The Chesapeake Bay retriever can be just about any dog you want it to be. Help you hunt ducks? Yup. Win Best in Show? Sure. Hang out with you and the kids at home? That, too.
This American-bred dog—the only retriever originating in the United States—is quite versatile. With their double-coated, oily hair, Chesapeake Bay retrievers are substantial enough to swim through the icy waters of their namesake, so they’ll go for a swim in your local pond with no problem (even at temperatures the local polar bear plungers may balk at).
“They’re the epitome of the water dog,” says Heidi Henningson, chair of American Chesapeake Club’s Rescue Committee. “They’ll go in the cold water when other retrievers will not.”
Their esteemed water-dog reputation goes hand-in-hand with their duck-hunting prowess. The retrievers even have the ability to work as drug-sniffing and search-and-rescue dogs, too.
This semi-rare retriever is smart and can be clever, so they love having a job and enough exercise. If you pledge to love and spend time with your Chesapeake Bay retriever, he might be the perfect dog for you.
There’s limited variety when it comes to Chesapeake Bay retriever colors: shades of brown, sedge (a reddish brown you might find on an Irish setter), and deadgrass (a paler, yellowy brown that looks like, well, dead grass). It’s easy to confuse the two, but Chessies aren’t chocolate Labrador retrievers. You might also find some Chessies with white spots on their chests, bellies, and toes, according to the breed standard, which does not recognize black Chesapeake Bay retrievers.
Their trademark is the wavy hair Chesapeake Bay retrievers sport on their necks, shoulders, and backs. The retrievers’ fur is made up of a dense undercoat and a shorter top coat. The fur also holds a natural oil that resists water and keeps them warm. It’s there, but you might not feel it to the touch, Henningson says, adding that they don’t shed nearly as much as Labs (or many other dogs for that matter).
These dogs are similarly sized to Labs, too. The American Kennel Club (AKC) lists male dogs’ heights between 23 and 26 inches while the females sit between 21 and 24 inches. They’re plenty sturdy, too: The boys weigh 65–80 pounds and the girls tip the scale at 55–70 pounds.
Chessies’ eyes are normally a yellow or amber color, according to the breed standard.
Sure, these utilitarian dogs excel as hunting dogs, show dogs, and in obedience and agility competitions, but they make for perfect, loyal family dogs when they’re off the clock, Henningson says. She adds that depending on how they’re raised, they sometimes become devoted to one person, too. On the flip side, they’re usually more aloof toward strangers, the AKC writes. (You probably won’t have one run up and lick your face out of the blue.)
They’re generally quiet, usually only barking when necessary (a knock at the door or a ring of the doorbell).
These are active, smart dogs who can’t have nothing to do; they need to be busy—whether that’s hunting, drug-sniffing, or search-and-rescue missions. Even at home, without a little structure you can lose sandwiches off coffee tables or have a dog who can unlatch his kennel from the inside. Just ask Henningson.
“They’re precocious in some ways,” she says. “They’re more than capable of getting in trouble by just getting bored in a house.”
But while their intelligence can make them a little too clever for their own good, it’s still Henningson’s favorite Chesapeake Bay retriever trait: They have an “ability to do anything,” she says.
Chesapeake Bay retrievers can live in apartments, but they’ll be happier with a yard for running and playing fetch. If you do reside in an apartment, you’ll need to walk your retriever at least twice a day and maybe even more, Henningson says.
Assuming you send your pup to puppy kindergarten and do a good job socializing him, he’ll be great with adults and kids alike. And Chessies are good with other dogs—Henningson owns three Chesapeake Bay retrievers herself—and some will even get along with cats. (One of her dogs would even sleep next to a stray cat in his doghouse.)
Do you have access to a pond or other water feature? Your Chessie will love it. Like to hike? Perfect, here’s your new hiking buddie. They’ll love to take part in your active lifestyle.
“A dog’s a commitment, and if you’re not willing to make it, don’t adopt,” she says.
Raising and caring for any dog requires some work, but here’s the good news when it comes to the Chessies: The grooming needs are minimal. You’ll want to brush your Chesapeake Bay retrievers when they shed in the spring and fall, but otherwise you won’t need to spend too much time brushing them, Henningson says.
Most of these retrievers won’t need specialty dog food, Henningson says. The AKC recommends higher-protein food if your dog is highly active.
For the most part, Chessies are healthy dogs, says Henningson and Deb Eldredge, DVM and a Daily Paws contributor.
More recently, degenerative myelopathy—a neurological disease that can destroy spinal cord tissue and eventually prevent your dog from walking—has been shown to affect some Chessies. Owners can order a DNA test to maybe indicate if their dog is at risk, but that might be inconclusive, Eldredge says.
“When purchasing a Chessie puppy, I would look for parents who have had the tests recommended by the Chessie [Canine Health Information Center] program,” Eldredge says. “While not a guarantee for never developing those problems, the risk is greatly decreased [if the tests have returned healthy results]. Many breeders will have the first eye exam done on their puppies before placing them.”
While food is necessary, make sure it’s not too much. Overweight dogs can have joint issues, Eldredge says.
As for a Chesapeake Bay retriever’s lifespan, you can usually count them getting to 10 years old, Henningson says. Some even make it to 13 or 15.
Some more facts about the bay: It’s mostly shallow, cold, and a haven for ducks and geese. The Chesapeake Bay retriever, likely bred from Newfoundlands, Irish water spaniels, and unknown hounds, according to the AKC, became the perfect dog for splashing into the frigid water to retrieve the downed waterfowl.
The dogs’ fur, an insulating double coat equipped with water-resistant oil, allows the dogs to even do their jobs when there’s ice out on the water. Legend has it that some Chessies can retrieve 300 ducks in one day, the AKC says.
The breed’s history is traced back to two dogs in particular, Sailor and Canton, who a man named George Law gave to two men he knew on the bay in 1807. He called them Newfoundlands, but their color, shorter coats, and swimming ability indicates that they were the early ancestors of today’s Chessies.
According to the AKC, the breed was registered in 1878 and was recognized by the kennel club when it was founded six years later. Currently, it’s the 46th most popular breed in the United States.