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Gone Gunnin' The Hunting Dogs of the Chesapeake Bay

by Dorcas Coleman
Wye Island NRMA, early November 2005: At seven o’clock in the morning, the sun breaks the eastern horizon, mist spread like a fluffy white comforter over the narrow roadway. Sleeping farm fields lie on either side, tucked cozily below.

Here I found myself on a mild autumn morning, gathered with a trio of hunters and their trusty sidekicks – their hunting dogs, or in this part of the country, their gun dogs. As I knew well from growing up on the Eastern Shore, no hunter worth his salt dares venture out into field or forest without his loyal companion by his side. A lover of dogs and owner of two, I was looking forward to a firsthand display of the respective specialties and skills the different breeds bring to a particular type of work.

Two in our company were young guides from Pintail Point in Queen Anne’s County, who brought four of their working dogs – two retrievers and two English setters. Josh Dean, the facility’s hunting manager, and Marshall McSorley, were happy to don theA photo of Gauge, a labrador retriever, who is already a natural in the field, retrieves his first duck.  Labrador retrievers, the most popular breed in the U.S., need daily physical and mental challenges to keep them working at their full potential.ir camouflage and demonstrate what a good gun dog brings to the experience of being afield. Christina Holden, Public Relations & Marketing Manager for DNR’s Maryland Park Service and avid hunter, brought her 5-month yellow lab female, Gauge. Young Gauge had never so much as smelled a real duck but her instincts were eager to take over. Josh’s pride and joy - his 3-year-old chocolate lab, Mojo - was a handsome male with a solid head and eager amber eyes. They took the field readily to display both the inherent and practiced traits of well-bred, well-trained gun dogs.

According to the standards recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), the sporting breeds are those that work the fields and forests in concert with a hunter armed with a gun. Their job is to extend the hunter’s abilities by locating, moving or bringing back birds or small prey. Of the breeds commonly seen hauled around in the back of pickup trucks in Maryland’s Tidewater region, four different types stand out: those that retrieve, those that point, those that flush and those that trail.

“Most Popular”
The most visible – and according to the AKC the most popular in the U.S. – is the Labrador retriever. Medium-sized dogs with close hair, the progenitors of this hardy breed not only retrieved game but fish as well, towing small boats through icy water and helping fisherman in any task involving swimming.

A photo of Mojo after retrieving a downed mallard.It was in England that the Labrador first earned its reputation as an extraordinary retriever of upland game. Breeders initially favored black Labs, and culled yellow or chocolate colors but by the early 1900s, these had become acceptable. Recognized by the AKC in 1917, its popularity has grown steadily over the years, resulting in the Labrador retriever becoming the most popular breed in America in 1991 and remaining so today.

Few breeds are so deserved of their popularity. Devoted, obedient and amiable, the Lab is good with children and other pets. Calm in the house, it can become a playful yard dog and intense field dog all on the same day. The powerful breed loves to swim and retrieve and needs daily physical and mental challenges to keep it occupied. Eager to please, a Lab enjoys learning and excels in obedience.

The Labrador retriever’s broad head and strong jaws are designed to carry large game birds such as Canada geese. Squarely built, slightly longer than tall, its heavy body set and sturdy legs enable it to swim and run powerfully. The Lab’s weatherproof coat - short, straight and dense with a soft undercoat - helps to protect it from icy waters.

“Best Personality”
The second most popular dog according to the AKC is the golden retriever, a beautiful, well-built and loyal dog that has become a favorite both on the farm and in the suburbs. Known for its handsome coat, today the breed is more common at home by the fireside than out in the fields, and as a result of breeding for emphasis on looks and show standards, has lost much of its reputation as a working dog.

Originating in England from a cross between a yellow wavy-coated retriever and a water spaniel, the breed showed immediate promise as an outstanding upland bird dog. Subsequent crossings with black retrievers, setters and even a bloodhound further enhanced its most sought after features. The golden was highly valued for its hunting abilities, and only later became popular as a pet, show dog and obedience competitor.

Everybody’s friend, the golden retriever is known for its devoted and obedient nature as a family companion. It is also an athletic and durable dog, capable of carrying heavy game over land and water. Goldens tend to be overly exuberant and boisterous, and their enthusiasm for everything can be distracting during training; they especially enjoy games that involve retrieving and love to carry toys in their mouth.

“Class Jock”
The retriever most commonly associated with hunting the Tidewater region is of course, the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Its history is certainly one of the most fascinating — and fortunate — in the dog world. According to popular legend, an English brig was shipwrecked off the coast of Maryland in 1807 and two puppies, believed to have been Newfoundlands, were saved and given to the American rescuers by the grateful crew. These pups (one black and one red) later proved to be skilled water retrievers, and as their reputations grew, many local retrievers came to be bred to them.

It is also believed that the Irish water spaniel, bloodhound and other local hound crosses added to the development of the breed. Gradually a distinct local dog emerged, one that would repeatedly swim through the rough, icy waters of the Chesapeake, unerringly retrieving one duck after another. Even today, the Chessie is renowned for its remarkable ability to mark and remember where a bird has fallen, and is one of the few hunting breeds that can boast of being native to the United States.

The Chesapeake Bay retriever tends to be independent although keen to learn. Developed to hunt waterfowl in the face of fierce tides, high winds and ice, its powerful limbs and webbed feet make it an extraordinary swimmer with a strong yet tender bite. The Chessie’s coat is rendered virtually waterproof by virtue of its oily, harsh outer coat and dense wooly undercoat, and its color matches its working surroundings in shades of brown, sedge or dead grass. The Chessie is considered the hardiest, most determined, and protective of the retriever breeds.

Retrievers are no doubt the most common type of working dog seen in Maryland, in large part because of the geography of the state. Thousands of miles of shoreline fronting Bay, rivers, creeks and marsh make hunting with retrievers a practicality.

Of the breeds that point, flush and trail, pointers, setters, and beagles are often seen venturing out alongside their owners in the state’s upland areas, where quail, pheasant and rabbit hunting are traditional pursuits.

A photo collage showing Lefty and Sam, two English setters from Pintail Point, putting their training to the test.  Locked in on the prey - in the case, a quail- neither move a muscle until receiving the go-ahead from guide Marshall McSorely. Bottom photo is of DNR's Christina Holden and Mojo, showing that they are well-camoflagued among the autumn corn stalks. “Best Looking”
One of the flashier breeds is the English setter, the “gentleman’s gun dog.” Possibly the oldest of the setters, believed to date back to the 14th century, the breed was developed to locate game on the moors and then to freeze until the game was dispatched. Its ancestors are believed to include the Spanish pointer, springer spaniel and large water spaniel.

Bred to cover large areas when trailing prey, the English setter is an elegant and athletic dog known for its proud head and lively tail. Its coat is flat, with feathering on the ears, underside, legs and tail. Its markings are distinctive, consisting of flecks of color, most commonly reddish-brown on a white background.

“Most Likely to Succeed”
Pointers are easily recognized for their lean builds, short coats and unique markings. Once commonly used to point hare, when wing-shooting became popular in the 18th century, the pointer found its place as an adept bird locator.

The early pointer probably included in its genetic makeup some of the most talented breeds in existence: greyhounds, foxhounds and bloodhounds, as well as an old type of setting spaniel. Pointers became popular for recreational hunting on large estates, where two were often used so that the hunter could locate the bird precisely by cross-referencing the dogs’ points. Excellent bird dogs with the stamina to run for hours (because it is ever on the lookout), it is easily distracted from everyday matters -- but it is nearly impossible to distract once on point.

“Class Clown”
And finally there is the beagle, the smallest of the hounds, never happier than when out in the field, hot on a trail in pursuit of rabbit and other small game, hunter by his side. Certainly one of the most amiable breeds, the beagle was bred as a pack hunter and needs companionship, whether human or canine. Eager to explore and quite able to cover vast expanses, its small size enables the beagle to scurry around in thick underbrush and nimbly traverse rough terrain. Anyone who has grown up in a rural area is familiar with the beagle’s melodious bay, which helps hunters locate the dog from a distance.

An Owner Most Devoted
As I learned from watching the field demonstrations that day at Wye Island, working dogs take their jobs quite seriously. And regardless of the breed, most require a firm hand; gun dogs perform best as a result of thorough training programs carried out by extremely patient handlers.

Routines are a critical part of owning a well-trained gun dog; whether retriever, setter or pointer, they only become reliable hunting companions through consistent repetition. Some people enjoy routines; if you’re not one of them, owning a gun dog could prove exasperating.

If you have the personal qualities to own and train a gun dog, the next step is finding the right dog. Research breeds to find the one with the traits and qualities you desire but don’t buy on breed alone as many dogs simply don’t have the inherent ability to develop into skilled hunters. Only buy a pup out of parents that are tried and true in the field - if both parents are skilled hunters, chances are their offspring will have what it takes to develop into good gun dogs.

Transforming an eager pup into a dependable hunting dog requires months of training. If your pup begins training at three to four months, it may be a competent worker by its first birthday. Even after a careful training program, most gun dogs don’t fully develop until they have two or three seasons behind them, and only then if they’ve spent a lot of time in the field.

Full of heart, strong of mind, yet staunchly devoted to its master, a good hunting dog can prove a true companion in every sense. To see a well-trained gun dog moving effortlessly across the autumn countryside or throwing itself with total abandon into chilly waters to retrieve a downed bird, is to fully appreciate the following sentiments uttered by an unknown but no doubt equally dedicated owner: “He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion."
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