Get to Know the Chesapeake Bay Retriever: A Serious Hunting Dog

He's more than a Lab with a perm -- this dog breed is the top choice for dedicated waterfowl hunters.

Caroline Coile  |  Nov 3rd 2014


This ain’t no chocolate Lab in a wrinkled coat. The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is the dog of choice for dedicated waterfowl hunters who want success under the toughest of circumstances. A little more of a determined thinker than his more popular Labrador and Golden cousins, he lacks their popularity as a family companion — although he still makes a fine one. Some say he’s just in a need of a good PR person.

More interesting things about the Chesapeake Bay Retriever:

  • He’s called the Chessie for short.
  • The Chessie may be confused with the Labrador Retriever, but the Chessie has wavy hair. He may also be confused with the Curly-Coated Retriever or Irish Water Spaniel, but both of those have tight curls and are more lightly built. The Boykin and American Water Spaniels are much smaller.
  • In 1807, two puppies, probably Newfoundlands of the time — in other words, smaller than today’s — were rescued from an English ship sinking off the coast. The crew and cargo were taken aboard the American ship Canton to Baltimore. The red male puppy was named Sailor and the black female Canton. They went to the homes of two avid hunters, where they became legendary for their retrieving skill in the icy waters.

  • Many types of dogs were bred with them. Eventually they developed a distinct type of hardy retriever who could mark the fall of many ducks or geese and swim repeatedly through chilled rough water to retrieve all of them.
  • By the mid- to late-1800s, the breed had developed a reputation and was called either the Chesapeake Bay Duck Dog, Newfoundland Duck Dog, or Brown Winchester.
  • The AKC recognized the breed in 1878.
  • In the 1930s, the Chessie was the most popular retriever in America. It is now the 43rd most popular AKC breed, close to the 41st position it held a decade ago.
  • The Chesapeake Bay Retriever became the state dog of Maryland in 1964.
  • The breed is the mascot of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

  • A Chessie stars in the movie Into the Blue.
  • They are mentioned in James Michener’s book Chesapeake.
  • Unlike most breeds, which require a level or even-arched backline, and which are posed in the show ring with the hips level with or slightly lower than the withers, the Chessie is posed with hips level or usually slightly higher than the withers, so the backline isn’t level.
  • The Chessie coat is wavy and very oily, with a harsh outer coat and wooly undercoat. It’s hard to get them wet!
  • Color is described as brown, deadgrass, or sedge. Huh? Here’s how the American Chesapeake Club describes them: “Brown, which includes all shades from a light cocoa (a silvered brown) to a deep bittersweet-chocolate color; sedge, which varies from a reddish yellow through a bright red to chestnut shades; deadgrass, which takes in all shades of deadgrass, varying from a faded tan to a dull straw color. Historic records show that some of the deadgrass shades can be very light, almost white in appearance, while darker deadgrass colors can include diluted shades of brown called ash, which appear as either gray or taupe. The almost-white and ash/taupe/gray shades are not commonly seen, but are acceptable.”

  • Owners have included General George Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman), Tom Felton, and Paul Walker.

Do you own a Chesapeake Bay Retriever? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.