Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Chesapeake Bay Retriever dog breed
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Initially used for hunting ducks in the cool waters of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever soon gained popularity of a good canine companion, due to their high intelligence and versatility. They are strong dogs with a dense coat that keeps them safe and warm during long swimming sessions in cold waters.

Chessies, as they are commonly called, are loyal family companions that may be reserved towards strangers.

Breed Characteristics

AdaptabilityAbove Average
TrainabilityAbove Average
Health and GroomingHigh
All Around FriendlinessAbove Average
Exercise NeedsHighest

Dog Breed Group:Sporting Dogs
Height:1 foot, 9 inches to 2 feet, 2 inches tall at the shoulder
Weight:55 to 80 pounds
Life Span:10 to 12 years

These dogs were initially bred for hunting ducks in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. They were widely appreciated for their strong build and high resistance to cold weather conditions, as well as for their great swimming skills.

Nowadays, Chessies are mainly kept as pets, but they still have high energy levels and exercise requirements. They love to swim, but would also enjoy other activities, like jogging or hiking, so they are best suited for active owners, who have a lot of outdoor activities.

These dogs also excel in land hunting trials due to their stubborn nature and a great sense of smell, and are known to retrieve up to 100 ducks per day. They are also great competitors in sports like flyball, rally, or agility, but may also be successful in obedience competitions, only if well trained to tolerate repetitive training.

These are usually friendly dogs and very loyal to their families, though quite stubborn and territorial sometimes. They may act reserved towards strangers, until they understand they are no danger and can be friends.

Chessies are no dogs for novice owners, as they are quite dominant, and would constantly try to take over if they sense heir owner is too meek to be the pack leader.

Main Highlights
  • Chessies are sporting dogs, meaning that they need a lot of daily exercise. They love swimming above all, but would also appreciate joining you for jogging or hiking. It the exercise is not enough, these dogs can become destructive and frustrated;
  • They tend to be territorial and mature slower than most dogs, so they need firm management and training. Also, they tend to be dominant, so proper socializing from a young age is a must with this breed;
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers can be more willful, aggressive and reserved towards strangers and other dogs than most retriever breed dogs;
  • These dogs are not recommended for first-time dog owners, especially if they are meek and cannot display firm leadership.
Breed History

This breed belongs to the limited range of breeds that really originate from the U.S., descending from two excellent water dogs: a dingy, red male, Sailor, and a black female, Canton. Both dogs were rescued, together with the crew, from a stranded ship that traveled to England in 1807. Canton found her home with Dr. James Stuart of Sparrow’s Point and Sailor with Sir John Mercer of West River.

Sailor and Canton’s great retrieving skills were also passed down to their puppies and their offspring, as well as their unique amber or yellowish eyes. These dogs quickly gained popularity although there were no official records of the initial dogs’ mating.

After seventy years, when both breed strains from the western and eastern Maryland shores were brought together, they looked strikingly similar, so they were indeed recognized as a single breed, called «Chesapeake Bay Ducking Dog». According to more recent records, Sailor and Canton’s offspring were intermingled in the Carroll Island Kennels, then spreading out throughout the entire area.

The breed was well established and recognized for its abilities to retrieve in the harsh and cold Chesapeake Bay waters by 1884, when the American Kennel Club was founded. The American Chesapeake Club was founded in 1918, and in 1932 it held its first official retriever trial. The breed is so popular in the region, that the Maritime Museum found in the Chesapeake Bay has its front door guarded by two cast iron Chessies.


The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is a large dog breed, with males standing up to 23 — 26 inches tall at the withers, and weighing about 65 — 80 lb. Females are smaller, with only 21 — 24 inches high at the withers and weigh between 55 and 70 lb.

Personality and Character

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are very strong minded and independent, so they need a firm owner and very consistent training. They are not as kind and peaceful as Golden Retrievers, so they won’t be that friendly either towards strangers and another dog. Males, especially, may even display aggression towards other dogs, but don’t expect a female to be very gentle either.

They are dominant dogs and will constantly challenge you to prove them you really want them to do something. This is why you must be very consistent with training, and focus on obedience training. They would constantly test each member of the family for their place in the pack hierarchy. That’s why you must be confident and display superiority towards the dog. If not, he will place himself above anyone meek enough.

These dogs are very loyal to their families and very protective, so they would act reserved towards strangers. Also, they would do fine with pets in their household, but may act territorial towards strange cats and dogs.

Chessies have a constant tendency to chew on objects and people’s hands, so make sure you provide them with a box of chewing toys, so that they always have something to chew on and carry around.

They also need a constant job to keep their mind busy, otherwise they may get bored. And a bored Chesapeake Bay Retriever would choose his best way of entertaining himself, usually by chewing stuff in the house or destroying things around.

Health and Potential Problems
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): this term is used for a range of eye diseases triggering the gradual decaying of the retina. This will make the dog become night-blind at first, followed by gradual loss of eyesight during the day. Dogs may adapt very well to living with this condition, but it is very important to have them genetically screened for it, to avoid the perpetuation of the gene;
  • Cataracts: are usually noticed as the eyes get a cloudy appearance. This is an opacity on the lens of the eye, which makes it difficult for the dog to see. This condition usually appears in old dogs, but sometimes it can be removed surgically to improve his vision;
  • Gastric Torsion (bloat): this digestive disorder is caused by a sudden intake of air and food. This way, the stomach would twist and distend and may even lead to death if your dog is not treated quickly. Some symptoms may be drooling, looking anxious, attempting to vomit and a bloated abdomen. More serious cases may display whitened gums, short breaths or even collapse, so take your dog to the vet as soon as you notice the first signs of distress;
  • Hip Dysplasia: usually affecting larger breeds, hip dysplasia may also appear in smaller ones. This is a hereditary condition, but it may worsen over time by a series of environmental factors, like rapid growth, falling and jumping from higher places. This condition may not be very obvious, so X-ray screening may be necessary to track it. Arthritis may develop as a dog with this condition ages, so keep a close eye on his joints, especially if you know his parents were also affected;
  • Chondrodysplasia: usually mislabeled as «dwarfism», it causes abnormally short limbs. This disease has different severity levels, from severe crippling to «nearly normal». These latter dogs have managed to live normal and healthy lives, but no dog that is diagnosed with Chondrodysplasia should be bred, to avoid passing on the gene to the next generations;
  • Epilepsy: these dogs may be prone to epilepsy, a disorder that may cause seizures. It is incurable, though it may be kept under control with adequate medication;
  • Von Willebrand’s Disease: this blood disorder affects dogs and humans alike. The low levels of von Willebrand factor in the blood affect the blood clotting process, and may lead to prolonged bleeding of the tissues. Symptoms are gum bleeding, nose bleeding, long-drawn bleeding in females during heat cycles or after surgery or whelping. Sometimes blood can also be seen in the dog’s stool. This condition is hereditary and is incurable, but it can be kept under control by suturing or cauterizing injuries, avoiding certain medications and von Willebrand factor transfusions before any surgery. The von Willebrand’s disease is usually diagnosed when the dog  is between 3 and 5 years old, and affected specimens should never be bred, to avoid spreading the gene.
Care Features

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are very energetic dogs that need a lot of daily exercise to keep their muscle tone up. They should be taken swimming, jogging, hiking or biking as often as possible. An apartment or a small house without a yard would not be a suitable home for these dogs, unless they can be taken out for their daily exercise.

They like to live in cool areas, but can be kept in warmer climates if given the opportunity to swim often, so that they can cool down. They have high exercise requirements, so make sure your Chessie gets at least 20 minutes of intense workout per day: water retrieving, training, running or working. They would also do well with about an hour of more relaxed walking. This way, you can make sure  your dog is happy and healthy, and that it stays quiet inside the home, watching TV with you.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever puppies need a consistent training routine in order to become well-behaved adults. They also need very early socialization to curb the territorial behaviors, and to make sure they won’t act aggressively towards other dogs.

Take them to the puppy kindergarten from about 2 to 4 months old one or two times a week to give them proper socialization and training. By the time the puppy reaches 4 to 6 months of age, he would need daily walks of about half a mile and daily obedience classes, together with daily playtime around the home. This is the perfect time to teach them to swim, if the weather in your area allows it.

After your puppy reaches 6 months of age, begin playing fetch with a Frisbee or ball, but make sure you do this during the cooler times in the evening or morning, avoiding the heat during daytime. You can still give him his daily half-mile walks, but don’t increase the distance yet.

After reaching one year of age, begin jogging with your little Chessie, but keep it under one mile long and allow him several breaks during the walk. Gradually increase the running time and distance as he matures. This way, his developing joints and bones would be safe and not prone to stress or injury.

Be very consistent with your requirements, to make sure your Chessie knows what he’s supposed to do. Instantly let him know of inappropriate behaviors like lifting his leg where he shouldn’t or countersurfing, by saying «No» in a loud and firm voice. He must always know you are the pack leader and that he must do as you say. Use positive training that reinforces good behaviors through treats and praise. Harsh training would only result in a more stubborn dog that would be much harder to train in adulthood.

Feeding Schedule

You can save a lot of money by feeding your dog high-quality food that suits his particular needs. Energetic dogs, especially those from working lines, need a high-calorie diet, to help them keep up with their activities. Feeding an adequate diet will prevent them from developing food-related health issues like obesity (which is not a serious threat in this breed, though), allergies, hot spots, etc.

If you plan on feeding your Chesapeake Bay Retriever dry kibble, 2 to 2.5 cups of high-quality dry food is usually the adequate amount, but you may have to adjust it to your dog’s needs. Always check the manufacturer’s feeding instructions on the food package, as different food brands may have different concentrations.

Females that are pregnant in late stages or breastfeeding should be given as much food as they want, to allow for proper development of the puppies and to make sure they have enough milk. Puppy kibble is best for them during this time, as it holds more nutrients than regular adult food.

Coat, Color and Grooming

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever’s coat provides water insulation as well as a duck’s feathers do, due to this breed’s mission as a water retriever. He has a double coat for this purpose, with the undercoat dense, fine and wooly, and top coat harsh, thick, oily and short. This way, he can hunt freely in most harsh conditions, including snow and ice.

The oil in its coat prevents icy water from affecting his health and allows for quick drying.

The coat coloration allows Chesapeake Bay Retrievers to disguise in most environments. They may be sedge, brown, tan or deadgrass — this shade has no red shades.

Like all retriever breeds, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers shed heavily. They need at least one weekly brushing to eliminate dead hair and help distribute body oils through the hair. Bathing is not necessary, so only try bathing your Chessie occasionally, to avoid removing the oils that provide water resistance.

Teeth should be brushed at least two or three times a week to prevent bacteria and tartar and to avoid gum disease. Trim his nails as needed, usually once or twice per month if your dog doesn’t wear them down naturally. Usually, you can guess the time to trim them when you hear them clicking on the floor as your dog walks by the house.

Children And Other Pets Compatibility

Chessies are territorial dogs, so they may act aggressively towards other dogs, especially males. They need very early and consistent socialization, but they would still be very likely to be reserved towards strange dogs they haven’t met before.

They would be comfortable with pets in their own household, though, so you won’t need to worry about this aspect.

Children would be tolerated for a while, but a Chesapeake Bay Retriever would prefer to go away from boisterous kids instead of letting them pull his tail or ears, or tolerating all the noise they would make. Sine it’s so loyal towards its family, this dog may misinterpret they way his family’s kids play with others, thinking they may be in danger and wanting to protect them. This is why this breed may not be suitable for homes with small children.

Always supervise young children while playing with the dog to avoid accidental biting because of kids pulling their tails, paws and ears, especially in very young dogs.

Chesapeake Bay Retrievers can be awesome companions, but you must always be displayed consistent leadership. They have a mind of their own and must be conscious of their status as followers in the pack. They also need a lot of exercise, so you may want to choose another breed for keeping in an apartment. As long as their exercise needs are met, Chessies would stay happy, healthy and calm. This is not the right breed for a novice or meek dog owner, so choose wisely!

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.