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Get to Know the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever: A Hunting Dog With an Unusual Name

This small retriever lures ducks to shore, much like a tolling bell draws people to church.

Caroline Coile  |  Oct 12th 2015


The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever is the smallest retriever with the longest (and weirdest) name. Here’s a hint: The word “toll” is from the Middle English “Tollen,” which means to pull or entice. When bells toll, it is to pull people toward the church, for example. So what does that have to do with dogs?

Well, “tolling” refers to the dog frolicking and playing along the water’s edge, which lures ducks to shore. The dog is to continue playing and ignore the ducks until they are caught in nets or until they are shot, in which case the dog retrieves them. This behavior was first noticed in foxes. Canadian hunters taught their dogs to do the same by throwing sticks into the water for them to retrieve, and it worked. The first description of dogs tolling was in 1672, in Canada.

More interesting things about the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

  • Tollers weren’t purposefully bred until the early 1800s. They were developed in Little River Harbour in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, which is why earlier names for the breed were the Little River Duck Dog and the Yarmouth Toller.
  • The breed comes in only one color: red. It usually also has white trim. A goal of early breeders was to create a red dog, just like the red foxes so known for tolling. They incorporated red coloration from several breeds, which means that present-day Tollers may all look red, which may be the result of several entirely different gene combinations for red.
  • The parentage of the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever is unknown, but may have included European decoy dogs, spaniels, setters, retrievers, farm collies, or even Native American dogs. It also likely included the St. John’s Water Dog and the Dutch Kooikerhondje, also a tolling dog.
  • The Toller has a high-pitched screech of excitement known as the Toller scream. Here’s how it sounds:

  • The Toller is the provincial dog of Nova Scotia.
  • The AKC recognized the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever in 2003. The dog’s official AKC name is Retriever (Nova Scotia Duck Tolling).
  • No Toller has yet placed in the Sporting group at the Westminster dog show, but they’ve only been competing since 2004.
  • The Toller is currently the 96th most popular AKC breed, up from 110th five years ago.
  • Breeders caution potential owners that this is not “a little Golden Retriever,” but a much higher-energy dog. The Toller may be confused with the Golden Retriever, but the Toller is much smaller, with finer bones, and usually has white trim. The Toller’s nose is always liver colored, never black.

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier