A Charmed Life
A Dog’s Life
by Charles Cohen
After 20 years of breeding Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Janet Billups knows what she wants out of her dogs.
She wants her dogs to be the toughest dogs on the block. She’s not talking pit-bull tough. She’s not talking ferocious. She’s talking pickup-truck tough—the kind of dog that will outwork any breed.
“Just to see these big dogs crack through the ice in a pond in December, that gives me goose bumps,” Billups says, watching 4-year-old Clipper on a run. That type of act—plunging into icy waters—is what the Chesapeake Bay retriever has been nurtured for since its origins nearly 200 years ago.
The tale of this fine hunting dog—the best waterfowl-hunting canine there is, some say—begins in Sparrows Point, or so the story goes. No, there were no Chesapeake Bay retrievers frolicking in the salt marshes when the first settlers arrived in Baltimore. The breed owes its birth to a seafaring accident.
Legend has it that the retriever bloodline goes back to two Newfoundland puppies that were rescued from a boat off the Maryland coast in 1807. Of course, legend also has it that the retriever is the product of a mating between a dog and an otter, but in Šhe case of the shipwreck story, there’s some corroboration in the form of an 1845 letter penned by a prominent Baltimorean, George Law.
Law—whose account is cited in numerous newspaper articles about the breed as well as in Janet Horn’s book The New Complete Chesapeake Bay Retriever—was on board his uncle’s ship, the Canton, in 1807 when it came across a sinking English brig. The Canton rescued the crew as well as the two pups, which were dubbed Canton and Sailor. Law purchased the pups and gave both away: Canton, a black female, to one James Stewart of Sparrows Point and Sailor, a dingy-red male, to another man, who in turn traded the dog to Maryland Gov. Edward Lloyd, a denizen of the Eastern Shore.
Sailor and Canton were bred separately, one on the Shore and the other in the Sparrows Point area. Both were bred with spaniels and hounds to produce hunters prosaically called the Chesapeake dog. The Chesapeake’s swimming and fetching instincts were passed on from litter to litter, according to Horn.
Horn, in an interview, says Canton’s descendants took root in the Gunpowder River area, which was known for duck hunting. The author says the Carrolls Island Kennel, one of the first duck-hunting clubs in the state, became a major breeder of Chesapeake Bay retrievers. Little is known about Sailor’s progeny, but throughout the 19th century his descendants flourished on the Eastern Shore as Canton’s did on the western side of the Bay. Both lineages attracted many fans.
In 1877, the products of those two lines were compared for the first time, at the Poultry and Fanciers Association Show at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. The breeders discovered they had produced practically the same dog, independent of each other, on separate sides of the bay. The dogs had two coats of fur (for insulation in the cold water), a powerful fetching instinct, and an inexhaustible love of swimming. In 1890, the Chesapeake Bay Dog Club formally recognized the dogs as a distinct breed—the first American-bred sporting dog. (It wasn’t until the 1930s that they were named Chesapeake Bay retrievers, a designation that allowed them to participate in hunting trials that had been reserved for Labrador retrievers.)
Lost of the early records on Chesapeake Bay retriever breeding are gone. The Carrolls Island Club is long defunct, and the building in Marshy Point—a peninsula that juts into the bay north of Baltimore—where its records were kept, burned down earlier this century.
Out Harry Weiskittel, who owns property that includes Marshy Point, has hunting log books dating back to 1854 that make reference to the retrievers. And there are several tombstones for late canines on his property.
Weiskittel recalls taking out hunting parties with Labradors, whom he’d watch dashing into the cold water to fetch ducks. Then he would proudly watch his Chesapeakes work, sometimes diving four feet down in the water to get a wounded duck. Eventually, the other working dogs would get too cold and quit, but his dogs couldn’t get enough of the water.
“I’ve never seen a Chesapeake quit,” he says. “They are tough, greasy-coated dogs.”
But these days, Chesapeakes are not just about working. While the early breeders of Canton, Sailor, and their progeny were producing strong, tireless hunters and collectors, they also managed to produce good-natured companions. Which is just fine with Janet Billups, whose favorite moments with her dogs involve running.
“People like to jog alone,” she says. “With me, you’re enjoying the solitude, but you have your friend with you.”