The Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Photo by: Author
Chesapeakes tend to be deeply devoted and very responsive to verbal and physical praise. They can convey with a gesture that simply to be in the presence of their master is the greatest privilege in the world. Chesapeake owners are accordingly loyal to their dogs and unimpressed by other breeds, however flashy.
The Chesapeake, with its arresting yellow-eyed gaze and its legendary origins involving market hunters and rescue from a shipwreck, enjoys undeniable mystique. Chesapeakes are widely believed to be rough, tough, mean, dumb, and hard-headed, trainable only through lavish use of force. While they are indeed physically rugged, training problems are largely due to softness and an intelligence which finds brute-force methods not to make sense, and coercion inappropriate to the dog-owner relationship. Owners seem fond of claiming that their breed does not fawn, and it is true that Chesapeakes have a certain dignity and presence. They are, however, highly affectionate and companionable, and will put on quite a "cute act" in order to get attention. Chesapeakes tend to be deeply devoted and very responsive to verbal and physical praise. They can convey with a gesture that simply to be in the presence of their master is the greatest privilege in the world. Chesapeake owners are accordingly loyal to their dogs and unimpressed by other breeds, however flashy.
Although finesse is required to train a Chesapeake, many of them are good natural retrievers and can make serviceable gun dogs with very little training. They are ideal for someone who hunts a lot and wants a tough, natural retriever without much training--especially if he or she wants a constant companion and will take the dog along in the pickup, in the house, etc. Good dove dogs are rare, as are good sea duck dogs, but we know of a number of local Chesapeakes which excel on one or the other with very little training. In the absence of coercion, Chesapeakes have shown that they can master quite a range of useful skills. When John was a boy in Minneapolis, before urban crowding and leash laws, a neighbors' Chesapeake used to run his family's errands to the butcher shop, waiting his turn and then trotting home with the paper-wrapped package of meat.
Chesapeakes can do well if not pushed too hard, but trained thoroughly and patiently. The second type of person who will find one of these dogs rewarding is the amateur who trains hard and persistently on one dog at a time. Again the owner's commitment to that single dog pays off. For a professional trainer to be successful with a Chesapeake, he or she has to have a profound understanding of Chesapeake nature, to bear with the dog, and to tailor make a program for that individual. Success is not guaranteed, as mistakes must be few and far between or the dog will tune out.
For the individual who can solve the "training problem," either by patient, careful training or by doing light training, the Chesapeake can be an outstanding hunting companion, with the emphasis on companion. A natural Chesapeake trait which is much appreciated in and around the duck blind is their ability to be absolutely still, even while anticipating a flight of waterfowl. Common faults which must be acknowledged are spookiness, softness, resistance to training, and a sulky response to pressure. A pitfall to beware is a large, dominant male's resistance to the role of dog in the master/dog relationship. This must be recognized and dealt with when it occurs. An acquaintance of ours had such a puppy which at the age of four or five months claimed an upholstered Queen Anne armchair as its territory, growling at anyone who approached. Despite John's advice, she declined to curb the puppy's "cute" behavior. The dog progressed to biting its owner, and was put down after it bit a second family member. This could easily have happened with any of several good male Chesapeakes we have trained, which fortunately have had better handling.
So how does one train a 'Peake? There is no formula, just a few principles. They are likely to resist coercion. With a puppy, emphasize the play retrieve. Delay force-breaking if possible, extending the play retrieves if an object can be found which the pup will handle properly. Pay attention to socialization, exposing the pup to unfamiliar situations and people to combat the tendency to spookiness. Do everything to build, and as little as possible to harm, the dog's confidence and trust in you as its trainer. Praise is important and should be warm and enthusiastic.
A common problem is "water-freaking," that is, once some Chesapeakes find they can swim, they will get in any water they can find and swim around and around, often splashing, snapping at the splash, and yipping with excitement. Until they have a strong training foundation, they will not leave the water merely because you call them. If you have a water-freak, avoid water until obedience is well-established, and preferably force-breaking, too. The idea is to avoid reinforcing their enjoyment of playing in the water (so they don't develop a lifelong preference for water-freaking over retrieving).
Although Chesapeakes are very intelligent, they do not accept the role of student so automatically as do their black and golden colleagues. Thus responsibility falls to the trainer to maintain a setup in which the Chesapeake is willing to play along. It is important to avoid placing the dog in a no-win situation. Make sure it is first educated as to the desired response before applying pressure. Then expect that the Chesapeake will resist complying under pressure because it feels like coercion. Enough pressure must be invested that the dog will eventually be convinced, but to obtain results it is usually necessary to slack off and allow the dog to "win through" and do what you want it to without feeling coerced.
Often it is effective, after a few sessions of unproductive pressure, to give the command and then say, "good dog" as the Chesapeake stands there doing nothing. Suddenly it sees the opportunity, and will comply with much wagging and wriggling and perhaps, like Amy's bitch Parker, a growl of pleasure.
When training is going well, working with a Chesapeake is great fun. When it goes badly, the dog slinks off slowly in the wrong direction and you curse yourself for not getting a nice, tractable Golden or Labrador. Watch the dog's response to various forms of pressure. Parker, for example, accepts being hit with a stick or jerked by a rope as part of the game, but really dislikes being shouted at or shocked with the collar.
As with Goldens, male Chesapeakes are often better candidates for training than bitches. Bitches may make good natural gun dogs with little training, but are commonly quite soft and often spooky. Still it must be noted that two of the best field champions ever--Raindrop of Deerwood and Meg's Patty O'Rourke--have been Chesapeake bitches. These success stories almost certainly result from the confluence of an outstanding animal with the ideal person for that dog.
Strong protective instincts are common in this breed. Many retriever owners are familiar with the threats which issue from a truck or boat containing a Chesapeake, and hunters are often confident that no one will bother their gear as long as the dog is there. In today's litigious society, Chesapeake owners need to be aware of the consequences should a foolhardy individual (or child) ignore the dog's warnings and intrude.
While some dogs automatically protect a place, Chesapeakes appear to understand and protect a person's safety as well, as many could attest. One time during the stacking of logs which were being removed from a river by a crane, a log slipped from its harness and struck an acquaintance of John's who was there to guide the logs into position on the truck. The log pushed Ducky to the river bottom and lodged him in the mud twelve feet down before bobbing to the surface. His 70-pound Chesapeake bitch, who was on the shore "helping," immediately hit the water, dove and swam down to where he was stuck, grasped hold of her unconscious master's coat and hauled him free of the mud and up to the surface, where his comrades took over the rescue.
These dogs have a strong dose of the nobility, attachment, and involvement in their owner's life of the legendary loyal dog. If you can solve "the training problem" and want a go-everywhere, devoted, protective companion with lots of personality, the Chesapeake is for you.
It is probably clear that we have a great love for each of these breeds. We do not believe that any one is superior to the others for all people, but that different owners will get the most satisfaction from different dogs, and thus no one should tell you which to get. In our minds, the purpose of owning a dog is enjoyment. If getting a hard-going, stylish, trainable retriever is your goal, we hope this article has helped you identify which breed(s) you might particularly enjoy. We personally hope the Golden and Chesapeake breeds will continue to have their champions, and will remain contenders in the field trial arena for years to come.