Breed Profile: Chesapeake Bay Retriever
November 06, 2015
Several years ago in my other life as an investigative reporter, at an editorial meeting after I had summarized the progress on a story we were covering, the publication's managing editor spoke up. Clearly unimpressed with what I said, the ME, who had never been a fan of investigative reporting, snorted, "You investigate reporters are always so damned cocky. Seems to me all you really know about your subject is just about enough to be dangers."
Although I forcefully rejected that accusation with rather salty language, knowing that both the executive editor and the publisher had my back, upon reflection the ME's indictment was not totally without merit. Fairly often, I have known just enough about a subject to be dangerous.
But that is not the case here. This time I know my subject quite possibly as well as anyone in the country since I've owned, hunted with, trained, shown, trialed, tested and bred Chesapeake Bay retrievers for nearly 60 years'¦and my dogs have earned more than 40 American and Canadian field titles.
What's more, I have hunted everything from Canada and white-fronted geese to bobwhite quail with them, although their success as quail dogs absolutely disgusted Bill Baxter, my late upland hunting partner, Brittany fanatic and former Nebraska Assistant Chief of Wildlife. For Bill, artistic merit and tradition trumped meat on the table any day.
About the only gamebird my Chessies were ever unwilling to hunt was sandhill cranes, refusing to acknowledge that these avian aberrations were either "game" or "birds." Even after all those years of dealing with these strong-willed and independent dogs and despite having owned a pair of exceptionally talented Brittanys, Chesapeakes have always been and continue to be my breed-of-choice.
That does not mean they are the right breed for everyone, however. They have a wide streak of independence — almost the equal of pointing breeds in that respect — and they possess considerable ability to think for themselves. These are highly desirable traits for a hunting dog but they are troublesome if your primary objective is not the pursuit of waterfowl or upland birds but rather field trial and hunt test titles.
It also makes people who have a need to be in total control very uncomfortable. Personally, I like dogs that aren't wimps or robots, that have some gumption (to use an old-fashioned word), and will let me know in unmistakable ways when they think something I'm asking them to do is absurd. But if you can't tolerate anything less than letter-perfect obedience from your dog, do yourself and any Chessie that might wind up with you a big favor. Choose another breed.
Chesapeakes do not hold up well under heavy pressure and they won't put up with harsh training. Where many trainers, including professionals, go astray with this breed is trying to force them into a one-size-fits-all training program. Chessies need to understand everything, including the "why" about what you are asking them to do, or they either (a) won't do it; or (b) will do it their own way.
Unfortunately, over the years, this has been labeled as stubbornness by many professional trainers. In most cases, what's really happening is the dog is confused or thinks it has a better way of doing the task. A wise professional trainer who had great success with the breed told me something I have used as a training mantra. He said, "Chesapeakes aren't so tough. All you have to do is make them think that what you want them to do is their idea."
The problem comes in trying to figure out how to convince each individual dog that something is his or her idea because this is one breed where you absolutely have to be creative and tailor your training to the personality and talents of each dog. Positive reinforcement techniques work well with Chesapeakes because, for all their outward hardiness, temperamentally the modern Chesapeake is really a pretty soft dog.
Most will do almost anything for you if there is something of value, like food or a toy or — when they are further advanced in their training — a bird. But a few words of caution are needed. These kinder, gentler techniques require substantially more time to get your point across to the dog and infinitely more patience. However, the end result is a happier, more cooperative hunting partner.
The fact that positive reinforcement works best with the breed doesn't mean that you can never use any negative reinforcement. Chesapeakes will accept correction when they know they've done something wrong as long as it is applied judiciously and with restraint. Most times a sharp "No, bad dog!" is enough to get their attention.
However, if you use an electronic collar for correction, you better be an expert in its use and have impeccable timing. Why? Because you will be in deep trouble with a Chessie if you punish him at the wrong time or without justification.
They have memories that would put a supercomputer to shame and will get even, usually when you have the most money or bragging rights on the line. While their memory is a terrific asset when you want them to remember the location of several downed birds, it is not so terrific if you need them to forgive and forget.
You absolutely cannot be heavy-handed with a Chesapeake. Their personalities are such that they will not surrender to physical abuse but abuse will cause them to abandon their innate desire to please you and their intense loyalty.
Still, you must be the commanding officer or they will fill that vacuum and in the hands of a passive person, they can be difficult to handle. You cannot be a tyrant with a Ches, but rather, must be a benign ruler because success with this breed requires that your relationship be more of a partnership than a dictatorship.
You also have to pick your battles with a Chesapeake because you will never be the winner every time you and the dog have a difference of opinion. So you need to choose some things that are really important to you, teach the dog thoroughly what you want and never cut them an inch of slack in those areas.
For the other things you want the dog to do, you'd be wise to negotiate. My personal philosophy is if what the dog is doing does not interfere with its primary job — finding and fetching birds — I'm inclined to let them do it any way they want.
In my early years of Chesapeake ownership, the breed had a reputation for being surly although I've never had an ill-tempered dog. The many responsible breeders have made a conscientious effort to weed the nasty dogs out of the gene pool and for the most part, they have succeeded. However, as is true of every breed, if you heap enough abuse on them, you can cause even the most sweet-natured dog to turn mean.
It is also important to not lose sight of the fact that part of the original purpose of the Chesapeake Bay retriever was to guard the possessions — the boat, decoys and other equipment — of market hunters. Those old watermen ruthlessly culled any dog that didn't meet their standards and as a result, the breed still retains a "guard dog" mentality.
They will protect you and your property to the point where they will sacrifice their life. And in this day and age, that kind of loyalty is worth preserving.
The Chesapeake remains a premier waterfowl dog. There is no other breed that can handle the cold, rough going or chasing wounded waterfowl like a Chessie. They have a superb coat for this work, which ranges in color from deep chocolate brown to a beautiful red/gold color called "sedge" in the breed standard to the lightest straw ("deadgrass" in the standard), but all the colors provide camouflage in their working environment.
They will cheerfully enter the coldest water, are superb markers and they have a phenomenal ability to remember those marks. They are peerless when it comes to finding crippled birds, both in the water and on land, and they seem to take a lost bird personally.
While they are primarily waterfowl dogs, they also can hold their own on upland birds. Indeed, before arthritic knees sharply curtailed my upland hunting, we killed many more pheasants over the Chesapeakes than we did over the Brits and just about as many quail.
Other positives about the Chesapeake are that breeders, for the most part, have strongly resisted the temptation that has plagued so many of the other sporting breeds, which is to have one type that's a "show dog" and another that's a "field dog."
Not only are Chesapeakes the only retriever breed still achieving the "gold medal" of a dual championship — dogs that have both a conformation and a field championship — but there are many, many Chesapeakes with championships from the show ring that also have senior or master hunt test titles.
Indeed, the American Chesapeake Club has a program specifically designed to encourage avoiding any significant split in the breed by rewarding and recognizing dogs that are show champions and have earned either a field championship or a master hunter title. What this means is that you can buy a pup whose ancestors predominantly competed in the show ring and it will do a decent job for you in the field.
Breeders have also pretty much avoided producing dogs with the kind of hot-wired temperaments prevalent among many field trial dogs. Most Chessies are great companions in the marsh, stubble fields and upland coverts. They are alert and ready to go when there are birds in the air but pleasant to be around when the skies are empty.
The only problems with the breed are that like most purebred dogs, Chesapeakes have some genetic issues, although with improved testing, the incidence of dogs with these problems is also being reduced. But it is important to buy pups from breeders who do test for the genetic disorders because the gene pool is not extensive.
Every Chesapeake descends, in some way or another, from one of two St. John's Newfoundlands, a now extinct breed. This is not to suggest that Chesapeakes are unhealthy because that is not true. The vast majority live long lives with very few trips to the veterinarian other than for routine vaccinations.
The other problem is that Chesapeakes remain something of a rare breed. There are only about 4,000 registered each year with the AKC. What this means is that you probably will have to get on a waiting list to get a pup with the pedigree you desire.
Chesapeake breeders generally tend to be very picky about who gets their pups so you can expect to have to answer several questions to the breeder's satisfaction before you can even get on a waiting list.
The wait, however, is almost always worth it. This is a wonderful breed if you take the time to understand them and accept them for what they are. If you train them, properly socialize them and not only set rules but enforce those rules, you will have a great hunting and family companion.
Just one other thing. When you are hunting, if you are able to successfully convince them that at least half the meatloaf sandwiches aren't theirs, please do all of us who hunt with a Chesapeake Bay retriever a favor and share that information, will you?