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Dog Breed Comparison: Chessies vs. Labs

Dog Breed Comparison: Chessies vs. Labs

There comes a day in every boy's life when he begins to question the infallibility of his old man's wisdom. Mine arrived at age 12. In Dad's book, the only question regarding the world's greatest duck dog was whether it was a black or yellow Lab. He had no patience for other breeds, and certainly not for one of those big, stubborn Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

So I was a curious when Dad's friend Eric arrived at the blind with an imposing specimen of a Chessie named George. Why'd Eric buy a Chessie? I surmised he just wasn't as bright as my Dad.

Then a small group of mallards decoyed with ferocity. Eric folded one drake stone dead, but my father sailed another out onto a Susquehanna ice sheet.

George leapt from the boat and instinctively passed the easy mark, then headed toward my father's. Ice shattered across the dog's barrel chest until the resistance was too great to continue on. Perhaps a reasonable animal would've turned back, but that duck-crazed dog dug his nails into the ice, heaved himself onto the surface and grabbed the duck.

It was an incredible sight, and despite my father's best efforts, I was convinced there's a time and a place when nothing beats a strong, loyal Chessie. I've come to love both breeds, and I believe both offer certain advantages, depending on the situation at hand. In my opinion, these are the pros and cons of owning Labs and Chessies.


Advantage: Chesapeake Bay Retriever

The Chessie's legendary origins are reason enough to cherish the breed. According to research by the American Chesapeake Bay Retriever Club, two Newfoundland dogs named Sailor and Canton were rescued from a sinking English fishing vessel off the coast of Maryland in 1807.

They were never bred together, but both dogs laid the foundation for today's version of the Chesapeake Bay retriever. The breed evolved as waterfowlers and market gunners bred the toughest, most natural retrievers. The Chessie, therefore, is an all-American retriever that owes its very existence to a unique period in waterfowling history.

Natural Retrieving Instinct

Advantage: Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Perhaps because market gunners had no time for intensive training, the Chessie had to be a naturally gifted retriever.

"They just sort of run on auto-pilot," explains my Chessie-obsessed friend Eric. "As long as you lay on the praise, it just takes a few dummy tosses for a lot of Chessies to learn to fetch."

So if force-fetch training isn't your cup of tea, or you simply lack the time required, a Chessie may be what you're after.

Hand Signals and Blind Retrieves

Advantage: Labrador

The Chessie will mark and retrieve a downed bird as far as he can see it. And with underrated intelligence, he will remember the falls of additional birds and fetch them with vigor as well. However, he is generally not adept at taking hand signals to blind falls or, perhaps worse still, falls he thinks he's seen.

To be clear, this is not a result of stubbornness. Despite the myth of the stubborn Chessie, behind that harsh coat tends to be a big softy. One of the reasons he's less skilled in accepting hand signals is his intolerance of the training pressure required to perfect them.

"Many people confuse softness for stubbornness when it comes to Chessies," pro trainer Tom Dokken, of Oak Ridge Kennels, once told me at a training seminar. "And what's the first thing people want to do when a dog is being stubborn? Administer correction. That only compounds the problem."

As a result, you can expect to exercise extra patience and attentiveness with Chessies. Labs, on the other hand, practically relish the advanced training. They accept a great degree of pressure without discernible impact on their enthusiasm for retrieving. This quality contributes to the Lab's dominance on the American field trial circuit, and it has resulted in the recovery of many mallards that would've never been found.

Cold-Weather Tolerance

Advantage: Chesapeake

In my book, the Chessie shines best when the sun does not. Even the mighty Labrador retriever tends to shiver in truly extreme conditions, but it's as if the Chesapeake is completely impervious to cold. His wiry outer coat seems as oily as a duck's, and his wool-like under coat locks out water like GoreTex.

I've seen him fend off ice floes in the Susquehanna, return to the boat with a prime January mallard, and shoot me a glance as if to say, "What? No big deal." For the Maine sea duck hunter, Columbia River diver hunter or anyone hunting the Chessie's namesake bay in the late season, the stronger, more weather-proofed Chessie is an excellent choice.

Upland Skills

Advantage: Labrador Retriever

Whenever the subject of the best pheasant breed arises, you can bet the Lab will be mentioned. The fact that he's even in that discussion—especially when other breeds were developed more exclusively for this role—is a testament to the Lab's upland abilities.

His nose for running pheasants is remarkable, and some hunters prefer the pace with which he tracks over certain harder-charging breeds. Of course, once it's time to retrieve a downed bird, his skill is seldom rivaled.

There are many fine upland Chessies, but luck with them in the uplands tends to be mixed at best. The Chessie was bred for duck hunting, which means finding pheasants is simply not in his DNA.

Lastly, some argue the Chessie's warm coat is prone to overheating during long upland jaunts. I haven't hunted behind a Chessie long enough to make a ruling in this case, but it seems to have merit.

Professional Training

Advantage: Labrador Retriever

The Chessie is an extremely loyal animal. Legend has it that during the market era he would fetch ducks by day and guard the boat by night. To this day he has a reputation for caring only about what his master thinks, and in his opinion a dog should have but one master.

Why does this matter? Well, in the era of sending dogs off to professionals for pre-season tune-ups, the Chessie is at a disadvantage. Labs take well to this kind of arrangement, but it makes less sense for the average Chessie. In a situation like this, the Chessie will likely think, "Who is this guy and why does he think he can tell me what to do?" With a Chessie, the do-it-yourself trainer tends to fare better than those who hope to farm out a portion of the work.

House Friendliness

Advantage: Labrador Retriever

If not for their calm, pleasant demeanor in the home, Labs would not be consistently ranked as America's most popular dog breed by the American Kennel Club. He is a great family pet, which is also important to hunters now that "Dad's hunting dog" is increasingly more likely to be found at the foot of the bed rather than out back in the kennel.

While Chessies tend to be highly protective and loyal to one man, Labs typically greet anyone who walks through the door with a warm welcome. As a final consideration, note that Chessies do have a distinct odor to their oily coats. It reminds me of a duck blind, but for that reason my spouse prefers the scent of a Lab.

Which breed is the overall superior choice? That question bears no answer—it seems the only commonalities Labs and Chessies share is a set of four legs and a drive for retrieving ducks. Both offer advantages to particular types of hunters. The key in selecting the right dog is, then, to know yourself.

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