Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers


This article is Copyright 1993-1997 by Cindy Tittle Moore, PO Box 4188, Irvine CA 92616. All rights are reserved. Individuals may download and print a copy for their personal use. Non-commercial distribution without profit is encouraged: in particular, NSDTR rescue organizations, NSDTR breed clubs, and NSDTR breeders all have express permission to freely distribute this article, provided this Copyright and the article remain intact, and provided the recipient is not required to pay for it. It may not be copied to another website nor otherwise distributed in whole or in part without the Author's written permission. Rather than copying it, please feel free to link to this article's web site or discuss how to get it. This way everyone has a good chance of getting the most up-to-date copy when they look for it.

Revision history:

Table of Contents


The earliest recorded references to the use of small red dogs to attract game is in the writings of Nicholas Denys, a 17th century colonizer of both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Denys does not state where the dogs came from (speculation is Belgium, where they were used to lure waterfowl into nets) but does comment on their retrieving ability which was not present in Europe's dogs. Whether these dogs are the early Toller ancestors, no one knows.

The traditional version of their origin is that a James Allen (or Allan) obtained a liver-colored flat coated retriever in 1860. This dog was crossed with a short coated retriever similar to a Labrador, probably a Lesser St. John's Water Dog (now extinct, but in the backgrounds of Labradors, Chesapeakes, and Newfoundlands). Puppies from this cross were then bred with brown cocker spaniels and finally Irish Setters for the red color. It is also speculated that farm collies, Golden Retrievers, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers may have played a part.

In their book, Strang and MacMillan outline a persuasive case for the Tollers being descended at least in part from the Dutch "cage dogs" called Kooikerhondje. These dogs are strongly similar to Tollers in physical appearance. In addition, these dogs were used to entrap water fowl as follows: A large pond with radiating arms away from the pond (so that one arm could always be chosen according to wind conditions to keep the birds from scenting the human or dog). The Cage Dogs ran between alternating screens so that the ducks caught glimpses of the dog (very much like modern day tolling) and thus drew the ducks away from the central pond and into one of the arms, or channels. The channels were constructed to narrow and entrap the ducks at the end with nets. In this way, large numbers of fowl could be captured quickly without the need for guns or other expensive equipment. The authors speculate that the practice emigrated from the Netherlands to England and thence to the Yarmouth district, potentially many decades before their traditional beginnings.

Through the efforts of Cyril Colwell, the breed was recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club in 1945 and at that point christened the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. However, the breed threatened to lapse into obscurity again; the breed had to be re-registered in the late 1950's. In the 1960's, Eldon Pace and Avery Nickerson carried on the torch for the Toller and dedicated themselves to producing the finest hunting dogs possible.

The Toller Today


In 1980, two Tollers won Best In Show at separate shows, piquing the interest of serious fanciers and breeders. Tollers have made steady gains since then, going on to participate in other current-day activities such as obedience and flyball with gusto and racking up further gains in the breed ring. In 1988, the Canadian Kennel Club's centenary was marked by the issue of stamps bearing the likeness of quintessential Canadian breeds. These were the Tahltan Bear Dog, the Canadian Eskimo Dog, the Newfoundland, and, of course, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. In 1995, Nova Scotia picked the Toller as its official dog, thus marking 50 years of recognition by the CKC.


The little river dogs are quite popular in Sweden, where there are an estimated 2,000 Tollers. The first dogs were imported in the mid 80's and in 1995 there were some 250 new puppies, with more dogs imported from both Canada and Denmark.


Denise Sandow notes: "My expatriot Canadian associate Marilyn Kellie (Kelmark Kennels) first imported Tollers to Australia in 1991 with the assistance of myself and my husband Peter Sandow (Ximinez Kennels),from Duncan and Arlene MacDonald (Ardunacres Kennels). The breed was officially recognised by the Australian National Kennel Council prior to our first dog (now Aust Ch Missionviews Shilo of Kelmark Imp Can) actually arriving in quarantine in Sydney. "Shilo" was followed one month later by "Bride" (Aust Ch Ardunacres Jetlag to Kelmark Imp Can) now deceased. These two are the first Tollers recorded as entering Australia: there has been a report in "Toller Talk" of a previous import, but this cannot be validated by Australian Quarantine Service records. Shilo was first exhibited at 13 months in August 1991 and is now enjoying semi retirement as a work/show/stud Toller."

Characteristics and Temperament

Affectionately known as the "Toller," this breed was once called the Little River Duck Dog since it was developed in the Little River district of Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia. This engaging dog is a specialist with waterfowl. Tolling, or luring, is the practice of tricking ducks within gunshot range. Hunters had long observed this behavior in foxes and deliberately bred a small fox-like dog to make use of tolling in their own hunting.

Tollers are powerful, medium-sized sporting dogs, intelligent and keen workers. Males measure 19 to 20 inches at the shoulder and weigh from 45 to 51 pounds; females average one inch less and weigh from 37 to 43 pounds. The coat is medium long with a dense undercoat in red or orange. It may be marked with white on the tip of tail, chest, feet and forehead. The tail is long and heavily coated, and full of action when the dog is tolling. The coat is a true retriever double coat; the harsh outer coat waterproofs while the under coat insulates.

The dogs are described as excellent hunters -- some giving their owners a look of disgust if the shot is missed -- willing to work in cold and wet conditions. While the breed was developed for waterfowl, many are used in the upland. They are equally comfortable whether the scent is on the ground or in the air. Well trained dogs hunt close and don't roam, but enthusiasm can easily run away with good field manners! They take well to obedience and some have been used successfully as therapy dogs.

If hunting ability is of concern, remember to look for responsible breeders who either hunt over their own dogs or have sold pups into hunting homes. Working level tests may indicate hunting potential but unless you know the breeder is producing or using hunting dogs, the tests may not tell you the full story behind the dogs' ability. (For example, did the dog breeze through the tests, or did it take many retries before it finally passed?) However, this is not to say that a show-oriented breeder is incapable of producing good dogs, or that a hunter always will. A good breeder will care about both aspects, conformation and hunting ability, of their dogs and be able to refer you to pups that they have bred that are doing well in either -- or both -- venues. The more research you do and the more questions you ask, the more likely you will find the puppy that fits your needs and criteria.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does AKC recognize this breed?
No, although there are current efforts underway to get the Toller so recognized.
So this means I can't show this dog in conformation or obedience with the AKC?
This is correct. Remember, though, that since the breed is recognized by the SKC and the UKC, it is eligible for shows put on by these clubs. In particular, it may participate in both HRC and NAHRA hunt tests.
Do Tollers really have fox in their ancestry?
No. This is genetically impossible. They were simply bred to resemble foxes.
Are they easy to train?
Young Tollers are rather distractible, as is generally true with retrievers. At about two years of age they reach a level of mental maturity that makes the training process easier. This is not to say that Tollers can't be trained until this maturity arrives, but that while they learn quickly, they also bore quickly. Training sessions should be short and light, fun and challenging. It may be difficult to train them to do things that they were not bred for, as this is a dog with highly developed hunting instincts.
What is "tolling"? Do they really dance around on the shore?
Tolling means "luring" or "enticing." The dogs do not really dance at the shore. The hunter sets up several blinds along the lakeshore or even along the river. When the weather is good, a suitable blind is selected, and the dog is sent out to retrieve sticks and other material the hunter throws toward the shore. The Toller goes directly out and fetches the stick like any good retriever. However, since Tollers are a jaunty and animated breed, it is thought that the flash and bounce of their white points attracts the ducks. After a number of retrieves the ducks are within gunshot range and the Toller is subsequently sent out to retrieve killed and wounded ducks.
Is tolling widely practiced?
In Canada, the practice has declined slowly for a number of years but has recently made a resurgence as interest in the Tollers has also increased. Tollers are not the only breed that can "toll" -- others have reported tolling with the Curly Coated Retriever, for example. However, the Toller is the undisputed king of tolling.

Tolling has never caught on widely in the US, but increased interest in the Toller may change that. Also, with hunters learning that tolling can help bring the birds in even when there is no apparent game to be had, more people are looking into it.

Tolling isn't all they do, is it?
Of course not. They are perfectly capable hunting retrievers in the traditional sense along with the other retriever breeds. In fact, their tolling should be considered an additional rather than sole ability, unique as it may be.
Would they make good watch dogs? Guard dogs?
They make very good watch dogs due to their inherent suspicion of strangers. But they do not make good guard dogs and should not used as such.
Do they make good pets?
Like all retrievers, they make excellent pets, being devoted to family and children and readily trainable. They do require an active family that can ensure the Toller gets the activity as well as the attention it deserves. They are bright and will get into mischief if they are bored.
Are Tollers a rare breed?
Yes. There are about 400 Tollers registered with the US club, and about 3,000 registered world wide as of early 1993. The breed nearly died out in the two decades after it was recognized by the CKC, but has made steady, although slow, gains since then.
Does this mean I'll have a hard time finding a puppy?
Probably. You may have to wait some time for a litter, and you will likely have to have it shipped across the country to you. Litters are few and demand for the puppies high. On the other hand, it's possible to get the luck of a draw and have a puppy a few months after your phone call. Be prepared for the grilling you're likely to get from the breeders.

Special Medical Problems

Tollers are subject to hip dysplasia and eye problems, but no more than most other retriever breeds, and less than Golden Retrievers. All breeding stock should be OFA'd and CERF'd before breeding. The Canadian and US Toller clubs each have a Code of Ethics that prohibits members breeding dogs without hip and eye certification. Hip certification need only be done once after the dog is two years of age, but eye examinations must be done annually and even after the dog is no longer being bred.

OFA issues a permanent number for a dog over two years of age that passes the panel of experts at OFA. They will also certify other joints; it's a positive sign if the breeder has also cleared elbows or other joints. However, problems in shoulders, elbows, and hocks are not generally known among Tollers.

Tollers can have several eye problems, including PRA. Some eye problems show up late in life thus a dog used for breeding should not only be examined annually, but also after it is no longer bred. You should check that a breeder is following this general policy with all their dogs. Unlike OFA, a CERF number merely shows the year the dog was last examined and the results registered; it is "good" only for a year. A dog may be properly examined by an ACVO board certified veterinarian (and the breeder will have the appropriate paperwork) without necessarily obtaining a CERF number. Some breeders may choose to renew the CERF number and others may not; either way the dogs should be examined annually.

The breeder should be happy to show you the paper work and explain how it all works. When you are looking at puppies, make sure each parent has an OFA certification number and that they have been examined annually for eye problems.

Currently, problems with hypothyroidism and immune mediated problems as well as dwarfism are surfacing. For the most part, these problems are still extremely rare and the subject of some unfounded rumor.

Deafness appears to be surfacing in a few lines. This is a late onset (7-8 years) form of deafness that it just beginning to be recognized and it isn't yet clear whether it is inherited or environmental.


Australian Kennel Club
Canadian Kennel Club
Finnish Kennel Club
Kennel Club of Great Britain
Norwegian Kennel Club
States Kennel Club
Swedish Kennel Club
United Kennel Club


(NSDTRC-USA -- Approved 1989)

Origin and Purpose: The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever was developed in Nova Scotia in the early 19th century to toll (or lure) and retrieve waterfowl. The tolling dog runs, jumps, and plays along the shoreline in full view of flocks of ducks, occasionally disappearing from sight and then quickly reappearing, aided by the hunter, who throws small sticks or a ball for the dog. The dog's playful actions arouse the curiousity of the ducks swimming offshore and they are lured within gunshot range. The Toller is subsequently sent out to retrieve the dead or wounded birds.

General Appearance: The Toller is a medium-sized, powerful, compact, balanced, well-muscled dog; medium to heavy in bone, with a high degree of agility, alterness and determination. Many Tollers have a slightly sad expression until they go to work, when their aspect changes to intese concetration and excitement. At work, the dog has a speedy, rushing action, with the head carried out almost level with the back and heavily-feathered tail in constant motion.

Temperament: The Toller is highly intelligent, easy to train and has great endurance. A strong and able swimmer, he is a natural and tenacious retriever on land and from water, setting himself for springy action the moment the slightest indication is given that retrieving is required. His strong retrieving desire and playfulness are qualities essential to his tolling ability.

Size: Ideal height for males over 18 months is 19-20 in. (when breed standards are converted to metric, the figures 48-51 cm. should be used); females over 18 months 18-19 in. (when breed standards are converted to metric the figures 45-48 cm. should be used). 1 in. (when breed standards are converted to metric the figure 2.5 cm. should be used) over or under ideal height is allowed. Weight should be in proportion to the height and bone of the dog (guidelines 45-51 lbs, when breed standards are converted to metric, the figure 20-23 kg. should be used, for adult males; bitches 37-43 lbs., when breed standards are converted to metric, the figures 17-20 kg. should be used).

Coat and Color: The Toller was bred to retrieve from icy waters and must have a water-repellant double coat of medium length and softness with softer dense undercoat. The coat may have a slight wave on the back, but is other wise straight. Some winter coats may form a long loose curl at the throat. Featherings are soft at the throat, behind the ears and at the back of the thighs, and forelegs are moderately feathered. Color is various shades of red or orange with lighter featherings and underside of tail, and usually at least on of the following white markings - a tip of tail, feet (not extending beyond the pasterns), chest and blaze. A dog of otherwise high quality is not to be penalized for lack of white. The pigment of the nose, lips and eye rims to be flesh-colored, blending with coat, or black.


Neck: Strongly muscled and well set on, of medium length, with no indication of throatiness.

Forequarters: Shoulders should be muscular with the blade well laid back and well laid on, giving good withers sloping into short back. The blade and upper arm are roughly equal in length. Elbows should be close to the body turning neither in nor out, working cleanly and evenly. The forelegs should appear as parallel columns straight and strong in bone. The pasterns are strong and slightly sloping. The strong webbed feet are of medium size, tight and round with well arched toes and thick pads. Dewclaws may be removed.

Body: Deep-chested with good spring of rib, brisket reaching to the elbow. The back is short and straight, the topline level, the loins strong and muscular. The ribs are well sprung, neither barrel shaped nor flat. Tuck up is moderate.

Hindquarters: Muscular, broad and square in appearance. Rear and front angulation should be in balance. Thighs are very muscular, upper and lower sections bent approximately equal in length. Stifles are well bent and hock well down, turning neither in nor out. Dewclaws must not be present.

Tail: Following the natural very slight slope of the croup, broad at the base, luxuriant and well feathered, with the last vertebra reaching at least to the hock. The tail may be carried below the level of the back except when the dog is alert, it curves high over though never touching the body.

Gait: The Toller combines an impression of power with a springy gait, showing good reach in front and a strong driving rear. Feet should turn neither in nor out and legs travel in a straight line. As speed increases, the dog should single track, with the topline remaining level.

Faults: (to be penalized according to degree)

Dogs more than 1 in. (2.5 cm.) over or under ideal height.
Tail too short, kinked or curled over touching the back.
Lack of substance in the adult.
Abrupt stop. Large, round eyes.
Nose, eye rims, and eyes not of prescribed color.
Bright pink nose. Open coat.
Splayed or paper feet, down in pasterns.
Roached, sway back, slack loins.
Tail carried below level of back when dog gaiting.


White on shoulders, around ears, on back of neck, across back of flanks.
Silvery coat, grey in coat, black areas in coat.
Lack of webbing in feet.
Undershot bite, wry mouth.
Overshot bite, by more than 1/8 in.
In adult classes, any shyness.
Butterfly nose.
Any color other than shades of red or orange.



The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever by Alison Strang and Gail MacMillan from Alpine Press was just released October of 1996. It is an excellent book and highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the breed or an interest in retrievers in general.


Canadian Kennel Club Book of Dogs: Centennial Edition. (Short description, contains Canadian standard.)

McClure, Bill. "Canada's Unique Toller," in Gun Dog Magazine, Nov/Dec 1986. (2 pages.)

Spencer, James B. "The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever: A Breed in Transition," in Wildfowl Magazine, December/January 1986/1987. (Four pages.)

Spencer, James B. Hunting Retrievers: Hindsights, Foresights, and Insights, Alpine Publications, 2456 E. 9th St., Loveland, CO 80537, 1989. Contains a chapter describing the Toller.

Wolters, Richard. Duck Dogs -- All About Retrievers, Penguin Group, Penguin Books USA Inc, New York, first printing April 1990. (A very interesting historical recounting of a NSDTR at work and some good information on the breed.)

Rand, Vicki. "The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever in H.R.C." in Hunting Retriever, August/September 1990 pp37-38. (Short 2 page article, color pictures.)

Rand, Vicki. "Dog Breeds of the World -- The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever," in Bloodlines, September/October 1990, pp 28-33. (Essentially the same as above article; more pictures.)

Howard, Jeff. "The Truth About the Tolling Dog," in Michigan Sportsman, Sept. 1991. (Several pages, photos.)

Botner, Gretchen. "Here's the Nova Scotia Duck Toller", in Dog World, April 1992 (v77n4), Maclean Hunter Publication. (Cover and feature article 3.5 pages with color photos.)

Strang, Allison. "The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever," in The Sporting Life Magazine, May/June 1992. (4.5 pages with color photos.)

MacMillan, Gail. "The Finest Hunting Companion on Four Legs -- The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever," in Gun Dog, August/September 1992. (5 pages, color photos; issue has a Toller on cover.)

Spencer, James B. "The Toller in the United States," in Gun Dog, August/September 1992. (3 pages, color photos.)

MacMillan, Gail. "The Pleasingest Puppy," in Dog World, October 1992. pp 36-39. (3.5 pages, color photo.)

MacMillan, Gail. "Ask Not How the Dog Tolls," in Outdoor Canada, September 1994. (2 pages, photo.)

MacMillan, Gail. "The NSDTR: no need to toll for attention," in Dogs in Canada, December 1994. (2 pages, 2 photos -- one circa 1917.)

MacMillan, Gail. "Tolling Dogs Tantalize Ducks," in Conservator, Volume 16, No. 2, 1995. (2 pages, photos.)


Please contact the club nearest you for a list of breeders. Remember that you should always check any breeder you come across to determine whether they are the right ones for you. Most NSDTR clubs have a code of ethics that breeders must abide by in order to be listed, but please remember this may not guarantee that the breeder is for you. Always ask questions, check references, etc. See the Getting A Dog FAQ for details on choosing good breeders.

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club of Canada

Laura Norie
3784 Red Bluff Road, Quesnel, BC Canada V2J 6E4 (250)747-1472

Ontario Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club

Janice Madjanovich, secretary
RR #3, BObcaygeon, Ontario K0M 1A0

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club (USA)

Gretchen Botner, Secretary
951 Moon Court, Marco Island, FL 33937

This club was formed in 1984 by ten fanciers determined to rescue the breed from obscurity in the US. The club now has a quarterly newsletter Quackers, maintains the stud book and registration records, outlines a Code of Ethics, keeps a breeders list and offers formal activities in conformation, field, obedience and tracking. The club has worked for recognition from the United Kennel Club, the States Kennel Club, and will eventually seek recognition with the American Kennel Club.

The NSDTRC-USA works to maintain the Toller as a dual purpose breed, to avoid the sort of split that has occured in Canada, and that has occured in the US with other retriever breeds. The club will award Championships only to dogs that have passed either the Natural Instinct Test (NIT) or the Working Certificate (WC), both non-competitive titles. The NIT consists of back to back single land marks, back to back single water marks and a tolling test. The WC consists of a land double mark, back to back water singles, and a tolling test. In both cases, the tolling test requires the dog to retrieve and object on a shoreline at least six times in succession, and each retrieve must be done with the necessary animation to attract ducks (although no ducks are actually used in the tolling test).

Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrieverklubben (Sweden)

Ingrid Larsson
Viks Norrgaard, 643 93 Vingaaker, Sweden
The club newsletter "Tollaren" is edited by Tina Jansson, at


You can get 3 8.5x14 color copy sheets of Tollers (adults, puppies and hunt photos) by sending (US) $5.75, payable to G. Botner, to 951 Moon Court, Marco Island, FL 33937. Expense is for postage and materials only (non-profit).

Online Information

Websites include: Mailing lists include:
Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever FAQ
Cindy Tittle Moore,
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