golden retriever is very different to what hunting kennels produce). The American Chesapeake Club confirmed, “It’s still common in our breed for a dog to go to the conformation dog show and a nearby hunt test on the same day. Just a month ago, they had a dual champion in CH AFC Fireweed’s The King of Cool ‘McQueen’.”
Chessies are also made in the USA. You can’t find that with any other retrieving breeds. Not even the beloved Labrador Retriever—originally bred for fishermen instead of waterfowl—can claim that. Let that sink in…
Chesapeake Bay Retriever Breed Standards
Now, let’s float up to what high standards make a Chesapeake. Their body composition is strong and balanced of moderate size with a deep chest and shoulders allowing full range of movement. This allows the Chesapeake to function in harsh water conditions and thick cover with ease, efficiency, and endurance. Males should be 23-26 inches tall and weigh 65 to 80 pounds. Females measure smaller at 21-24 inches tall and weigh 55 to 70 pounds.
The trademark of a Chesapeake is their double coat—ideally suited for cold conditions. When hunting with “Party Mode” Leo, I’ve noticed the oils in his dense, wooly undercoat seem to wick water away from his body where it drips off his wavy outer coat. In frigid conditions, the outercoat turns into icicles—a fascinating symbiosis that doesn’t appear present with other retriever breeds in which water is drawn off the dog’s body instead of being repelled by a thick, oily coat. The American Chesapeake Club states, “A Chesapeake’s coat should resist the water in the same way that a duck’s feathers do. When the Chesapeake leaves the water and shakes, the coat should not hold water at all, being merely moist.”
The color of their coat was bred to camouflage to its surroundings. The chocolate brown blends into the muddy banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Growing above the banks are sedge grasses that turn red in the fall—why there are also sedge-colored variants. There are lighter colored coats, “deadgrass,” too that match the tan and yellow hues of dead vegetation standing along with the sedge grass.
Their disposition exudes intelligence and expresses happiness. They are courageous, alert, and willing to please. More paramount is their love of water.
Training a Chesapeake Bay Retriever
“The determination and dedication of a Chesapeake really made me love the breed,” says Cory Herendeen, owner of Aleutian Outfitters in Adak Island, Alaska. Prior to being a full-time outfitter, Cory was a breeder and trainer of champion Chesapeakes—he had the 8th Chesapeake to reach 500 HRC points and the only person to have father and son Chesapeakes reach 500 points. “Watching a Chesapeake swimming after a sea duck in the Bering Sea and not giving up makes my heart glad. I know the Chesapeake will not give up if it is a possible task for them to accomplish.”
Despite being bred to be fearless in perilous water (seriously, even Bob Ross couldn’t paint the Bering as a “Happy Sea”), Chessies have a reputation as a soft breed when it comes to training. Herendeen explained, “My general thought about what is different between training a Lab and training a Chesapeake is, for a Lab, I can pressure them to do what I want to accomplish in training, whereas for Chesapeake, I have to convince them why it is a good idea. Most Chesapeakes wilt under pressure, really turns them off.”
Herendeen mentions how older retriever training methods depended on pressure for long term success, so he has modified his methods to make his dogs more successful. “I feel like my training program for Chesapeakes includes breaking each lesson down into more steps than I might for a Lab that can handle a level of correction. If I pressure one of my Chesapeakes too much, they will shut down and training will be over for the day. This took me a long time to realize that if that happened, it was better to stop for the day, even if we had only been training for minutes.” He also shared how he’s had three-hour training cycles with one dog that was really enjoyable and fun, and also had a five-minute session where nothing went according to plan and put the dog right back into the box. “They have trained me as much as I’ve trained them. Training any dog makes you develop more patience. A Chesapeake more so yet,” he added.
This is why, if you’re considering getting a Chesapeake, you should join the American Chesapeake Club and attend their events. Join a local Chessie club too. There is a tremendous amount of information you and your future Chesapeake can glean from.
Is the Chesapeake Bay Retriever For You?
The American Chesapeake Club expressed that Chessies aren’t for everyone and demand a strong leader willing to provide enough physical activity—they may be prone to mischief otherwise, like most dogs. However, they do have an off-switch at home.
“They’re a great guard dog that can be extremely protective, (and) have been great in the house for us,” Herendeen mentions. “Often, people that we don’t know that come to our door choose to leave pretty quickly. They are friendly to everyone in the household and, generally, anyone that spends time with them.”
I echo that experience with Leo. I can hunt with him for four days. Each time I come back to Rob’s hunting shack with the rest of the crew, he’ll get out of the truck, run in between us and the shack, and stand with erect posture to state his presence. Then he’ll bark once to stake his dominion over the hunting shack and all that is Rob’s. All I must do is say his name and he trots over with his tail straight up, like a flagpole, wiggling to welcome me and the rest of the crew back. Now I know it’s a Chessie thing.
When I asked Herendeen what kind of person/family the breed is meant for and if they have any special requirements, he answered, “The Chesapeake breed doesn’t necessarily need a large space, but they do need their own space. A one-dog-family that can devote a lot of time to one dog seems to work best for a Chesapeake.”
Herendeen also pointed out, “Many of the Chesapeakes that I have trained, bred, and hunted with are one-person dogs. They won’t work for just anyone. They truly want to please the person that takes care of them and is their partner. While this can be a drawback at times, I appreciate how the breed shows their dedication to me. If you enjoy the ruggedness and dedication of a dog, this breed might be for you.”
I can vouch my British Lab works for me, but she’ll still work for others, if needed. But a breed so devoted to their leader must be something special that only Chesapeake Bay Retriever owners know. Herendeen perfectly concluded, “This is truly an American waterfowling dog, bred by dedicated waterfowl hunters. Those guys wanted a versatile breed that could work hard on the water for their livelihood.” I know as an outsider looking in that they’ll work hard to enrich your life too—engage “Party Mode”, Leo!