The first time I shot a ruffed grouse over our Chessy, Cooper, he brought it back to me with a look on his face like he’d just found the lost city of Atlantis, watched a cow jump over the moon and discovered gold in our backyard. When I took the bird from him he started bouncing, then springing – boing boing – up and down on all four legs with a grin that said, “That was the coolest thing ever!”
Cooper, like most Chesapeake Bay retrievers, was a waterfowl dog. He loved to swim, was a natural retrieving machine, and could tolerate the cold waters of Lake Champlain where my husband Terry would duck hunt with Cooper or his Lab. I got dibs on the upland side of Cooper’s game plan, and we had a blast.
Hunting in close gun range, when Cooper got birdy his tail would wag in frantic circles. Like many non-pointing dogs, he would pause slightly before jumping in to flush. Red Branch Kennels’ Chessy breeder Sharon Potter describes the Chessies’ upland hunting style well: “They hunt like any other flushing breed, but closer to a Lab than a spaniel. The flush is often a delayed flush rather than the hard and immediate flush of a springer, giving you a bit more time to prepare for a shot,” Sharon explains. “Chessies tend to stay well within gun range. Where they really shine is in tracking a runner or cripple because their determination won’t let them give up.”
Based in Wisconsin, Sharon is a Team Huntsmith professional trainer and an outdoor writer, well known to many bird hunters through the column she co-writes with Rick Smith for Pointing Dog Journal
. Sharon insists that her dogs be great companions at home as well as doing outstanding work in the field. In her breeding program, “Structural soundness is a high priority...as is correct conformation as per the breed standard.”
The Chesapeake Bay Retriever was developed to be equally proficient on land and water, but with the extra ability to handle the adverse weather and water conditions of waterfowl hunting in the Chesapeake Bay. That could mean strong tides, surface ice, and multiple long retrieves in very cold water. Thus their athleticism, stamina and coat should meet strict standards. According to the American Chesapeake Club (ACC), the breed standard calls for a broad, round skull; jaws able to carry large game birds with an easy hold; and a powerful body that is deep and wide in the chest with shoulders built for “full liberty of movement.”
While some Chessies, particularly those bred for the show ring as opposed to hunting lines, have overly wide heads and blocky musculature, the ACC standard notes that a Chessy’s power should not be emphasized at the expense of agility and stamina. “Size and substance should not be excessive as this is a working retriever of an active nature.”
The Chessy coat is legendary. It should be thick, dense and wooly with a wavy outer coat and finer undercoat. The hair on the face and legs should be short and smooth, with the waves on the neck, back and loins. Some feathering is accepted on the rear hindquarters and curled tail. The oily outer coat and wooly undercoat protect a Chessy’s skin from cold water and help the coat dry very quickly. And yes, together that oily outer and wooly inner give the Chessy a distinct smell. To the uninitiated, it’s doggy-smelling. To Chessy lovers, it’s part of the charm, along with sinking your fingers knuckle deep into those wavy curls around a Chessy’s neck.
Chessies come in a range of colors from a light “deadgrass” to the reddish “sedge” tones to dark brown. White is allowed on the chest, belly or feet but nowhere else. The theory behind the coat color is to have a dog that will naturally camo – be of a color that will best blend with its surroundings.
Chessies’ history traces them back to two specific dogs who were rescued from a sinking ship off the coast of Maryland in 1807. Those two, Sailor and Canton, were most probably St. John’s water dogs or small Newfoundlands. They were bred to other dogs on the eastern and western shores of Maryland and were recognized as one breed, the Chesapeake Bay Ducking Dog, in 1877. In 1918, the American Kennel Club officially recognized them as the Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
Outdoor writer and avid hunter E. Donnall Thomas Jr. is a Lab and German wirehair owner but hunted pheasants, sharptails and huns over a friend’s Chessies for 20 years. Don says, “I was surprised to find what effective upland flushing dogs they could be. The ‘surprise’ was my own fault, since like many hunters I had always regarded Chessies as waterfowl specialists. As with dogs of any breed, a Chessies' ability reflects its training and experience, but once those conditions have been met Chessies can be great companions on upland bird hunts. This is particularly true on pheasants in heavy cover, where their tenacity both as flushers and retrievers can be hard to beat.”
Sharon puts her spin on that tenacity into two words: “Stubborn Determination.” As with their strong waterfowl drive and retrieving skills, on land she says the Chessies “... don’t quit until they get the bird.”
In keeping with Don’s point about the any breed’s ability reflecting its training and experience, Sharon says, “Regardless of breed, I train each dog to its individual talents and capabilities. Chessies aren't much different than any other breed. They do tend to be more sensitive to corrections, and have a tremendous strength of natural instinct for hunting compared to some other breeds. That can work for you if you teach the dog how to work with you...or work against you if the dog is allowed to be ‘self-employed.’”
Sharon recalls one of her favorite bird hunting memories was with a Red Branch Kennels dog, Angel, who she trained for Jake Scott, the pup’s young owner in California. She then went on a pheasant hunt with Jake and his father Mark. “The look on that young boy’s face when he shot his first pheasant and his puppy retrieved it...he was so proud and happy.”
The line that you can only train a Chessy with a 2’ x 4’ has been around a long time. They’re also known as one-person dogs. The reality, however, is that just like with many other breeds, some Chessies are more hard-headed than others, some are wonderfully cooperative. Some are more sociable, others less so. Our Cooper loved people and often displayed his front teeth with lips pulled up in a happy smile which many Chessies do as a sign of joy. I do believe, though, that he is the only dog we have ever owned that would have protected me with his life.
Another of Sharon’s favorite upland Chessy stories is about Crash, Angel’s father. “There was a crippled rooster that sailed across a river on a windy Kansas day, and my friend's Lab wouldn't get in the water, so I sent Crash on a blind retrieve. He fought the current and crossed the river, then tracked the rooster the better part of another quarter mile through a fence row and into a shelter belt, and came back with the live bird.” Call it stubborn determination or remarkable hunting – few pheasant hunters would want it any other way.
Story by Nancy Anisfield
Photo Credits: Main Image, second image: Next Generation Gundog Training; first image, third image: Sharon Potter