To understand the rise and development of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever it is essential to understand something about the region from which it comes. The Chesapeake Bay is on the East Coast of the United States, running north up toward Baltimore.
This is a land of harsh winters, icy water, and huge numbers of migratory birds. James Michener describes the duck hunting in this region in his novel, Chesapeake.
There were literally so many birds that they could be shot out of the sky en masse, resulting in 10 to 20 ducks for their dogs to then go out and retrieve at a time.
The guns used were more properly boat-mounted cannons. These hunters needed dogs that were capable of going out and retrieving all of these ducks, in particular going after cripples first and then back to pick up the dead ones.
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There are many stories and legends about the origin of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever. The favored story involves the 1807 shipwreck of an English ship bound for Poole, England. The crew and two puppies survived the wreck: a brown male named Sailor and a black bitch dubbed Canton in honor of the rescuing ship.
These two puppies were St. John’s water dogs, no doubt bound for Lord Malmesbury’s estates, which at this time was developing the prototype for the Labrador Retriever breed. These puppies found homes in the Chesapeake Bay area, on the opposite shores, and were trained and used for duck retrieving.
The dogs that descended from these two ultimately became collectively known as Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.
Whether or not Canton and Sailor contributed as much to the breed as they are credited with, or even whether they were bred to one another at all, it’s clear that the Chesapeake, or Chessie as it is often called, developed in this area from avid hunters who cared about two things: a fanatical retriever, and a brown coat to blend in with its surroundings.
Thus, many dogs would have been used for breeding stock as long as they were good hunters and retrievers and had brown coats. Other St. John’s dogs from Newfoundland and retrieving dogs, including the Labrador upon its return to the Americas, were no doubt used in the quest for the ultimate duck retriever.
While it’s temptingly romantic to paint a picture of a breed coming about by natural selection in this rugged climate, in all likelihood, Chesapeakes were bred quite carefully by the families along the Bay for the qualities they desired.
There is anecdotal evidence of breeding records and pedigrees tracing back to at least the beginning of the 19th century. In particular, the Carroll Island Gun Club was devoted to Chesapeakes in the latter half of the eighteenth century and reportedly kept breeding records going back for decades.
The club’s members bred Chesapeakes and hunted over them; sportsmen came from all over the country to witness their prowess.
Unfortunately, in a contribution to the puzzle of this breed’s origins, the club’s records were lost in a fire near the turn of the century. Some of the other breeds believed to have played a part in the Chesapeake’s development include coonhounds, Curly Coated Retrievers, Irish Water Spaniels, and setters.
The Chesapeake Bay Retriever was the first individual retriever breed recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1878. The first recorded Champion in this breed is CH Barnum (born 1892); the first Field Champion is FC Skipper Bob (mid 30’s), with the first dual Champion, Dual CH Sodaks Gypsy Prince (1937) following shortly after.
The American Chesapeake Club became the official national breed club in 1918. In contrast, the rest of the retrievers were lumped together until the late 1920’s when the AKC finally separated them into the ones we know today.
The Chesapeake Today
The Chesapeake is fortunate at this point in that it has not split between show and field as has happened with the more popular retriever breeds.
To some extent, this is probably due to its being one of the rarer Retriever breeds, with Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers far surpassing the Chesapeake in litters registered annually with the AKC. In 1994, there were two Dual Champions.
There have been a total of eleven Dual Champions in the breed, and three more that had a breed Championship and an Amateur Field Trial Championship.
The American Chesapeake Club today maintains the breed Standard, organizes annual National Specialty Shows and Field Trials. The club has a code of ethics for its members and supplies information upon request about the breed and those in the breed.
Characteristics and Temperament
Pet and Companion
The Chesapeake is a talented and driven dog. He can be stubborn and strong-willed and is not the best dog for most novice owners. He is excellent with children, though he will not tolerate abuse and will get up and leave in such a situation.
In any case, any interaction between young children and dogs of any breed should be supervised by an adult.
The Chesapeake is an intensely loyal dog with a strong protective streak. This is coupled with an excellent temperament; the consequence of which is that while the Chesapeake makes an excellent watchdog, he is a poor attack dog as he will not injure others.
His loyalty also means that it is difficult for anyone else to train the dog except for his family. As a rule, Chesapeakes are friendly rather than affectionate with strangers. Poor results are obtained by “sending the dog away” for training and is not advised.
This is a breed that makes a wonderful family pet and does badly when kenneled away from the family.
Because he is a retrieving breed, he is likely to chew quite a lot throughout puppyhood and adolescence. Because he will grow to be relatively large and have a protective streak, it is imperative to socialize him as a puppy with plenty of strangers and have him be used to obedience work.
Chesapeakes are first and foremost superb hunting dogs and well known for their love of water. They are credited with excellent noses and perseverance in finding a fallen game, in particular going after crippled birds first then the dead ones.
For example, there are authenticated stories of Chesapeakes retrieving as many as 100 ducks in a single day! With good training, your Chesapeake should easily be an excellent hunter.
Chesapeakes are shown in field trials and do very well, However, they are consistently outnumbered by Labradors at these shows (who outnumber all the other breeds eligible for these trials). Nevertheless, the breed continues to have Dual Champions, a tribute to the continued working ability of the breed as a whole.
In contrast, Cheaspeakes are never very numerous at the show ring. They are easily shown, however; requiring little grooming. It is sometimes difficult, however, to find a judge that truly understands the breed’s type.
Chesapeakes do well in obedience, especially under experienced trainers. Since they have a mind of their own, however, it may be a task to convince them to do things your way rather than theirs!
Choosing a Puppy
Look for puppies with the following points:
- Sound temperament — no shyness, fear, or aggression.
- Good health — active and inquisitive, glossy coat, pink gums and tongue.
- Ideally should be retrieving items with eagerness at an early age
- Unperturbed by loud noises.
- Eager to approach strangers.
- Parents that are certified free of hip and elbow dysplasia and examined annually for hereditary eye diseases.
Look carefully at the parents to give you an indication of what the puppies should grow up to be like. If you don’t like the dam or the sire, you should probably pass on the puppies.
There are more general tips given in the FAQ on “Getting A Dog” for finding reputable breeders and asking the right questions. This article is posted monthly to rec.pets.dogs.info. General help for dealing with puppies can be found in the “New Puppy” FAQ, also posted monthly to rec.pets.dogs.info.
A Chesapeake puppy’s coat color can become either darker or lighter with maturity. Puppy and adult colors can both range from a very light “deadgrass” color to a rich, dark chocolate shade. It is common to see a wide range of colors within the same litter.
Frequently Asked Questions
Aren’t Chesapeakes a kind of Labrador?
NO, although the breeds are related. Unfortunately, since Labradors are much better known, the comparison is inevitable, and too often the Chesapeake is simply described in terms of how it differs from the Labrador, or worse, as “another kind of Labrador.”
Physical differences: In Chesapeakes, the ears are set higher, and the legs tend to be longer. The eyes are shaped differently and set a little more forward in the head. They are not as stocky as Labradors, especially show Labs, and they have a different topline since their rear may be high.
The coat of a Labrador is not woolly, and if there is a wave to it, is not nearly the same as a Chesapeake’s. Moreover, Chesapeakes only come in various shades of brown (from a wheaten “deadgrass” color, to reddish brown, to a deep rich chocolate), whereas Labradors can be yellow, black, or chocolate.
The easiest way to distinguish a chocolate Labrador from a dark Chesapeake is by the lighter pigment of the Chesapeake’s nose and eyes and the woolliness and curliness of its coat. Eye color doesn’t always give you a clue as many chocolate Labradors have yellow eyes rather than the correct hazel or brown.
Certainly, poorly bred specimens of either breed may make it nearly impossible to decide which breed they are.
Temperament differences: The Chesapeake is a loyal breed, bonding closely to its family and not taking direction from strangers very well although they may be unfailingly polite or friendly to strangers. The Labrador is often indiscriminately affectionate and many will work for nearly anyone.
The Chesapeake has a protective streak which most Labradors lack or possess to a significantly lesser degree. Extensive kenneling and isolation seems to affect Chesapeakes more strongly than Labradors.
Both breeds can be equally stubborn, however, and they do share many other common retriever traits: high intelligence, trainability, a high activity level, and a love of water.
What are the different colors of the Chesapeake?
Deadgrass — is without any red tone in either the light, regular or dark variations. Deadgrass can vary from almost yellow to tan.
Sedge — almost a “strawberry blonde” coloration. Definite reddish undertones on a relatively light colored coat.
Browns — darker and may have red undertones (light brown, brown and dark brown).
Liver — ???. This color was a disqualification for a long time, but has been dropped in the latest version of the standard. It’s not clear how this color differs from shades of Brown.
So are Chespeakes always a solid color?
White markings can show up but unless limited to spots on the chest, belly or feet, they are disqualifications. Any black markings are disqualifications. The Chesapeake can have hound markings though this is not preferred.
However, if you examine a solid colored Chesapeake, you will likely find a subtle range of colors on it, down to variations on a single hair shaft. This is perfectly normal.
Which color came first? Which is better?
While the exact color of a Chesapeake is inconsequential, the range of colors and their historical devevelopment is nevertheless of academic interest.
In researching old AKC Stud Book pages, the predominant registered color of the Chessie in the late 1800’s was sedge.
However, there is some evidence that because sedge was a prized color at the time, dogs were being registered as sedge simply to help move puppies. Also, as many Chesapeakes change colors from puppyhood to adulthood, it is unclear how many puppies might have been sedge when young and a different color when adult.
Nevertheless, this practice started such an uproar at the time that “sedge” was very nearly dropped as a color description. This is probably also when the worn out argument of which color is “better” originated.
According the stud books, which, again, are open to interpretation, a trend toward the brown color started at the turn of the century. Brown in those days was called by several different names including sable, bay, mink, brown, dark brown, red brown, and light brown.
There were also several dogs registered as liver in color. From 1889 to 1904, one deadgrass and a handful of tans were registered (and one as “sedge grass”). This suggests that Chesapeakes have always come in a wide range of colors.
Because of the dominant/recessive nature of the colors, there will be a greater number of browns than other colors. There is no evidence that deadgrass developed later or elsewhere.
(Thanks to Thomas McClanahan for supplying the information about the stud book records and to Meghan Connor for discussing their interpretation, both on the Chessie-L list.)
So how important is color?
Not very. So long as the Chesapeake has no disqualifying marks, the color of its coat is unimportant. Of course, individuals have their private preferences, but this ideally does not carry over in to the show ring, and certainly does not affect the dog’s hunting ability.
You can find quality dogs in any of the permitted colors for the breed.
Alright, if color is not important, then what is?
The coat quality! It’s important that the coat be harsh and crisp, with plenty of undercoat. A correct coat will be only mildly damp after the dog shakes when coming out of the water. If it retains water so that the dog is soaked, it is not correct.
Nor should the coat curl (defined in the Standard as the hair curling around far enough to touch itself again).
Color appears to play some part in the coat quality, as a variety of colors in the coat often signify variations in texture necessary for a quality coat. This is not to say, however, that a particular color is somehow better than the rest.
Is the eye color supposed to match the coat?
Not according to the Standard. Individual breeders may have personal preferences, of course, but a long as the Chesapeake’s eyes are yellow to amber in color, it does not matter whether the coat is deadgrass or dark brown or any other color in between.
Is the topline supposed to have the rear be higher?
Again, according to the standard: “Topline should show the hindquarters to be as high as or a trifle higher than the shoulders.” Many breeders prefer “a trifle higher,” citing improved working ability as a result. The Chesapeake is one of only a few AKC recognized breeds that allow high rears.
Are Chesapeakes stubborn and hard to train?
They have often been accused of such, but this directly contradicts the personal experience of many Chesapeake owners. Most often you will hear this accusation from professional hunting or field trial trainers, most of whom are more accustomed to working with the Labrador.
As previously noted the Chesapeake is more responsive to his family than to a stranger and this is doubtless a large factor responsible for the trainers’ perceptions.
If you will be sending out your Chesapeake for hunting training, be sure to look for a trainer that has trained Chesapeakes and is willing to work with their differences rather than train them in the same way all their other dogs are trained, or try to force them into the Labrador mold.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Chesapeakes are intelligent and sometimes bored with pointless (to them) repetition. Thus their talent for doing some things their own way! Anyone training Chesapeakes must work with this tendency or ultimately be frustrated.
How much do they shed? Do they require a lot of grooming?
No! The coat is nearly maintenance free and can, in fact, be damaged by over grooming. Many people do not know what the proper coat texture is for a Cheasapeake; it should be springy and resilient to the touch, not soft or smooth.
Brushing your Chesapeake weekly with a rubber brush is all he needs. The regular brushing will help distribute oils evenly throughout the coat and help shed any dead hair. In particular, you should not use a rake or a slicker on the coat, which can break down all the wave and kink in your Chesapeake’s coat.
A properly maintained Chesapeake coat will be only slightly moist after it shakes itself off when it comes out of the water. Since the Chesapeake is a double coated breed, it does shed, more than you might expect for a relatively short-haired dog, but less than a long haired dog.
How much exercise do they need?
Like all the retriever breeds, the Chesapeake is an active dog and will become destructive if bored or under-exercised. Note that any regular and/or heavy exercise should wait until your Chesapeake is at least a year old.
While puppies should have plenty of opportunities for exercise, the exercise should be self-selected (eg, allowing the puppy to run around in a field rather than dragging it along to go jogging with you).
Are they good swimmers?
Most Chesapeakes love the water! However, you should use good sense when introducing a puppy to the water. Throwing it in could cause the puppy to become afraid of the water. Instead, select a calm body of water, with plenty of shallow areas for him to romp in.
If you have another dog that loves to swim, this is the best way to entice a puppy into the water. Keep an eye on very young puppies in the water to be sure they don’t get into trouble.
Adult Chesapeakes are excellent swimmers. You will see their top lines just below the water and their tails acting as a kind of rudder. They will swim with powerful strokes and pull their head and shoulders out of the water to locate objects in the water.
Just how well do they tolerate really cold water?
An adult Chesapeake in good condition and acclimatized to the winter will do just fine in icy water. Do be sensible and observe precautions if you are near iced-over rivers or lakes that may break through.
Make sure your dog dries off completely and quickly once he finishes swimming: with the correct coat, a quick shake is sufficient, if your dog has gotten wet down to the skin, a towel may help. Working Chesapeakes are often expected to work all day in icy water conditions.
Special Medical Problems
Chesapeakes are susceptible to hip dysplasia as well as other joint problems. All breeding stock should be x-rayed and certified clear of hip dysplasia by the OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals).
Elbow problems, including Ununited Anconeal Process, and Degenerative Joint Disease (all called “OCD,” or generally “Elbow Dysplasia”) may be upcoming problems in the breed: both the closely related breeds Labradors and Flat Coats are finding increased incidences of these problems when they look for them.
Ideally, breeding stock should begin clearing both elbows AND hips with OFA.
Von Willebrand’s Disease
A form of von Willebrand’s Disease, a blood clotting disorder.
They are also susceptible to an eye disease called PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy).
This insidious disease of the eyes eventually causes blindness. It is believed to be inherited by a simple recessive mode. This means that for a dog to be affected, both parents must be either carriers or affected themselves.
The problem is that this disease has a late onset where the dogs do not show symptoms until they are over four years of age, in which case they may have already been bred. Carriers show no symptoms.
All breeding stock should be examined annually and have their eyes cleared through CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation). At present, this is believed to be more of a problem in other retriever breeds than the Chesapeake.
Currently, there is a blood test to identify affected and carrier dogs in Irish Setters.
Hopefully, there will soon be a test that will work on other breeds.
As dogs that develop blindness later in life may have tested normal in previous ophthalmological examinations, it’s important to find a breeder that not only tests all breeding stock annually, but also continues to test dogs that were used for breeding in their old age.
Other eye problems include Entropian and occasional cataracts.