The Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Strong-willed and not glamorous, a Chessie is a good dog to have in the blind if you’re willing to accept him “as is”
By M.J. Nelson
Am/Can Ch. Sprucegrove’s Ruff ‘N’ Rowdy CCD UD SH CWCX WDQ is an example of a sedge-colored Chesapeake. This particular color blends well with the bright wheat stubble in the Canadian wheat fields where the author hunts geese.
Psychologists, behavioral scientists and writers of romance novels all agree a love affair that lasts 45 years is extremely rare. Before long, road blocks such as job demands, seduction by another, physical maladies, recession or war tend to extinguish the passion before such a lengthy span of time has elapsed.
Nor, as is often true, has this been a case of unrequited love. Even when stories I’ve written have stirred such flaming anger and hatred that concerns for my safety were raised, at day’s end there was somewhere to go where I would be bathed in love–home to my Chesapeakes. For I will assert that there is no breed of dog that is as devoted to its humans as the Chesapeake Bay retriever.
This deep-seated affection for their owner can be downright smothering. Indeed, for more than 45 years, unless I take the precaution of moving very quickly and closing the door with equal speed, I have been unable to make a “head call” unaccompanied. When I do succeed, the four Chessies that currently occupy my house sit outside the door whining and whimpering like they lost their last friend, their bodies pressed so tightly against the door that when I try to exit, it requires immense strength to move the roughly 300 pounds of dog barricade.
One of the few benefits of growing old is that you get to tilt your chair back, assume a thoughtful expression and pontificate on a variety of subjects. Most times, folks are at least polite enough to pretend to listen. So, based on slightly more than 45 years of successfully breeding, raising, training, hunting, testing, showing and trialing the Chesapeake, I’m going to pontificate on what is right and what is wrong with the breed.
Despite my unabashed affection for these strong-willed and independent animals, right up front you need to know that this is not a breed for everyone. Chesapeakes have definite minds of their own and possess a considerable amount of ability to think for themselves. They are not, and never will be, “Robodogs.” It is embarrassing to admit the number of times I have marked the fall of a duck or goose that I was certain fell dead, insisted that the dog swim to that area only to have my Chesapeakes swim 50 yards to the left or right of where I absolutely knew the bird was…and come out of the reeds with a quite lively bird.
While this ability for independent thought is a trait highly prized by people who actually hunt with their dogs, it frequently gets the dogs in big trouble when it is time for hunt tests and field trials. It also bothers people who have a need to be in control. If your world is not complete unless you have unquestioned obedience from your dog or if your life will be empty unless you own the national field champion, do yourself a favor, get a Labrador.
While the breed has done well in hunt tests and has also had some success in field trials–the Chesapeake is the only retriever breed that still consistently produces dual champions, dogs that have both a conformation championship and a field championship–they are at a disadvantage in these “dog games”…although in the early years of field trials, and to a lesser degree, hunt tests, when the tests actually concerned themselves with innate abilities, the Chesapeake was a force to be reckoned with.
What this means is, if owning a field champion is your primary goal in life, you are better off with a Labrador. Why? First and foremost, we have the matter of sheer numbers. For several years the Labrador retriever has ranked first among all breeds registered with the American Kennel Club. Nearly 145,000 Labs were registered with the AKC in 2003. There were about 3,700 Chesapeakes registered with the AKC that same year. It stands to reason that with the number of dogs Labrador breeders produce, the odds of finding the kind of superstar needed for successful competition in field trials is greatly increased.
It is also very important to keep in mind that the rule-making bodies for both field trials and hunt tests are dominated by Labrador fanciers and they create rules that showcase the strengths of the Labrador breed. This is unlikely to change any time soon. It is no secret that where retriever field events are concerned, the Labrador Retriever Club of America “owns” the American Kennel Club. The reason is simple: 145,000 dogs times the $15 registration fee means more than $2 million annually in the AKC’s bank account.
In the world of field trials and hunt tests, Chesapeakes tend to give you a solid, steady performance but they are not flashy. That is not good enough in the highly competitive world of field trials where style counts more than substance. Sadly, the same can be said for increasing numbers of hunt tests.
Chesapeakes will also not tolerate abuse from an over-zealous trainer. They can and will think for themselves. If they are asked to do something that is absurd, they are quick to let you know. Unfortunately, as field trials, and increasingly hunt tests, have evolved into events that evaluate skills that are of little importance in a hunting dog, these positive aspects of the breed for a hunter have become liabilities.
There are some other cautions that need to be observed by prospective Chesapeake owners. You have to carefully “pick your battles” with the breed. The most successful Chesapeake trainers are the ones who concentrate on a few things that really matter to them. On these issues, you cannot afford to cut a Chessie any slack because they are very intelligent and always looking for a better way to do something.
Then on the other issues, you have to be prepared to compromise because you simply are not going to win every battle with a Chesapeake. Where a lot of folks, particularly professional trainers, go astray with the breed is that they fail to understand that Chesapeakes do not fit well in a regimented training program. This is one breed in which it is essential to adapt your techniques to the individual dog because if the Chesapeake has any moxie at all, he won’t adapt to your pre-planned program.
They are particularly resistant when you try to apply an intensive, high pressure, one-size-fits-all program that requires a dog to ignore its natural instincts and suppress its natural intelligence. These training techniques simply do not work with Chesapeakes.
This does not mean that Chesapeakes won’t accept punishment. As long as it is applied judiciously and with restraint when they know they have it coming, they can handle corrections. But do not punish them without justification. They have memories that would shame an elephant, a virtue when you want them to remember where several birds are located but big trouble if you want them to forgive and forget. It is a guarantee that if you punish them without justification, they will eventually get even. This usually occurs when you have the most money or bragging rights on the line. They will smile at you and then proceed to give you the canine version of a “Bronx cheer.”
Chesapeake breeders have resisted the temptation to breed the sort of hot-wired dogs that win field trials but are almost impossible to live with in the duck blind. Most Chessies are calm, pleasant companions in the field.
So how have Chesapeakes changed in the 45 years they have occupied my home and heart? Thankfully, not much. The breed has had the good fortune of never becoming popular, which has proven to be a virtual death knell for a number of sporting breeds–cocker spaniels come immediately to mind. Although in many sporting breeds the split between “show” and “field” types is so enormous that they do not look like the same breed, this is not the case with Chesapeakes.
There are many conformation champions in the breed with advanced hunt test titles because Chesapeake breeders have stubbornly preserved the best physical and mental characteristics of this unique breed. In practical terms, this means you can buy a Chesapeake pup with a string of conformation champions in its pedigree and expect it to do a decent job in the field. It is not uncommon for a Chesapeake to go directly from the marsh to the show or obedience ring and be successful in both.
There have been some positive changes in the breed. Responsible breeders have made a conscientious effort to eliminate the bad-tempered dogs from the gene pool and they have, for the most part, been quite successful. There are still some Chesapeakes that honestly would have to be described as surly beasts that would love to bite you. But as someone who judged retriever hunt tests for 15 years, I can also tell you that there are Labradors and goldens who would also have to plead guilty to those charges.
Indeed, the closest I ever came to being bitten as a judge was by an evil-tempered Labrador that hated the world. The only time I had to step between two dogs to stop a fight, a golden was the aggressor. As with every breed, much depends upon how a Chesapeake is raised. If you heap enough abuse on a dog, you can make the most gentle-mannered dog mean.
However, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the market hunters on Chesapeake Bay originally developed the breed. Not only were the dogs expected to make 150 to 200 retrieves a day from the rough, icy waters of the Bay, but they were expected to guard the hunter’s boat and equipment at night. The old-time watermen ruthlessly culled dogs that did not meet those strict standards. As a consequence, most Chesapeakes still retain some of that guard-dog mentality.
The breed also has gradually grown more amenable to training than it was 45 years ago. You could absolutely pound the snot out of my early Chesapeakes and they would shrug it off like nothing happened. This is no longer true. If you are heavy-handed with most modern Chesapeakes, they will tell you, “Fetch your own damn ducks”…and you have never experienced stubborn defiance until you have had a Chesapeake dig in its heels with you. The Chesapeake’s personality simply will not let them surrender to physical abuse. But physical abuse will cause them to abandon their innate loyalty and desire to please you.
Despite their enormous physical strength and outward hardiness, most Chesapeakes today are pretty soft dogs when it comes to training. A wise old trainer I knew who had considerable success with the breed summed up Chesapeake training very succinctly. He said, “Chesapeakes aren’t so tough. You just have to persuade them that what you want them to do is their idea and you can’t push them around because they will push back.”
The breed remains the premier waterfowl hunter’s dog. No other retriever breed can handle the cold, the rough going or the vagaries of wounded waterfowl quite as well as a Chesapeake. They possess a superb coat for their work that ranges in color from the deepest chocolate to a magnificent red-gold, called “sedge” in the breed standard, to light straw, but all the acceptable colors provide camouflage in their working environment.
They have outstanding marking ability and have a phenomenal ability to remember marks. They enter the coldest water with a kind of joy that is a sight to behold. I have seen Chesapeakes shrug off weather and water conditions that would send other retriever breeds running for the protection of a heated pickup cab. They are absolutely without peer when it comes to instinctively knowing where to find crippled waterfowl.
Without any formal training they will dive after cripples, diving until they ultimately wear the bird down to the point where they can catch it. They seem to take the loss of a crippled bird as a personal insult. They are big enough and strong enough to go to the mat with a wing-tipped Canada goose but gentle enough to return fledgling songbirds intact and uninjured.
Chesapeake breeders have avoided, for the most part, the temptation to produce the kind of hot-wired temperaments that win field trials but are nearly impossible to live with in a duck blind. Most Chesapeakes are great companions in the blind or the boat, alert and raring to go when there are birds in the air but calm and pleasant during the inevitable lulls. It is unlikely, however, that you will ever be successful in convincing them that at least half your lunch and all the meatloaf sandwiches do not belong to them.
While primarily waterfowl dogs, Chesapeakes also excel at hunting upland birds. It is certainly not as much fun to hunt quail and pheasants over a Chesapeake as it is to hunt those birds over a pointing dog but in the last 10 years, my hunting partners and I have killed many more pheasants and at least as many quail over the Chessies as we have over the pointing dogs.
Chesapeakes are wonderful dogs but only for people who are willing to accept them as they are. Just as you would be unlikely to create anything positive by changing a note of Mozart’s or a brush stroke on the Mona Lisa or a word of Hamlet, you do not improve Chesapeakes by trying to change them into something they are not. For those folks who love and appreciate them for what they are, no changes are needed.