Bryan Strausbaugh - Staff Writer - April 14, 2020
The American Kennel Club recognizes six retriever breeds. Many Americans would be hard pressed to name a retriever that doesn’t begin with Labrador or Golden, let alone name a retriever that begins with Chesapeake Bay, an all American breed whose American roots can be traced as far back as the early 19th century. Wildly considered intelligent and powerful, and also unfairly known as stubborn and headstrong, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever has somehow slipped down the ranks of American popularity over its long, storied history.
There’s no doubt lovers of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever know the remarkable story that tells the origin of the famed hunting dog: two Newfoundland puppies rescued from a sinking ship off the coast of Maryland in 1807. Where the story crosses the line from substantiated history to legend and even myth begins with the market gunners of the era.
The market gunners of the bay, many of whom were ex-navy, were rugged men who supposedly bred the two forebears and their progeny over generations. The market gunners achieved notoriety for their uncompromising drive to brave the perilous, icy waters of the bay to kill and collect as many ducks as possible. And this uncompromising drive grew a need for a compatible hunting companion.
There is no doubt that the single-minded pursuit of the market gunners, family men with mouths to feed, drove them to do their best by crossing their hunting dogs with any local breed they could find. However, this inferior practice rarely went beyond a half-hearted attempt to develop a dog with any trace of ability. Experts today agree the market gunners of the time simply lacked the means to skillfully develop a pure retriever.
For over a century, early breeding records regarding Chessies were assumed lost. The lack of verifiable records paved the way for revisionist history and hyperbole. Even the state of Maryland, which named the Chesapeake Bay Retriever its official state dog in 1964, via its government website, continues to feed the popular assumption the Chesapeake Bay Retriever’s story is largely up for interpretation by describing the history of the breed as unclear and based on legend. However, in the early 21st century, it was discovered that General Ferdinand C. Latrobe—famed mayor of Baltimore for seven nonconsecutive terms in the late 19th century—had managed to save the records from the Carroll Island Ducking Club fire. As it turns out, the many wealthy ducking clubs of the Chesapeake Bay carefully selected dogs and kept detailed records over the years.
It’s not implausible that the cause of the unsupported notion that Chessies are needlessly stubborn, senseless in their actions, and even aggressive, was due to the assumption that the market gunners intentionally bred a tough, unrestrained, and undisciplined dog to withstand the frigid and perilous Chesapeake Bay winters. Though not implausible, the notion has now been mostly debunked.
The many duck clubs of the era were committed to making the Chessie much more than a great ducking dog. Their dedication to the development of an overall exceptional breed, a new, all-American breed that had been recognized by the American Kennel Club by its inception in 1878 and by 1884 had described the “emotionally complex” Chessie as “…the peerless duck dog of the Mid-Atlantic…”
Although the Chesapeake Bay Retriever’s notoriety continued to grow during the late 19th Century, amidst all the initial praise, the general misunderstanding of the breed existed even then. When the American kennel club initially allowed Chessies in its show, breeders were so concerned that their prized retrievers would be misjudged due to the new standard of the Chesapeake’s oily coat, a characteristic now synonymous with the breed, they suggested every dog in the show be placed in a tub of ice water to test this new quality.
As Chessies continued to be misunderstood and misjudged over decades, there was a concerted effort by breeders in the 1970s to ensure a more docile and friendly dog of even temperament. Though, now, after the recovery of General Latrobe’s records, the logic of this renaissance must be questioned. In 1889 Latrobe, wrote about his own Chessie, Fitz, and described the retriever as kind, gentle, and affectionate. He went on to describe Fitz’s behavior as “…without reproach.”
Today, experts agree that the unfounded judgment of the Chesapeake Bay retriever has persisted for generations if only because of the misunderstanding of the breed’s emotions. The wide consensus that, rather than aloof and head strong, Chessies are actually emotionally sensitive, a complexity that sets the breed apart. Categorized as soft dogs, a characteristic which can be easily mistaken as stubborn and insubordinate by novice dog owners and trainers, Chessies are sensitive to overcorrection and lack of proper intellectual stimulation.
The Chessie’s need for proper stimulation is demonstrated by its rich, complex history, and the noted pains taken by many over the course of the breed’s history to ensure not only a skilled hunter, but also an emotionally acute, all-American family dog.