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A Chessie Man

A Chessie Man

One of the greatest pleasures of hunting with dogs is the people we meet along the way. Besides enriching our lives with their presence, others can teach us a lot through their words and example. For the next few issues, we will feature some fine retriever people. Some are bona fide "experts," and others are simply gun dog men and women like you and me, with a lifetime of experience to share.

We begin with John Kolf of Montgomery, Minnesota. I met John last spring at a hunt test sanctioned by the Southern Minnesota Hunting Retriever Club (SMHRC). Like most retriever hunt tests, this one was dominated by Labs with a sprinkling of goldens. John was the only handler working a Chesapeake Bay retriever.

The dog turned out to be HRCH Oakpond's Turbocharger MH, also known as "Tank." Besides being utterly beautiful, Tank was a friendly dog and dynamic performer. After speaking with John, I realized it was no accident that he has a great dog.

Chad Mason: Tell us about your history with Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

John Kolf: Well, I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, hunting waterfowl along the Mississippi River. In 1966 — the year I turned 16 and got my driver's license — a friend's father bought a Chesapeake. I think he got the dog out of Idaho, or somewhere out west. That dog loved to do two things: hunt, and fight with other male dogs. I guess you could say that dog made a lasting impression on me by the way he hunted.

I didn't hunt much for the next several years, because I went into the military, got married and focused on finding work. Eventually I moved to Minnesota to run the equipment shop for a large construction firm. I would end up working there for almost 20 years, and during that time I got back into hunting dogs as a way to unwind from work. Since the dog I remembered most from my youth was a Chessie, that's the breed I chose.

I read a lot of James Spencer's work over the years, and he influenced how I work with my dogs. I also read Wolters and many of the other famous gun dog writers — I just read everything I could get my hands on. But a big turning point was in 1990, when I went to the Minnesota Game Fair in Anoka and joined the SMHRC, which then was affiliated with the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA).

Eventually the club changed its affiliation to AKC. But all the major retriever organizations have something to offer. I've also been active in the United Kennel Club (UKC) tests, which are especially popular in southern states. Tank's HRCH title is from UKC, and he's registered with both UKC and AKC. Eventually I took the seminars and tests to become a test judge, and I've been judging AKC hunt tests for about 15 years.

Besides Tank, I also have a female — Oakpond Southern Belle, or "Birdie." I don't consider myself a breeder, although I've had a few litters of Chessies over the years and am planning one this year. Tank is a popular stud dog within the Chesapeake community, especially in this part of the country. I'm not a pro trainer, but I've trained quite a few dogs for other people. Mainly, I'm just a lifelong hunter who loves dogs.

CM: Why have you stuck with Chesapeakes all these years?

JK: Well, let me just say that I enjoy all good dogs, regardless of breed. And everybody's dog is the best to them. I also have two Labs in my home that I rescued.

But I guess I've stayed with Chessies because they are so loyal, and they absolutely love to hunt. Contrary to the popular perception of Chessies as coldwater duck or goose specialists, I think they're a great all-purpose dog. Mine love to hunt pheasants and they are great at it. But I wait until later in the season when the weather is cooler. They overheat fast when temps are in the 70s.

Of course I've had a few duds over the years, but I've had some really wonderful dogs, too, and they have kept me devoted to the breed.

CM: How do you think Chessies are different from other types of retrievers?

JK: The main thing I learned over the years by training other breeds for other people is you have to be careful with Chessies and minimize your mistakes. They have great memories and will remember your mistakes for a long time. For example, you have to make absolutely sure the dog understands why he's being corrected. Correction must be perfectly timed with the infraction. Don't confuse the dog, or he will avoid similar situations in the future.

I don't mean Chesapeakes are "soft." I mean they're smart, and they don't tolerate a lot of nonsense.

For that reason, I think it's better to do several very short training sessions per day than one long session. You're less likely to make mistakes that way, and you also can set up different scenarios so they don't get bored or start anticipating your moves. And when you send the dog, make sure there's something there for him to retrieve; they have to be confident in you. That's a crucial concept for training Chessies — you have to build their confidence in you.

Of course, every dog is different. I've had Chessies that I almost gave up on, and then their light bulbs went on when they hit 2 years old. And then I've seen others that would handle blind retrieves at 6 to 8 months. You have to let the dog set the pace of training.

CM: What do you make of the Chessie's rough-and-tumble reputation?

JK: They were created by market hunters to retrieve hundreds of ducks, and then guard the gear. That guard dog instinct is bred into them. Today we try to de-emphasize that in our breeding so it is not as pronounced. In my opinion, they've come a long way and are still improving. I haven't heard about any temperament problems in at least 15 years.

Breeders are focusing much more on a temperament that is more suitable to modern life. Nevertheless, that guard dog instinct still exists within the breed. Chessies are more protective of their property than other retriever breeds, mainly when they are in their kennels. However, as long as you're not in a situation where the dog feels he has something to protect, they are friendly and affectionate even to strangers. I've always been able to completely trust my dogs around my grandchildren, for example. They're totally safe.

Most importantly, right from the day you take a Chessie puppy home, you have to give it lots of exposure to other dogs and people. You can't socialize them too much. As long as you do that from a young age, you should never have a problem with aggressiveness in a Chessie. They'll be nice, happy dogs.

They are incredibly hardy dogs. I've seen them sitting in a blind, totally comfortable, with icicles hanging off of them. I've seen them sleep outside their doghouses when its 10 degrees below zero.

CM: Describe the ideal Chessie.

JK: That depends on your point of view. I got a call from a guy who wanted a puppy, and said he wanted absolutely the biggest male he could get. But I like a smaller dog. Birdie is only 55 pounds, and Tank is 70. Personally, I think big dogs break down sooner than smaller dogs, especially in warm weather.

I do like to see some hunt test titles, or even field trial titles in the pedigree. I think that indicates trainability. Ultimately the ideal Chessie is a well-trained Chessie. I'm a big believer in solid obedience training, force-fetch training, whistle training, etc.

CM: Who are some Chesapeake people that you admire?

JK: I mainly know the upper Midwestern scene, so I can't speak for other regions. In the Midwest, one person I respect is Craig Klein at Fischer's Kennels ( Craig is a top-notch breeder and trainer, and I think he's one of the best Chessie trainers around. Another is Damon Sweep from Kensington, Minnesota. He's really knowledgeable and has had a lot of Chessies.

For anyone interested in puppies or learning more about Chesapeake Bay retrievers, contact John Kolf at or (507) 720-7886.

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