From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers SMILE: It’s an all American Breed

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers

SMILE: It’s an all American Breed

by Julie Reardon

If you’ve read my column often or only occasionally over the past 30 years, you’ve no doubt seen or read about my Chesapeake Bay Retrievers that appear frequently in photos and stories. I currently share my farm with six of them, and have owned many generations of them since I got my first in 1981. As I type, Pottsy is smiling at me—I know this without actually seeing her goofy grinning maw because I can hear her snorkling under my desk. That’s what we call the snorting noise they make breathing through the scrunched up nose and peeled back lips. The doggy smile is actually a gesture of submissive surrender, as in, “You mean that wasn’t my dinner? That trash can just tipped over right in front of me and oh, I’m so hungry!” and is also seen when the dog sees you after a brief absence, even if only for five minutes. “I thought you left for good and were never coming back!” In the case of Pottsy, who smiles all the time for any reason, she’d been reprimanded for garbage surfing and now I am the recipient of her supplicating smile. But perhaps they know what we owners learn quickly: you simply cannot stay mad at a smiling dog.

Smiling is not a breed-specific trait although it does seem more common in some breeds, including Chesapeakes, than others. And it definitely runs in families. Although the toothy grin can be a bit unnerving to those not familiar with it or dog body language, it’s unmistakably harmless and indeed, submissive. An aggressive or fearful dog might bare its teeth in warning, but the look is completely different from a smiler with stiff upright posture including erect ears, hackles up, and wide, staring eye showing whites, often referred to as whale eye. The smiling dog will have cupped or folded back ears and squinty happy-looking eyes. Instead of standing erect at attention, the dog’s body gets low and wiggly. It’s just so incongruously goofy you cannot help laughing at the dog, which tends to make it smile even more.

Chesapeake Bay retrievers are a uniquely American creation. Unlike nearly all other sporting dogs, Chesapeakes were not developed abroad and imported here, they were born and bred right here, by and for Americans, to hunt our country and guard our belongings over 200 years ago. The Chesapeake, or Chessie as they are sometimes called, was one of the first breeds – and the first retriever – to be recognized by the then-newly formed American Kennel Club in 1878. Of the 190+ breeds the AKC recognizes today, Chesapeakes rank 45th in popularity, well below many breeds including newer ones. The most popular breed in the country, the Labrador Retriever, was not an AKC recognized breed until 1910 and was rarely seen here in the U.S. until the 1940s.

The Chesapeake’s story actually began long before the AKC existed. In 1807 an English brig returning home was shipwrecked off the coast of Maryland loaded with new world goods from the Chesapeake Bay area. The crew and two puppies aboard were rescued from the sinking ship by an American vessel, and the British captain gave the puppies to his rescuers in gratitude. Every living Chesapeake Bay retriever today traces back to those two dogs. The male was named Sailor and the female called Canton, after the rescuing ship. While it’s not known if they were ever bred together, both were bred to local dogs and like the parents, all the offspring were legendary retrievers and hunting dogs that became highly sought after for both sport and market hunters alike. A fanciful rumor has it that these early dogs had been bred to otters for their ability to swim in cold, icy water, but the truth is, they were most likely crossed with local hunting hounds for scenting ability.

What is known from careful record keeping and very early photos and drawings is that these early versions of today’s Chessie were called Chesapeake Bay ducking dogs, brown Winchester dogs and various other names but the distinct type that evolved looked remarkably like the breed still does today. It is a medium sized dog with the haunches the same or a trifle higher than the shoulders; webbed feet; a thick double coat with a coarse, wavy outer layer and dense woolly undercoat; the eyes are clear and light colored, either yellow or amber. It is a cheerful and tireless worker but tends to be more aloof with strangers than other retriever breeds.

Today’s Chesapeake looks very much the same as it did 150 years ago. The distinctive double coat was designed to blend in with its surroundings and to shed water and dry off with a quick shake. Although larger ones do exist, males should weigh 65 to 80 pounds and females a bit less at 55 to 70 pounds. Colors range from browns (both dark and coppery), reddish strawberry blond, faded tan shades that look silvery in some lights, to a light, straw color aptly called deadgrass. These dogs can make wonderful family dogs but they are not good dog park dogs as they tend to be indifferent to other dogs and aloof with strangers. Often independent, they are rarely aggressive or fighters but most are more than capable of taking care of themselves or their families if trouble arises.

Without proper training and socialization, they can be territorial and take guarding what they consider theirs very seriously, whether it’s a pile of dead waterfowl or the owner’s duck boat and/or truck. These tendencies, plus their rather plain, workmanlike looks, meant the Chesapeake never attained the level of popularity of their distant cousins – the Labrador and Golden retrievers. A small but loyal following meant the dogs were mostly bred for serious waterfowlers – not pets. This kept the numbers small and the breeding in the hands of dedicated owners. Labrador and Golden retriever puppies are much easier to find and both are far more popular as family and hunting dogs, while the Chesapeake remains a more primitive breed with a much smaller, but fiercely loyal following. For more information on the breed visit the American Chesapeake Club’s website at

5.00 avg. rating (96% score) - 1 vote