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.
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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 waterfowl 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 1950s. In the 1960s, 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 ex-patriot 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 recognized 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 undercoat 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 the 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 attract 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 watchdogs? Guard dogs?
They make very good watchdogs 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 worldwide 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 paperwork 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 curiosity 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, alertness, and determination. Many Tollers have a slightly sad expression until they go to work when their aspect changes to intense concentration 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 a softer dense undercoat. The coat may have a slight wave on the back but is otherwise straight. Some winter coats may form along 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 the tail, and usually at least one of the following white markings – a tip of the tail, feet (not extending beyond the pastern, 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.
- Skull: The head is clean-cut and slightly wedge-shaped. The broad skull is only slightly rounded, the occiput not prominent and the cheeks flat. […] the head must be in proportion to body size. The stop is moderate.
- Muzzle: Tapers in a clean line from stop to nose, with the lower jaw strong but not prominent. The underline of the muzzle runs almost in a straight line from the corner of the lip to the corner of the jawbone, with depth at the stop being greater than at the nose. Hair on the muzzle is short and fine.
- Nose: Tapers from the bridge to tip, with nostrils well open. Color should blend with that of the coat or be black.
- Mouth: Lips fit fairly tightly, forming a gentle curve in profile, with no heaviness in flews. The correct bite is tight scissors, full dentition is required. Jaws are strong enough to carry a sizeable bird, and softness in mouth is essential.
- Eyes: Set well apart, almond shaped, medium size, set high and well back on the skull with the base held very slightly erect; well feathered at the back of the fold, hair short at the rounded tips.
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 the 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.
Any color other than shades of red or orange.