The Perfect Puff
By Julie Reardon
“You had our hearts from the start, little brown puppy with the nappy fur born on a summer night 15 years ago. There was never any question which of the six puppies we would keep from a special litter I bred specifically for my next dog the first year we owned Hope Springs Farm. And we named you Puffin because it fit and you picked us to be your people before your eyes were even open. We were smitten.”
Of course she was cute in the endearing way all puppies are, but there was no hint in that wooly brown fur of the rich coppery red color her adult coat would be. And what a magnificent beauty she would mature into. Of course she liked birds and retrieving; she was descended from generations of waterfowl hunting dogs dating back to 1807. She was a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, the only true American sporting dog, first AKC recognized breed, a dog bred by and for Americans to hunt our country: canine royalty. I’d had Chesapeakes for nearly 20 years by the time Puffin was born, but other than a little casual hunting and varmint control, they were mostly pets and steadfast farm companions. She represented the fourth generation of what, at that time, was just a casual, once every 5 or 7 years’ breeding program. So there was no reason to think she’d be exceptional, just another in a long line of good dogs.
Since Puffin showed a little talent, and her sire had been a serviceable but not spectacular field trial dog, I decided to try retriever hunting tests, where initially she showed outstanding promise. I, however, had a steeper learning curve and was the weak link of the team, pushing her to do things she hadn’t been properly trained to do in the name of competition. So I made mistakes—lots of them in fact. And Puffin didn’t progress as far as she should have because of me. She preferred hunting, but she played the silly games for a scrap of ribbon because if I was happy, she was happy.
When she was two, we ventured into the world of AKC dog shows, mainly because everyone who saw her, even those in the fancy, thought Puffin was beautiful. Truthfully, she was nearly perfect, and I’m not just saying that because she was mine. Although I’d shown horses before, I’d never even seen a dog show, and we picked the granddaddy of them all to make our debut: The American Chesapeake Club National Specialty Show in 2002. Instead of showing against a handful of her own kind, we’d be showing against all the very best show-winning Chesapeakes in the entire country, owned by the top show kennels, handled by professionals and savvy amateurs who did this for a living.
To share just how clueless I was then, I decided to take Puffin’s dam, J-Bell, to the national specialty, even though she was 11 by then and almost completely deaf. A serviceable hunting dog and still in good shape despite a white muzzle, I found a class I thought was perfect for her: the veterans’ class, with divisions for older dogs aged 9-10 and 11 and over. Knowing nothing about dog shows, I had no idea that these classes are showcases for breeders and big name kennels to display their retired champions. So not only were my two dogs the only ones of the 400 plus entries that had never seen a show ring, old J-Bell was the sole entry of 47 veterans who wasn’t a show champion. Two farm dogs handled by a total novice—what could possibly go wrong?
Upon arrival, to say I was intimidated by the magnificent looking dogs everywhere would be an understatement. Having never seen that many Chesapeakes in one place, and certainly not that many gorgeous ones, it was an eye opener. I’d gotten used to thinking smugly that my dogs were so much better looking than any others I’d seen—the breed is not that common. It was a little intimidating to realize that there is, in fact, a whole dog show world of gorgeous representatives of the breed. Most people were very welcoming and helpful, and it was refreshing to be around a large group and not have a single person ask if my dog was a pit bull, a lab with a bad hair day, a poodle mix or worse. I was even offered, and took, a couple of quick handling lessons. And Puffin actually won her class on the second day of the show. Fully expecting to get my comeuppance in the veterans class, it was a real treat when the judge awarded old J-Bell 2nd place. For good measure, Puffin and J-Bell got a 3rd in the brace class, and Puffin earned a Working Dog Excellent certificate for retrieving on the final day.
Armed with a little more knowledge, I continued to show Puffin after that summer and she earned her show championship fairly easily but I cannot really take credit for that since a chimp probably could’ve held the leash—Puffin could show herself. Along the way she competed in obedience trials, earned an obedience title and a few more field titles and more ribbons at two more National Specialties and a few at the National Dog Show in Philadelphia. She also accompanied me to three American Chesapeake Club national field trial specialties where she herself did not compete but at all three she had daughters, granddaughters and a grandson in the ribbons.
Speaking of her offspring, Puffin was a good mother and outstanding producer bred to different males, and it’s particularly gratifying that her grandchildren and now great grandchildren are starting to make names and earn titles from coast to coast. But her most important job throughout maturity and especially after retiring from competition (she still competed occasionally until she was 11) was raising and socializing the young dogs and occasional fosters at Hope Springs Farm.
Alpha bitch and benevolent dictator of all the Hope Springs animals, Puffin maintained her status not with teeth and fury but by example and with calm disdain for foolish behavior. Always a lady around people and other dogs, she nevertheless could not abide hyperactive, ill-mannered dogs, especially if she was on leash and could not get away from them. If a warning growl did not do the trick, she was not above shouldering the miscreant, affixing the stink eye, and inserting herself between the culprit and her people or pack. Never one to gulp her meals or take your hand off when a treat was offered, Puffin wasn’t highly food motivated and would do more for an “atta-girl” and an ear scratch (or a bird to retrieve) than a biscuit. At mealtime, she ate slowly and deliberately and, I often think, only cleaned her bowl because she didn’t want the other dogs to have her leftovers. Often I’d return from feeding the horses to see her still eating one kibble at a time, with a semi-circle of her offspring around her, keeping a respectful distance but slavering in hopes she’d leave a crumb.
Raising the puppies I kept—first her offspring then her grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as assisting in the socialization of litters born here to her daughters and granddaughters, had been Puffin’s unofficial job these last few years. Even as her health began to decline and age slowed her down, her dog family always accorded her the respect she deserved from lessons well taught. When the infirmities of age finally caught up to her this month, we all gathered solemnly to say our last goodbyes to The Puff, Puffer Puffer, Stocking Stuffer, our beloved Puffin, formally known as CH Puffin II JH CD WDX. Her favorite veterinarian, who’d treated her aches and pains with acupuncture and cold laser the past year, came to the house and we laid her to rest in the same room where she was born. She is buried on a hill overlooking her ponds next to her mother and daughter. We’ll miss you gal.