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Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography
The Chesapeake Bay Retriever was developed in Maryland to be a tough retrieving dog, but with his family he’s all heart. Chessies, as they are nicknamed, are more protective and less friendly toward strangers than other sporting dogs, making them excellent watchdogs.
The Chessie isn’t hardwired to be a companion; he’s a hunting dog, pure and simple. And not just any old hunting dog -- he’s a waterfowling dog and lives to get wet in the quest to bring back his feathered quarry.
The Chessie is the Sherman tank of the retriever breeds. Tough and tenacious, he’s a serious hunting dog built to withstand the brutally cold, rough waters of the Eastern Seaboard, in particular the Chesapeake Bay where he was created to hunt waterfowl such as geese and ducks.
The Chessie is possessed of a nature that is more protective and less welcoming to strangers than that of many sporting dogs, but that doesn’t make him bad-tempered. He is fond of and careful with children but will guard your home and hunting gear with alacrity. To a far greater degree than his more amiable cousins the Labrador and Golden Retrievers, the Chessie thinks for himself and does things the way he wants to do them. And really, who’s going to argue with him? That would be a waste of time. This is an assertive, confident dog who requires an owner with the diplomatic finesse and commanding presence of a Colin Powell.
The Chessie is not the right dog for you if all you want is a companion. No matter how much exercise or training or dog sports or companionship you think you could give him, the Chessie is a hunting dog at heart. And not just any old hunting dog: he’s a waterfowling dog and lives to get wet in the quest to bring back his feathered quarry. Limiting a Chessie to life as a pet is like blasting away at a duck with a cannon. That doesn’t mean he can’t also be a therapy dog or jogging buddy or family friend, just that hunting is his first love.
Now, if you are a serious waterfowler who can give the Chessie a challenging hunting environment, then he’s your dog. And if he’ll be living with you in your home after you return from a day of hunting, so much the better. For all his vaunted toughness, the Chessie loves his people and wants to be with them whenever possible. Other people and dogs hold little interest for him unless they are a threat.
Of course, you won’t be hunting every day, but your Chessie will still need exercise and the mental stimulation provided by daily training and play. Plan to take him for a brisk walk, jog or hike of a mile, morning and evening, and schedule 20 minutes of training practice or work-related play such as a vigorous game of fetch -- especially if it involves fetching from water. Like any dog, a Chessie who is underutilized and underexercised will make his own entertainment, usually of a destructive or dangerous nature: chasing cars, bicyclists or joggers, for instance.
The Chessie responds well to a trainer who is firm but kind and who respects the fact that he doesn’t need drill after drill to learn something well. When he’s done, he’s done, and woe betide the owner who fails to recognize that and tries to get in one last practice session.
The Chess’s wavy coat matches the fields in which the he is usually found, coming in shades of deadgrass, sedge, and light, medium or dark brown. Like most water dogs, the Chesapeake has a harsh, oily outer coat that repels wetness. Beneath it is an insulating layer of fine, woolly hair to keep the dog warm.
The good news about Chessies is that they are an uncommon breed, limited primarily to people who hunt and who may also show them. That means that there is not a split between hunting and conformation lines. In general, if you purchase your Chessie from a responsible breeder, you are sure to end up with a fine hunting dog.
When a British brig was wrecked off the coast of Maryland in 1807, some of the cargo that was rescued included two Newfoundland dogs. Named Sailor and Canton, they were found to have excellent abilities as retrievers. People in the area bred them to local dogs, and they became the ancestors of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Other breeds that may have contributed to the Chessie’s makeup were Flat-Coated and Curly-Coated Retrievers.
The result was a tough retriever who was ready and willing to brace the rough, icy chop of the Chesapeake Bay and was capable of retrieving 100 to 200 ducks a day. The early dogs came only in dark brown, but now any shade of brown, sedge or deadgrass is acceptable.
The American Kennel Club registered its first Chessie, named Sunday, in 1878. The American Chesapeake Club was founded in 1918 and held its first retriever trial in 1932. The Chesapeake is ranked 48th among breeds registered by the AKC, down from 41st a decade ago.
The Chessie is tough and tenacious, more protective and less welcoming to strangers than most sporting dogs, but with his family he’s happy and completely loyal. Chessies like to be near their people, but they aren’t demanding of attention. They aren’t barkers unless they have nothing else to do, but they will “talk” by making various vocalizations.
The Chessie thinks for himself and does things the way he wants to do them. This is an assertive, confident dog who is sometimes described as willful and stubborn. But don’t think that means you should take a harsh tone with him. Beneath that tough exterior, he’s a bit of a softie, and he responds best to kind, patient training. Rather than giving him orders, treat him with fairness and negotiate what’s best for both of you.
In the field, the Chessie is a serious worker and has even been called neurotic in his drive to find downed birds. He’s not out there to play around. Chessies are noted for their excellent vision and memories when it comes to seeing where birds fall and remembering where to go pick them up. Their favorite activity is duck hunting.
When training the Chessie, whether for house manners, hunting or dog sports, be respectful of his learning ability. Don’t continue drilling him long after it’s clear that he knows what to do.
The perfect Chesapeake doesn’t come ready-made from the breeder. Any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging, countersurfing and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained or unsupervised.
Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Don’t wait until he is 6 months old to begin training or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality. Whatever you want from a Chessie, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
According to a 2005 survey by the American Chesapeake Club, the most common health problems seen in the breed are hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy and other eye problems, cancer, degenerative myelopathy and hypothyroidism. This breed may also be prone to a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand disease.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it is impossible to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for common defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The American Chesapeake Club participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database. Before individual Chessies can be issued a CHIC number, breeders must submit hip and elbow evaluations from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and eye test results from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). PennHip certification of hips is also accepted. The eye exam should be performed after the dog is 1 year old. Optional CHIC test results that can be submitted are OFA progressive retinal atrophy DNA test from an approved laboratory, an OFA thyroid evaluation from an approved laboratory and an OFA heart evaluation.
Breeders must agree to have all test results, positive or negative, published in the CHIC database. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents. If the breeder tells you she doesn't need to do those tests because she's never had problems in her lines and her dogs have been "vet checked," then you should go find a breeder who is more rigorous about genetic testing.
Look for a breeder who uses the newly available genetic screening test for degenerative myelopathy, a form of progressive limb weakness and paralysis. Although DM is rare, it is incurable and crippling. Not every dog who tests positive for DM will go on to develop the disease, but breeders who test their stock for this condition are likely to be among the most conscientious. The test can be used to determine whether a puppy's parents are clear, carriers, or at risk; a puppy whose parents are clear – neither carriers nor at risk – will also be clear. A puppy from two carrier parents will be at risk, and a puppy with one carrier parent may be at risk. Even dogs who test as having two copies of the gene many never show symptoms of the disease, but knowing the status of your puppy's parents, and of your own dog, can help you watch for the early warning signs.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a good life. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping a Chessie at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
The Chessie has an oily, harsh outer coat atop a dense, fine, woolly undercoat. Dirt and debris brush out easily with a rubber curry brush. The undercoat sheds heavily in the spring, so be prepared to brush the dog more frequently during this time to keep loose hair from collecting on clothing and furniture.
Give the Chessie a thorough freshwater rinse after he’s been in saltwater or swum through slime in a pond or lake, but to maintain the coat’s water resistance, avoid bathing him unless absolutely necessary. That can be as little as twice a year.
The rest is basic care. Keep the ears clean and dry so they don’t get infected, and trim the nails as needed, usually every couple of weeks. Brush the teeth for good overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is the key to finding the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as is possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than in making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances and what the dogs are like to live with and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems. A breeder should want to be a resource for you throughout your dog’s life.
Look for more information about the Chessie and start your search for a good breeder at the website of the American Chesapeake Club. Choose a breeder who has agreed to abide by the ACC’s code of ethics, which prohibits the sale of puppies to or through pet stores and recommends the use of written contracts. Breeders and rescue groups can also be good sources of information.
Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. Breeders who offer puppies at one price “with papers” and at a lower price “without papers” are unethical and should be reported to the ACC and the American Kennel Club. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Many reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Chessie puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, whether the pup is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Chessie might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive and demanding than a puppy.
With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Chessie in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Chessies available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter.org can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Chessie. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Networking can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. Most people who love Chessies love all Chessies. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The American Chesapeake Club’s Rescue Network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Chessie rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Chessie home with you to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Chessie, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Chessie to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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