Cheering on Chesapeake Bay retriever to be top dog

February 09, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

WILL WE FINALLY hear it: the melodious and fanciful voice of the Westminster Kennel Club announcer introducing a Chesapeake Bay retriever as it enters the ring for the Best In Show grand finale?

"A powerful and rugged retriever developed along the shores of Chesapeake Bay in the 1800s to work in the adverse weather and water conditions, the Chesapeake is valued for its bright and happy disposition, intelligence, quiet good sense, and affectionate, protective nature."

(Enter the eager champion Chesapeake bounding across the carpet ahead of its dutiful yet nervous handler. Mild applause from the audience, which is obviously pulling for the Papillon, miniature poodle or any dog that is owned by Mary Tyler Moore.)

If Joe Garagiola were still supplying the "common man" prattle for the popular USA Network broadcast, he would no doubt mumble something about how the Chesapeake is descended from two Newfoundland pups (Sailor and Canton) rescued from a sinking English ship and taken ashore in Baltimore, where their progeny became well-known for swimming and duck hunting along the Patapsco, through the Gunpowder and up both the eastern and western shores of the bay.

Yes, it's that time again. And it's enough to command the attention of all Marylanders new and native: Is this the year the shutout ends? Is this the year the Chesapeake Bay retriever - Maryland's state dog and official mascot of UMBC - is finally called upon to represent all sporting dogs in Best in Show for the Westminster Kennel Club 128th Dog Show? Maybe it's time to run down to the UMBC campus and rub the nose of True Grit. The bronze statue of a Chesapeake Bay retriever is often used this way for good luck. It's also a rock-solid symbol of strength and loyalty.

"A few years ago, we weren't sure about the retriever thing," said UMBC athletic director Dr. Charles Brown. "We were wondering should we keep it, since this is a high-tech school with an emphasis on science and math. There were various focus groups and we took a student survey and everyone said, `We like the retriever.'

"We like our mascot. We're a little more exciting than a turtle."

Lord knows the Chesapeake will need some luck this week. The Westminster, with 2,500 dogs, 17,000 spectators and more than 4 million television viewers, is a big-time event that accentuates prettier, designer dogs. Just look at the list of recent past winners: that perky little Papillon, English springer and Clumber spaniels, Bichon Frises, miniature poodles, Norwich and Scottish terriers, miniature schnauzer and the regal if not surprise winner from last year, the Kerry Blue terrier.

When the Westminster goes on air tonight, I've decided to be prepared. With my English springer spaniel, Griffey the dog, currently suffering a not-so-great illness, I have decided (for the sake of diversion) to throw my rooting interest to a sporting breed that has never experienced the thrill of victory: the Chesapeake.

The Orioles have won World Series. The Ravens have won a Super Bowl. The Terrapins have notched a national championship. What will it take for the Chesapeake to break its eternal string of shutouts at one of the longest-running sporting events in the United States? Is this any way to treat one of the rare breeds to have originated in America?

For 127 years, the Chesapeake has never been chosen to represent the sporting group for Best In Show at the Westminster. The pointer, the German shorthaired pointer, the English setter, the Clumber and the black Cocker spaniel have. Never the Chesapeake.

"It's not a flashy breed," said Karen Anderson, a Maryland breeder who came oh-so-close last year when her champion Chesapeake, James Bowie, won best of breed at the 127th Westminster. But yet again, James Bowie was among the losers when the judge pulled out the Brittany, Ch. Magic Shir-Ly You Jest, to move to the final round.

"I think the judges are influenced by people around the ring clapping, and the Chesapeake's not the most popular breed. Someday, it might win," Anderson said.

Unlike the more fanciful dogs that require more teasing and fluffing than an extra in Hairspray, the Chesapeake must sell itself on its solid, admirable but ultimately utilitarian traits.

"You can't hide any faults. There's no fixing of the hair. No foo-foo, not like a poodle. You see what there is," Anderson said, adding: "You want the dog to show a nice, happy attitude: ears up, tail wagging. You want the dog to go with a lot of enthusiasm."

On her 40-acre farm in Monrovia, home of her Chestnut Hills Kennel, Anderson spent last week getting her 69-pound Chesapeake ready for the big trip to New York. Of course, what's to get ready?

"We call them a wash-and-wear dog. They don't have to be groomed. They're not a foo-foo dog. They want to work. They want to retrieve. They're very loyal," Anderson said.

So Anderson clipped the nails and bathed Ch. Chestnut Hills Kelly's Kode, otherwise known around the farm as "Marsh." The 2-year-old is one of 29 Chesapeake Bay retrievers entered in the Westminster.

And yes, it's a competition.

"Most of the time," Anderson said, based on whether the judge rewards a dog for the day's performance and is not influenced by a dog's pedigree and reputation.

If this sounds like our other favorite judged sport, figure skating, so be it. At least at the Westminster, the athletes whine less and never hire hit men to crowbar an opponent's leg. Especially the hard-working Chesapeake, who have ducks to retrieve as soon as they can get out of the Big Apple.

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