True (GChb Laurelwood’s True Bearing BN RN SH), Laurea Griggs’ Chesapeake, is currently the number-one Chesapeake female and number-one NOHS Chesapeake. She is also working on her Master Hunter title. (McCall Photographic Designs photo)
Wed, 05/26/2021 - 1:44pm

The Premier Waterfowl Dog

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is also awash in versatility

Early in my “other life” as an investigative reporter, the managing editor was a curmudgeon whose disdain for investigative reporters was near-legendary in the newsroom. On numerous occasions he barked that investigative reporters were a bunch of arrogant know-it-alls who had just enough knowledge about something to be dangerous. 

While at the time his opinion earned a sharp retort from me that was frequently unprintable, age and experience have brought wisdom, and I will concede that the part about having just enough knowledge on something to be dangerous was probably accurate most of the time. But not here and not on this particular subject, because I have owned, bred, trained and hunted with Chesapeake Bay Retrievers for more years than I enjoy totaling, mainly because it reminds me that I no longer qualify, in the words of Robert Burns, as a “callow youth,” and my dogs have earned more than 50 titles in the field, the show ring and obedience. 

Although there have been times when I was convinced that my dogs’ greatest ambitions were to redefine the word “obstinate,” on the whole I’ve found them to be remarkably willing to try just about anything I asked them to do. That’s also been the experience of other Chessie folks who have successfully done a wide variety of dog sports with their dogs.

Tom Martin describes Chesapeakes as tireless gundogs capable of performing under the harshest conditions whose rugged athleticism and keen intellect let them excel in many dog sports.

“Their strong prey drive, desire to retrieve and willingness to please their owners are a major asset in a number of dog sports,” says Martin, who with Angela Boeske owns Leo (GCh PACH2 HR Curly’s One for Sparta BN SH MXP5 MXPS MJP6 MJPS PAX2 OFP DS CGC TKN WDX.). “But one of the things that attracted us to the breed is that Chesapeake Bay Retrievers do not have two distinct lines, show dogs and field dogs, as is the case with a lot of other sporting breeds. Chessies can easily go on an early morning hunt and go in the show ring later that day. In fact, a number of dogs in the breed have done just that and not only been successful at the breed level but also have group placements and wins.”


Above: Leo (GCh PACH2 HR Curly’s One for Sparta BN SH MXP5 MXPS MJP6 MJPS PAX2 OFP DS CGC TKN WDX), Tom Martin and Angela Boeske’s Chesapeake, does agility when he’s not being a hunting dog. Below: Leo is also a dock diver in the “off season.”  


Lynda Barber-Wiltse, the president of the American Chesapeake Club, admits to being “just a bit biased” as she ticks off the qualities she loves about the breed: their loyalty, their independence, how they think about things and that they’re not one of the most popular breeds.

“They love to swim and work in the water, which makes them great for dock diving and search and rescue. They have great noses, which are necessary for tracking, mid-to-high level obedience, scent/nose work barn hunt, search and rescue, shed hunts and trick dog,” continues Barber-Wiltse, whose current dogs are Kach (MACH GCh Can Ch Easter Waters’ Nuka Bay Kachemak WD BN PCD CD VCD1 ASCA RN Can E RM3 RAE4 TD XF MXS MJBMXP MJP T2B CA DNX DJA TKI EAC EJC OCC S-Tn-E TG-E WF-E HP-E BR-E RS-N JS-O GS-N) and his daughter Koy (Am/Can Ch Nuka Bay Purple Lupin on the Koyukuk BN PCD CD Can RA RAE2 RM2 JH WD ACT2 OA OAJ OF OAC NCC NJC TN-E TG-O WV-N HP-O BR-O DSX DMA ASA TKI.) “Most are born retrievers, which is an important skill in mid- to high-level obedience, agility, dock diving, tracking, flyball and trick dog. They love to chase things which is a must for training for a variety of skills in obedience and agility as well as the coursing sports. They love to solve problems and just incidentally, they are really fine hunting dogs.”


Above: Kach (MACH GCh Can Ch Easter Waters’ Nuka Bay Kachemak WD BN PCD CD VCD1 ASCA RN Can E RM3 RAE4 TD XF MXS MJBMXP MJP T2B CA DNX DJA TKI EAC EJC OCC S-Tn-E TG-E WF-E HP-E BR-E RS-N JS-O GS-N), one of Lynda Barber-Wiltse’s Chesapeakes, had found one of his loves in agility.  (Great Dane Photos). Below: Kach has also happily taken to dock diving.


Laurea Griggs agrees, noting that all her Chesapeakes have loved to work. “They are an athletic, high energy and high-drive breed. They love learning new skills and they love to please you. Their natural drive and trainability can be channeled into so many disciplines. They have really great ‘noses’ which, while so important to a hunting and retrieving dog, also works well for them in tracking, shed hunting, barn hunt or scent work. Their natural athleticism, boldness and drive makes for good agility dogs and the skills they learn in obedience and rally are a very important foundation for any training.  As dock diving has become popular in recent years, the Chesapeake’s love of water and drive to retrieve have made them ‘naturals’ for this sport.”

Griggs thinks Chessie breeders should be commended for keeping the breed true to its original standard and purpose, placing as much emphasis on maintaining working ability and drive as well as type and structure. Her current dog, True (GChb Laurelwood’s True Bearing BN RN SH), is a case in point: She is working on her Master Hunter title, and in the show ring she’s currently the number-one Chesapeake female and the number-one NOHS Chesapeake in the nation. 

“She’s a working retriever which has paid off with maintaining her physical condition, and that’s not just with True,” Griggs says. “I’ve often had judges in the show ring compliment my dogs on their muscle development and condition. My biggest problems with True have been finding time to train consistently, to manage to fit in all the traveling to shows, tests and trials and still be able to balance that with my job and family.”  

Having had Chesapeakes for more than 25 years, Lorrie Johnson loves their independence, versatility and willingness to try anything. 

“I’ve done a lot of dog sports with my dogs, mainly because I think all dogs, but especially Chessies, need some sort of job or activity. They like to be with their owners and mine have always loved to go places and train,” says Johnson, who owns Ariel (GCh Silvercreek Applejohn’s Little Mermaid CD BN RI NAP NJP OFP SWE SHDA TKP CGC). “I’ve actually found that mine do better when we train for several sports at once. They can easily become bored, so the trick is to always keep them guessing and to make it challenging and fun.”


Above and below: Ariel (GCh Silvercreek Applejohn’s Little Mermaid CD BN RI NAP NJP OFP SWE SHDA TKP CGC), Lorrie Johnson’s Chesapeake, does better when they train for several different sport at a time.  (Dean Lake photo)

Fifth-grade teacher Tom Pawlisch takes one of his Chesapeakes to work with him every day. “There’s always a Chesapeake in my classroom,” he says, adding that the kids love reading to Josey (WSD SHR URX UROC UAGI USJ CA U-GrCh RATN SandSprings Outlaw SPOT-ON JH RA FDC THDA RATN DS CGCA CGCU TKI) and petting her. “The Chesapeake’s calm disposition makes them excellent therapy dogs. We’ve had four of our Chesapeakes become therapy dogs, and our puppy is an up-and-coming therapy dog.  They are a thinking breed. Many times a Chessie will anticipate or just try to figure out what exactly it is that you want them to do.  Sometimes it may not look as though they are not doing what you want them to do but, in fact, they are doing what you want them to do, they’re just doing it their way.”

Josey (WSD SHR URX UROC UAGI USJ CA U-GrCh RATN Sand Springs Outlaw SPOT-ON JH RA FDC THDA RATN DS CGCA CGCU TKI), Tom and Irene Pawlisch’s Chesapeake, regularly accompanies Tom to work, where his fifth-grade students love reading to and petting her.  


Pawlisch adds that because Chesapeakes are thinkers, boredom can be an obstacle. “When they get bored, they get in trouble. So, we are constantly doing some kind of training to keep them both physically and mentally active. But I guess the biggest obstacle for all our dogs has been their handler. When we make a mistake, it’s my fault either for doing something wrong or I didn’t prepare the dog for a certain situation.” 

In agility, for example, Pawlisch – a self-proclaimed non-runner – says his dog was always ahead of him, waiting for him to catch up. “The video is quite hilarious.” Pawlisch and his wife, Irene, also own Dieter (RO2 Crawfish I Do It Again SPOT-ON CGCA CGCU TKI ATT THDN DJ) and Carmelita (RO1 Crawfish Cakesniffer Look Away SPOT-ON CGCA CGCU TKN).


Josey is also very happy to do her “real job.”


Sonia Cunningham’s dog Fisher (GCh U-Ch RACH Red Water’s Iron Compass CDX BN RM3 RAE2 FDC ATT DEA DP CGCU TKP VHMA WD ASCA CD RNX) is a diabetic alert dog trained to alert her of impending high or low blood sugar events before they become dangerous. She got her first Chesapeake when the service-dog program trainer she was working with recommended one, even though the trainer is a Labrador breeder. 

“She warned me that Chessies were not the ideal for service work, but they had the very specific characteristics that I need for my disability and my career,” explains Cunningham, who is a geologist and archeologist. “What I found was that Chesapeakes are one of the most versatile breeds I’ve ever encountered. They are intelligent and athletic dogs, precisely what I need ... Much of my work is in rugged terrain in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard work in punishing climates and is generally unforgiving on the mind and body. So, I needed a dog that could work with me in the field for long periods of time and wouldn’t run off to do his own thing. 

“While they may not be the fastest thing on four paws or the most agile, they are incredibly smart and want to work for you if you know how to work with and train them. Dog sports are team sports, which means they’re a two-way street. If you can’t pull your weight on the team, there’s going to be trouble if your teammate is a Chesapeake.”


Above left: Fisher (GCh U-Ch RACH Red Water’s Iron Compass CDX BN RM3 RAE2 FDC ATT DEA DP CGCU TKP VHMA WD ASCA CD RNX) is Sonia Cunningham’s diabetic alert dog. He is trained to alert her to her blood-sugar levels before they become dangerous. Above right: Fisher is happy to make retrieves out of Montana’s chilly lakes and swift running streams.


As good a performer as a Chesapeake can be in multiple dog sports, even the most ardent breed supporter will be quick to tell you that they are not the breed for everyone, especially if someone wants a “robodog.” 

“They’re independent and they have minds of their own. They don’t respond as well to some training techniques as other breeds. They particularly don’t like repeating the same exercises too many times in a row,” Barber-Wiltse warns. “My current dogs have benefitted from the fact that I trained their predecessors to high level titles and now know more about how to start their training. A key with a Chesapeake is figuring out how to make an exercise a game and make it fun.”

Johnson notes that you can’t ever let a Chesapeake learn to do something the “wrong” way. “They have an ability to remember things that would put an elephant to shame. This is great attribute when they have to remember multiple marks in the field but is trouble if you make a mistake in their training.” When one of Johnson’s previous dogs learned to jump off the teeter in agility, “we finally were able to retrain her enough to get her agility titles, but it required a lot of patience, a lot of work and extra time.”

Cunningham reminds that the breed can be very opinionated. “Sometimes Fisher’s ability to express himself has been an asset, and other times it stands in the way of what I’m trying to do with him. He’s not always willing to back down and admit he’s wrong, especially when he thinks I’m not doing something correctly. His learning style and his ability to tell me to ‘buzz off’ have been my biggest struggles with Fisher.”

While Cunningham recognizes that sounds anthropomorphic, in reality it’s really about learning to communicate with a Chessie. “He wants to please, he wants to learn, and he wants to do right. If I can’t teach him what I want him to do, it’s my fault,” she says. “Learning to watch and listen to his cues and then change my method of communication was one of the most difficult things for me.”


True clearly loves her work in the field. (Mark Adams photo)


Despite the breed’s versatility, there will be snags in training, even for sports they are genetically programmed to do. Pawlisch remembers that Josey had an issue with the recall at hunt tests: During training sessions, she would be perfect. But at tests, she would swim out, get the duck and stay there. 

“We couldn’t get her to make that mistake in training so we could correct the problem. She was both test wise and e-collar wise,” he explains. “We finally had to resort to a rather unorthodox means to solve the problem using the e-collar and a long check cord looped around a tree. I’d put her on a sit/stay, walk out to the end of the check cord and give her the whistle command to come while at the same time putting some pressure on her with the collar.”

The first day, Pawlisch says, was “absolute hell – she just freaked out. But, on the second day, she ripped the check cord out of my hand to get to me when I called her.” He did this exercise with Josey two or three times a day for about a week, and that solved the problem. “But you have to be prepared to be creative and be willing sometimes to resort to unusual methods to get the job done with a Chesapeake.”

An issue that surfaced for Martin was that not many trainers have experience working with Chessies, which often require a different approach to training. “As a breed they tend to be less refined and perhaps not quite as biddable as some of the other retriever breeds.”

Martin is quick to add that this should not be taken as poor trainability or a lack of desire to please – in fact, quite the contrary. “Chesapeakes are always thinking, they want to please you and they want to be right,” he explains. “You have to be clear at all times in what you want them to do. Ambiguous directions cause them to make decisions for themselves, and once they have done so, it can take some time to change their minds back to what you really wanted them to do.”

Whenever Martin has encountered a roadblock in training for a sport with his Chesapeakes, he’s been able to overcome that issue by using their overwhelming desire to retrieve. “A few fun bumpers at the end of an obedience yard session or as a reward for performing an agility sequence keeps their attitude high. I’ve found their love of retrieving can overcome many challenges.” 

Unlike many Sporting breeds, there is no significant split between “show” and “field” among Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. This is because a great many Chesapeake breeders have been determined to not let a split occur. 

“We currently have bragging rights among the retrievers as the only breed still producing dual (field and conformation) champions,” Barber-Wiltse says. “Many of our ‘conformation’ breeders recognize the importance of keeping the work ethic, especially the field work ethic and instincts, in their lines and compete at some level of hunt tests or field trials. Many of our ‘field’ breeders recognize the importance of breeding to the standard and competing with their dogs in the show ring. Our standard still defines the look we want and the ability to work.”

But vigilance is still very much required. “There are, however, a few breeders who breed only for the show ring or for the field or hunting or pet dogs and don’t appear to appreciate the importance of breeding to the standard,” Barber-Wiltse notes. “So we can’t let our guard down, or our beloved breed could split into distinctive types that no longer look like they belong to the same breed.”




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