Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

Nova Scotia dog wins hearts and dances for ducks


Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.


Is this a joke from a Saturday Night Live skit? A bird watcher tired of snickers about sightings of Black-Backed Three-toed Woodpeckers or Chestnut Collared Longspurs?

None of the above. . . .

The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever (aka Toller) is a charming, active, duck-retrieving dog with a small but devoted following in the US. Long registered by the United Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel Club, Tollers are the new kids on AKC’s block.

Medium-sized and easy-care, the Toller is a fine hunting companion, a great family pet, and an able competitor in obedience, agility, and hunting competitions.


Originally known as the Little River Duck Dog in its home of the Little River District of Nova Scotia, the modern Toller got its present name in 1945 when it was admitted to the CKC registry. As usual, the exact origin of the breed is lost, but a dog resembling the present-day Toller was seen in 17th Century Europe, luring waterfowl into nets. Whether the Toller originated from these dogs or was developed from a combination of the extinct Lesser St. John’s Water Dog, brown Cocker Spaniels, and Irish Setters with a smattering of Golden Retriever, farm collie, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers is a matter for speculation.

Whatever the mixture, the result is a 40-50 pound dog of red color and medium-length coat with the peculiar ability to entice ducks and geese close to shore.


To “toll” in duck hunting parlance is to entice or lure, a rather archaic definition of the word most associate with road and bridge fees and ringing bells.

Waterfowl hunters generally wait from a concealed spot for ducks or geese to come close enough for a shot. Hunters fortunate enough to have a Toller along can hasten the process by using the dog’s playful antics to catch the attention of inquisitive birds. The hunter tosses a tolling stick from his hiding place towards the shore. The dog goes after the stick with great enthusiasm, tail wagging and feet dancing. The flashy white markings on his chest, feet, and tail-tip accentuate the effect as he retrieves the stick time after time, enticing the birds closer and closer to shore to get a better look at this remarkable performance.

When the birds are close enough for a clean shot, the hunter calls the dog back to his side until there are birds to bring in, and the Toller momentarily shucks his playful persona to become a strong and able retriever.

Breed standard

Intelligent, easy to train, and with great endurance, the Toller is a strong and able swimmer and a natural and tenacious retriever on land and water. Agile and alert, he is happiest while working.

The breed standard describes the Toller as “a medium-sized, powerful, compact, balanced, well-muscled dog, medium to heavy in bone, with a high degree of agility, alertness, and determination. At work, the dog has a speedy, rushing action with the head carried out almost level with the back and the heavily-feathered tail in constant motion.”

There’s a moderate range in size for this smallest retriever: the ideal height for adult males is 19 inches but 18-21 inches is acceptable. The ideal height for females is 18 inches with a range of 17-20 inches. Weight for males is 45-51 pounds, for females, 37-43 pounds.

The Toller has a medium-length double coat with a water-repellant overcoat and a soft, dense undercoat. There can be a slight wave on the back, but otherwise, the coat must be straight. The body has some feathering at the throat, behind the ears, at the back of the thighs and the front legs. The tail is heavily feathered.

The standard accepts only shades of red with limited white markings on the tail tip, chest, face, and feet. White is not allowed on other parts of the body. Some Tollers have no white markings.

The Toller head is slightly wedge-shaped, the skull slightly rounded, and the muzzle slightly tapered. The ears are triangular, medium-sized, and only slightly erect at the base; the rest of the ear leather folds over.

Feet must be webbed.

All in all, first impression of a Toller is that of a Golden Retriever-Border Collie cross combining the coat color and happy-go-lucky Golden temperament with the Border Collie size, muzzle, and drive. But owners may quickly correct that impression with a chuckle and some details about this unique breed.


Breeders are working hard to keep genetic problems to a minimum. Like other retrievers, Tollers are susceptible to hip dysplasia and eye problems, so all breeding stock should have hips x-rayed and eyes tested according to recommended procedures. Both progressive retinal atrophy and juvenile cataracts are known in the breed, so eye tests are critical. PRA strikes late in life, so annual testing is recommended even after a dog is retired from breeding.

Breeders are jealous of their dogs and are working to prevent genetic problems. The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club of America is taking the initiative with projects to help breeders identify dogs that have or are genetically predisposed to harmful inherited conditions.

The Toller as pet

Tollers are gentle with children but may be aloof with strange adults, a trait that makes them reliable as watchdogs (but not guard dogs).

Size, disposition, and easy care make the Toller a fine pet for an active family as well as an able helpmate for a hunter. Tollers need daily exercise and love long periods of playing fetch or Frisbee®. They excel at obedience and agility because they like to work. Young dogs may be easily distracted and bored by repetitious training methods, so owners should keep it light and fun. They have a highly developed hunting instinct honed by years of dedicated breeding practices, so training methods that recognize this instinct are likely to be more successful.

Grooming is simple: run a brush through the coat a couple of times a week to get rid of debris picked up in the woods and fields and to prevent tangles in the feathering.

AKC recognition

After a long and arduous journey that began in 1998, the American Kennel Club finally recognized the Toller for registration in 2003. The 150th dog breed in the registry, the Toller joins the Labrador, Golden, Flat-coated, and Curly-coated retrievers in the sporting group. As a result, Tollers are now eligible to compete in AKC conformation, obedience, agility, tracking, and field events, so watch for them at local shows.

However, there’s no doubt that the Toller is still a rare breed. NSDTRCA has about 400 dogs in its registry, and because breeders are more interested in maintaining breed quality than in selling puppies, the waiting line for a puppy may be long. Breeders tend to be picky about selling their pups as well, so prospective buyers should be prepared for an inquisition.

For more information...

For more information about the Toller, check out "The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever" by Alison Strang and Gail MacMillan from Alpine Press. MacMillan has also written "A Breed Apart : Nova Scotia's Duck Tolling Retriever" which is also available through through the DOG website. Information for this article came from the Internet Toller profile by Cindy Tittle Moore, the NSDTRCA, A Celebration of Rare Breeds by Cathy J. Flamholtz, and conversations with Toller owners.
Norma Bennett Woolf

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