Chesapeake Bay Retrievers

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are the state dog of Maryland and have a long connection to the Eastern Shore.

For most of my life since I was a teenager and until about a year ago I have usually owned a dog of some sort. I am not sure I will get another dog. I still love dogs but I am enjoying the freedom of not owning one right now. This is the time of year I liked owning a dog the least.

Unless you have a wide open farm most dog owners must walk their dogs. February may be the shortest calendar month but for a dog owner on Delmarva it feels like the longest. It is cold and wet. Those last walks at night before bed seem to take forever. Trying not to think about how cold and miserable I was when it was my turn to do night duty I often found myself shivering and singing "You can't hurry dogs" to the tune of the old Supremes song "You can't hurry love."

My family and I have owned two Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and one dog that was a Chesapeake mix. They all loved to go out on cold nights and just hang out indefinitely before doing their business. They also loved the snow and rain. They had thick oily coats that became wiry rug-like mats with age and exposure to the sun. No matter how much you try to towel dry a Chessie they do not get dry. And being somewhat indulgent dog parents our dogs always seem to sneak into bed with us no matter how much we tried to kick them out. We would often awake in the middle of the night to a large, smelly, snoring interloper trying to take over the whole bed.

Chesapeakes are the state dog of Maryland and have a long connection to the Eastern Shore. The history of the breed dates back to the fall of 1807 when a man named George Law, captain of a boat called the "Canton", helped rescue a couple of Newfoundland pups that were on board a ship sinking off our coast. The foundering brig had been caught in a storm while carrying codfish and other cargo to England.

Captain Law's account describes the scene of a drunken crew whose lifeboats had been swept away. When they all reached safety in Norfolk, Captain Law purchased the puppies for "a guinea a piece." He named the male puppy who was reddish brown Sailor. The female was black. He named her Canton after his ship. Since his work kept him at sea he gave the pups to a couple of friends who raised them to be hunting dogs.

Sailor wound up on the Eastern Shore. He and the line of dogs that followed him were known not only for their ruddy color but for unusual yellow eyes. Both Sailor and Canton were bred with other hunting breeds. They and their progeny gained a reputation for their abilities as duck retrievers.

In 1878 the Chesapeake Bay Retriever became an officially recognized breed of the American Kennel Club. They are known for their webbed toes, barrel chests, square cut ears, and of course their rug like coat. They come in three colors: chocolate brown, russet, and deadgrass. They are known to be very loyal and protective of their family owners. And, they really do like to swim and retrieve ducks (or anything else you want to throw for them). Teddy Roosevelt was said to have owned a Chesapeake. And when James Michener wrote his epic novel about the region of the same name, they played a significant part in his story. After the book came out in the 1970's the breed enjoyed a surge in popularity.

Like many dog breeds there can problems with inbreeding among Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. We had one who only lived to about six years who had severe hip-dysplasia, a genetic disorder that breeders are supposed to test for. Because he had a lot of pain he never was the friendliest of dogs. I personally have developed a preference for mixed breed dogs. They seem to me to be healthier and more sociable. But, if you get a Chesapeake from a reputable breeder and if you take the time to properly train them you will find they are wonderful dogs.

I always look for them when the dog shows are on TV. I have never seen them win best in show but then they are work dogs not show dogs. They fare much better at the competitions known as dog trials where they show off their agility and retrieving skills. Most of these shows are held in the fall. The 140th annual Westminster Kennel Club show however, is this coming week on the 15th &16th mostly on cable tv channels but also streaming online. The Chesapeake's will be in the Sporting group which begins at 8pm on Tuesday night on the USA channel.

In the meantime, I am feeling cozy inside and thinking warm thoughts for all of you folks who are bundling up to take you pooch for a stroll and sing your version of "You can't hurry dogs."