Chesapeake Bay Retrievers

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever, or Chessie, is the Sherman tank of water dogs. Tough and tenacious, he’s a serious hunting dog developed to withstand the brutally cold, rough waters of the Eastern Seaboard, in particular the Chesapeake Bay where he was bred by hunters in need of a dog to hunt all day and then some. He is one of relatively few breeds completely “Made in America.”

The Chessie is possessed of a nature that is more protective and less welcoming to strangers than that of many sporting dogs, but that doesn’t make him bad-tempered. He is fond of and careful with children but will guard your home (and hunting gear) with alacrity.

Is the Chesapeake Bay Retriever the Right Dog for You?

If all you desire is a family pet, you will likely be happier with a Labrador or Golden Retriever. No matter how much exercise or training or dog sports or companionship you think you could give him, the Chessie is a hunting dog, pure and simple. Limiting a Chessie to life as a pet isn’t going to make him, or ultimately you, very happy. That doesn’t mean he can’t also be a therapy dog or jogging buddy or family friend, just that hunting is his first love.

If you are a serious waterfowler who can give the Chessie a hunting home, then he’s your dog. And if he’ll be living with you in your home after you return from a day of hunting, so much the better. For all his vaunted toughness, the Chessie loves his people and wants to be with them whenever possible. Other people and dogs hold little interest for him unless they are perceived as a threat.

In the off-season, your Chessie will still need exercise and the mental stimulation provided by daily training and play. Plan to take him for a brisk walk, jog or hike of a mile, morning and evening, and schedule 20 minutes of training practice or work-related play such as a vigorous game of fetch—especially if it involves fetching from water. Like any dog, a Chessie who is underutilized and under-exercised will make his own entertainment, usually of a destructive or dangerous nature: chasing cars, bicyclists or joggers, for instance.

The Chessie responds well to a trainer who is firm but kind and who respects the fact that this is a dog who doesn’t need drill after drill to learn something well. When he’s done, he’s done, and woe betide the owner who fails to recognize that and tries to get in one last practice session.

The wavy coat matches the fields in which the Chessie is usually found, coming in shades of brown. Like most water dogs, the Chesapeake has a harsh, oily outer coat that repels wetness. Beneath it is an insulating layer of fine, woolly hair to keep the dog warm.

Dirt and debris should brush out easily. Give him a thorough freshwater rinse after he’s been in saltwater or through slime in a pond or lake. Adding soap to that rinse can be done with less frequency, depending on your own tolerance for the oily smell of many retrievers. The undercoat sheds heavily in the spring, so be prepared to brush the dog more frequently during this time to keep loose hair from collecting on clothing and furniture. Keep the ears clean and dry, and trim the nails as needed.

The good news about Chessies is that they are an uncommon breed, limited primarily to people who hunt and who may also show them. That means that there is not a split between hunting and conformation lines. In general, if you purchase your Chessie from a responsible breeder, you are sure to end up with a fine hunting dog.

The bad news about Chessies is that they are an uncommon breed. You don’t find them on every street corner, and you can expect to spend some months or even a year or more on a waiting list before a puppy is available.

7 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Chesapeake Bay Retriever Puppy

  1. Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store. You’re more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to house-train puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.
  2. Start your search for a good breeder on the website of the American Chesapeake Club, which offers a breeder referral service; choose one who is a member in good standing and has agreed to be bound by the club's Code of Ethics, which prohibits its members from selling puppies to pet stores.
  3. Ask your puppy's breeder to show you written documentation from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the University of Pennsylvania (PennHip) that your puppy's parents' hips are free of dysplasia. OFA certification that the parents are free of elbow dysplasia is also required. Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) documentation must also have been received within the previous year, to certify that the puppy's parents do not have any genetic vision or eye abnormalities.
  4. Do not purchase a puppy from a breeder who cannot provide you with written documentation that the parents were cleared of health problems that affect the breed. Having the dogs "vet checked" is not a substitute for genetic health testing, and any breeder who says her lines are free of all these problems, or that they're not a concern, is either lying or knows almost nothing about Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. Look for your puppy elsewhere.
  5. Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health and behavior problems in Chesapeake Bay Retrievers aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out.
  6. Puppy or adult, take your Chesapeake Bay Retriever to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
  7. Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Health Issues Common to Chesapeake Bay Retrievers

Chesapeakes are at risk for degenerative myelopathy, a form of progressive paralysis. While this disease is rare, it is incurable and crippling. Not every dog who tests positive for DM will go on to develop the disease, but breeders who have tested their stock for this condition are very likely to be among the most conscientious of breeders. The newly-available genetic screening test for this condition can be used to determine whether a puppy's parents are clear, carriers, or at risk; a puppy whose parents are clear – neither carriers nor at risk – will also be clear. A puppy from two carrier parents will be at risk, and a puppy with one carrier parent may be at risk. Even dogs who test as having two copies of the gene many never show symptoms of the disease, but knowing the status of your puppy's parents, and of your own dog, can help you watch for the early warning signs.

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers can also suffer from bloat and torsion, a condition in which the stomach twists on itself, cutting off blood flow. Bloat strikes very suddenly, and a dog who was fine one minute can be dead a few hours later. Watch for symptoms like restlessness and pacing, drooling, pale gums and lip licking, trying to throw up but without bringing anything up, and signs of pain. Bloat requires immediate veterinary surgery, and most dogs that have bloated once will bloat again. That means it’s wise to opt for the procedure known as "stomach tacking," which will keep the stomach from twisting in the future. This procedure can also be done as a preventive measure.

The Chesapeake's hanging ears are prone to ear infections, especially if they get wet when he swims. This can be exacerbated by their tendency to allergies, which can cause ear infections to become chronic. Left untreated, such infections can cause permanent damage to the ear canal and even destroy your dog's hearing. Always seek immediate veterinary care if your dog is pawing at his ears or shaking or tilting his head.

Make sure to have your puppy's eyes examined once a year by a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist, and seek veterinary care immediately at any signs of cloudiness, redness, itching or irritation of the eyes, or if the dog is squinting or pawing at them.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Hip Dysplasia
High $1,500-$6,000
Entropion High $300-$1,500
Cruciate Ligament Injury
High $1,000-$4,000
Gastric Dilatation Volvulus
Medium $1,500-$7,500
Cataracts High $1,500-$5,000
Degenerative Myelopathy Medium $2,000-$4,000
Estimates based on claims paid by Embrace Pet Insurance


Pet Insurance for Chesapeake Bay Retrievers

Pet insurance for Chesapeake Bay Retrievers costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.

Embrace pet insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Chesapeake Bay Retriever is when he’s a healthy puppy. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can’t get when you need it the most.