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Breed Profile: Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

Breed Profile: Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

nova_scotia_toller_f2The origin of the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever is muddled. The general consensus is they are descendants of 17th century "decoy dogs" that were used in Europe to lure ducks into nets. It's also believed these decoy dogs were eventually brought to North America, more specifically Nova Scotia, where they evolved into the breed we are familiar with today.

During that time period, the dog's role evolved to be that of a near-constant retriever, although just how these dogs worked has been shrouded in misinformation. Many folks believe that the toller, referred to as the "Little River Duck Dog" in its native Nova Scotia, would stand on the shore and wave his tail in the air like a blind-bound hunter flagging geese, which is simply not true. The act of a small, fox-looking pup playfully retrieving along the shore is what drew in the ducks.

nova_scotia_toller_1To ensure this, the hunter would stash himself away along the shore of duck-friendly waters and then repeatedly toss a stick so that the toller would retrieve it. The mid-sized dogs resemble a fox nosing along the shore, which would draw in curious fowl. When they swam within shotgun range, the hunter would water-swat as many as possible and then the toller would retrieve them.

While that style of hunting would get you kicked out of duck hunting circles today, it did mold a breed with an intense retrieving desire, although that wasn't enough to garner the toller genuine acceptance in the sporting dog world. In fact, the Canadian Kennel Club didn't even recognize the breed until 1945. A presence in the U.S. wouldn't truly exist until the '60s and even then it would take decades for general acceptance.

This acceptance, while nowhere near the level of some of the more popular retrieving breeds, would stem largely from one woman's desire to see the breed gain the recognition she felt it deserved.

Creating A Market  

Alison Strang is the woman who literally wrote the book on tollers when she penned The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever with the help of Gail Macmillan. The book has recently been updated for a re-issue and is easily the most comprehensive work on the breed to date.

I called Alison to get her take on the tollers of today and it became immediately clear that the Vancouver resident is just as passionate about the breed now as she was in 1975 when she took possession of her first toller pup.

"Our youngest daughter was nine at the time and she wanted a dog," Alison recalls. "I wanted to get her a Newfoundland, but they were too big. My husband, who had worked in Nova Scotia, suggested we get her a toller. We did, and we've loved them ever since."

nova_scotia_toller_2Strang, who had previous show experience with Newfoundlands, would take her love of that original toller and spin it into a career and lifestyle although as she explains, it didn't start out smoothly.

"It took me six months to sell my first litter. We had just arrived in British Columbia and no one knew me; no one knew the breed. I realized that I had to do some PR or I'd be in trouble.

"At the time the editor of a locally published dog magazine asked me if I'd write an article on tollers. She said she couldn't pay me anything but she could give me advertising in trade. That led to some recognition for tollers, which a long-dead Newfoundland breeder called 'bastard golden retrievers.'"

Penning magazine articles was a good start; however, Strang said she met some strong headwinds trying to get further recognition for the breed. "Everybody eventually finds their breed," she notes. "I had found mine in the toller, but it became clear that not everyone was willing to give the dogs a chance. There was a lot of prejudice from the Labrador retriever crowd, in particular. They were highly skeptical of tollers."

This would continue into the early '80s, until the American Kennel Club finally recognized the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever. This was both a blessing and a curse for Strang and her Westerlea Kennels. "The extra attention was nice, but any time a dog gets popular in North America and particularly the States, breeding problems rise up because of the sudden demand." This has happened multiple times among many of the sporting breeds.

Strang, now retired, had a huge hand in creating toller awareness. Every breeder I talked with only spoke of Alison with respect and reverence.

Personality Traits  

Every single person I chatted with familiar with tollers mentioned intellect and drive. Those two traits are desired in all sporting dogs, but they come with caveats. Brynwood Tollers owner Elizabeth Boryczka says, "They are like little sponges when they are puppies. They need lots of small lessons because they will get bored quickly with continued repetition."

nova_scotia_toller_3This is an important point and often misunderstood. Just because a dog has a strong retrieving desire and takes quickly to new commands and training drills doesn't mean those tasks should be pushed to the point of boredom. Changing up the routine and keeping a dog interested is crucial to proper training and an absolute necessity with tollers, according to Boryczka. "They can't be trained like a Lab," she says. "They'll become aloof and can even shut down."

Boryczka's words echo Strang's sentiments, who also spoke of the breed's high level of energy, which when coupled with the toller's intellect can cause problems for the ill-prepared owner. "There are a lot of tollers who need to be re-homed because they overwhelm first-time owners. Their energy level is off the charts and you've got to understand that before ever taking possession of a puppy."

Ducks and Beyond  

At this point, you're probably wondering how modern day tollers function in the duck blind. The answer is, pretty well€¦provided they've been trained properly. This is no different than any sporting breed, and aside from inherent smarts and retrieving desire, tollers are often very birdy even as pups.

This has led to a small surge in popularity throughout not only duck hunting circles but also upland hunting groups as well. Tollers can hunt and retrieve all forms of waterfowl as well as pheasants, quail and grouse.

nova_scotia_toller_4Well-bred tollers will possess a pedigree that is conducive to learning how to hunt just about any kind of gamebird you can find and nearly everyone I spoke with said that the breed's natural instincts are topnotch.

This, of course, shouldn't be stated without a disclaimer. As already mentioned, tollers have seen their share of popularity spikes throughout the years and this has led to some careless breeding in certain instances, which is no different than all popular dog breeds. Because of this, it's even more important to research specific litters.

Tollers have a strong show presence and therefore those bloodlines are readily available; however, if you plan to hunt hard with yours, it'll be necessary to find the right mix of show bloodlines with hunt-test bloodlines. The two, when combined in a puppy, will help ensure that you get a dog that is not only smart but will also take to hunting naturally. This step, which any serious bird hunter should take, is often skipped over for one simple reason — puppies are cute.

More to the point, toller puppies are undeniably adorable. This has led to more impulsive dog purchases than most of us would care to admit and should be a lesson that if you're interested in a toller (or any pup), take the time to peruse bloodlines and pedigree long before ever actually looking at a litter of pups. Decide on a dog from its pedigree, not its rollicking, overwhelming puppy charm. You'll be better off for it, especially when opting for a breed with as specific training needs as a toller.

Further, when you conduct your due diligence, you'll not only reduce the odds of getting a dud, you'll also increase the chances of having an easier-to-train, family friendly dog. There isn't anyone who doesn't want that.

Toller Training

Dog trainer Tom Dokken is quite familiar with tollers, having had several go through his Northfield, Minn., facility. His advice on whipping a toller into shape is patience.

"From a training standpoint, some breeds can take more discipline than others. Tollers don't take to discipline well; instead they require extensive praise and encouragement with as little pressure as possible. If you're heavy-handed in your training techniques, this might not be the right breed for you."

Dokken went on to explain that tollers can be exceptional hunters but you need to start them right. "With everything from bird introduction to gunfire introduction, you've got to handle them with kid-gloves," he says. "Baby steps that encourage confidence and won't potentially shut them down are always good.

"Stay patient with your toller and engage him in a series of small steps throughout his training drills and he'll develop into a fine dog. Tollers can be a hard dog to train for inexperienced dog trainers, so it's best to be honest with yourself regarding how much time and patience you have before opting for this breed."


In the beginning, Airedales were hunting dogs. The working class people in the West Riding of Yorkshire, who developed the breed, needed a dog that could scent game, had the size to be able to tackle larger animals and could be taught to retrieve. The answer to this need turned out to be the Airedale.

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Braque Francais

In the days before France became known as the cradle of artists and the center of the fashion world, it was a superb upland hunting destination. The hills of the French countryside were planted with a variety of agricultural crops and the forests and mountains were teeming with wildlife. Grouse, pheasants and partridge were common in the farmlands and wild birds were a staple food for many rural families.

At the same time, pointing dogs were becoming more popular in Europe and a select group of French breeders set out to develop a breed that had the athleticism necessary to hunt hard all day and the instinct to point and retrieve birds. Using Spanish pointers and various European hounds as their root stock, these breeders began to develop dogs that embodied all of the qualities they desired.

The result of their efforts was the Braque Francais. The Braque became known for its keen determination and overwhelming desire to please its master. Careful breeding resulted in a dog that could be relied upon to obey commands in the field and hunt hard all day long, a dog that had intense prey drive and could also serve as a family companion, playing with the children, yet acting as a watchdog in the dark of night.

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Curly-Coated Retriever

With textured curls and a sleek frame, the curly-coated retriever often triggers double-takes from onlookers. At a distance, the curly-coated retriever is often mistakenly identified as a Labrador because the curly shares the Lab's conformation and passion for finding, flushing and fetching gamebirds. But surprisingly, the curly was not descended from the Lab. Rather, the curly is thought to have been bred from the English water spaniel, the St. John's Newfoundland, the retrieving setter and the poodle, according to the American Kennel Club.

Up close, the curly is much different from a Labrador: Its coat is made up of short, stiff hairs tightly wound into ringlets covering the main body, the top of the head and the ears.

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Flat-Coated Retriever

Once upon a time, when English gamekeepers reigned supreme on the estates of the nobility, they needed a dog that could find and retrieve birds that might have been missed after a driven shoot. But their mortal enemies, poachers, also needed a dog to find and retrieve birds€¦only in their case, in the middle of the night. In both instances, for the law-abiding and lawbreaker alike, the flat-coated retriever was often the dog of choice.

For whichever task they were assigned, the dog needed to have an outstanding nose, be exceedingly biddable, and when they were working for the poachers, be fast and agile enough to escape the bull mastiffs the gamekeepers employed to patrol the estate during the hours of darkness. These traits, still present in the breed today, are a not-so-well-kept secret for this relatively rare retriever breed, which has achieved the highest levels of success in all of the AKC's dog sports except for retriever field trials. Flat-coats were in 90th place in 2011 on the American Kennel Club's 'popularity list ' of the 173 breeds recognized by the AKC.

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French Brittany

'Some French Brittanys can be drama queens when training pressure is applied, ' notes Jim Keller from Keller Gun Dog Kennels near Lincoln, Neb. 'By 'drama queen' I mean this breed sometimes tends to overreact with a lot of emotional outbursts when specific behavior is required of them.

'For example, when being taught to force fetch, some French Brittanys will squeal and squirm in an effort to get the trainer to leave them alone. And some trainers will back way off and let the dog have its way, ' Keller says.

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Portugese Pointer

Ralph Fedele told me his first choice was a whippet, not a Portuguese pointer. He'd been a bird hunter in a previous life, before children. He now wanted a small dog with short hair — less mess in the house — that was good with kids. Then his wife got into the act.

'My wife said, 'Look at this dog I just happened to come across on the internet,' ' Fedele recalls. 'I looked at the pictures and said, 'That's the dog. Let's call this guy and get that dog.' My wife, just completely coincidentally, is Portuguese, although she had no prior experience with the dogs. '

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Standard Poodle

From the Middle Ages, Europeans have always considered the standard poodle a hunting dog. According to Canadian breed historian Emily Cain, Europeans categorized it as a spaniel. However, the French breed name, caniche, comes from chien canard, or 'duck dog, ' so they have also classified it a retriever.

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Irish Red and White Setter

If you ask the owner of an Irish Red and White Setter what makes these dogs special, almost uniformly the answer is, 'They are natural pointers. ' Many say their dogs have earned a junior hunter title with absolutely no training at all and never having had any exposure to birds prior to the time they started running in the tests.

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German Shorthaired Pointer

German shorthaired pointers have been particularly popular in the U.S. with gamebird hunters looking for a do-it-all versatile gun dog. There are approximately 10,000 German shorthairs annually registered with the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club. Likewise, shorthairs are the dominant breed in NAVHDA and have produced top scores in Natural Ability, Utility, and Versatile Champion testing for the past several decades.

German shorthaired pointers are also one of the main dog breeds in many kinds of field trials and a variety of hunting contests. And all across North America, shorthairs are the common pointing breed for the average gamebird hunter just about anywhere there are gamebirds to be hunted.

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Irish Water Spaniel

'Beannaithe ' (Blessed) is how the old Gaelic hunters in Ireland viewed the Shannon spaniel that later became known as the Irish water spaniel. Developed to retrieve waterfowl and upland game, the breed proved to be so versatile it could do just about anything except dance Irish jigs and reels. But there are those who contend that given proper instruction and the appropriate music, an IWS could probably master these intricate step dances, also.

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Llewellin Setter

There's no sight more classic than a pair of gun dogs working a gamebird with one dog pointing and the other backing.

The canines in this case were two Llewellin setters on a South Dakota pheasant hunt last fall. The two dogs stood frozen with heads and tails high in a picture-perfect pose. As one of the hunters walked in to flush the pointed bird, two hens and one rooster rocketed out of the prairie grass. One well-placed shot brought down the long-tailed ringneck and one dog ran out, picked up and brought it in.

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English Springer Spaniel

Leave the open country birds and serious waterfowling for the dogs that are bred for that kind of stuff, the pointing and retrieving breeds. Spaniels really shine for small-water ducking and thick-cover upland birds — bobwhite quail, woodcock, ruffed grouse€¦and, oh yes, pheasants.

If ever a dog was created to hunt pheasants, it is the springer spaniel. I simply can't understand why the breed isn't more popular, given the vast number of rooster hunters in the U.S., but there you go. The really good ones — and I had one like that — can be almost wizard-like in the way they approach the game.

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American Water Spaniel

Developed by 19th-century market hunters in the Upper Midwest, the American water spaniel has always been a dual-purpose dog, equally talented for waterfowl and upland gamebird hunting. From the beginning and continuing to this day, AWS owners have been determined to maintain the breed's dual résumé. Ironically, that determination has prevented them from displaying the AWS' versatility in the field events of the American Kennel Club (AKC).

These events come in three distinct formats: one for pointing breeds, one for retrievers and one for spaniels. Thus, for a breed to participate, it must not only be AKC-recognized as a Sporting Group breed, but must also be grouped in one and only one of AKC's three classifications: pointing breed, retriever or spaniel. AKC doesn't allow dual classifications.

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The Weimaraner, from the beginning of its breed history more than 100 years ago, has been known as the 'Gray Ghost ' — a good nickname for a gun dog with a silvery coat and somewhat spooky-looking yellow-amber eyes. Originally developed in Germany at the court of Weimar (hence its name), the Weimaraner was successfully bred to be a versatile hunter of upland gamebirds, waterfowl, predators, and big game.

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