In January 2003, the AKC Special Registration Services department circulated a terse memo: “The Board of Directors of the American Kennel Club, at its January 2003 meeting, approved the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever as eligible to compete in the Sporting Group at all events held on or after July 1, 2003.”
They sure packed a lot of dog into one sentence. (It became the breed with the longest name in the AKC Stud Book.)
First, there’s the Toller as a show dog. The smallest of the retrievers, he’s an eye-catching redhead—a jaunty little Jimmy Cagney with a spring in his step. But he’s also the acutely intelligent obedience dog; and the nimble red tornado of the agility course; and the loyal family pet, whose warm, soulful gaze would melt even the wariest mailman. Finally, he’s the peerless gundog of the North Atlantic — quick, rugged, relentlessly eager— for generations prized as the perfect hunting buddy.
In all, Nova Scotia’s greatest gift to America since smoked salmon. And yet, less than 30 years before being recognized, the Toller faced extinction.
First: What is “Tolling”?
We all know what a retriever is, but what’s this tolling business?
Marlie Waterstaat, a librarian by profession, is the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club (USA) historian. She explains that the word toll is from the Middle English tollen, meaning to “entice” or “lure.” From it we get the word used to describe a summoning bell, as in “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
It is safe to assume that Donne was not thinking of waterfowl when he wrote his famous lines on mortality, but for Tollers the poet’s words nonetheless ring true: The tolling of this wily retriever has been the death knell for many a duck.
Waterstaat describes how the Toller “entices” or “lures” ducks to their doom: “The hunter is hiding behind a tree or in a blind. The ducks are swimming out on the lake, out of gun range. You toss your ball, com cob, bumper, whatever your dog likes to retrieve, in such a way that the ducks can see the dog working along the shore. You repeat this game of fetch until the ducks come closer. They are curious about this animated red dog appearing and disappearing into your hiding place.
“As the ducks begin moving toward you, you call the dog back. When the ducks stop, you send the dog out again. As long as the ducks are swimming forward, you don’t toss for the dog. When they stop, you start again.” When the quarry is in close enough the hunter stands, takes aim, and, to put it delicately, the duck’s goose is cooked.
“You can do this with ducks flying overhead,” says Waterstaat, who is co-owner, with husband John Hamilton, of Sylvan’s Rusty Jones, an important foundation stud and a renowned gundog. “The first time we tried tolling with our own dogs, I was just sitting on the shore, tossing a tennis ball, and a duck flew in and sat down right in front of us. We couldn’t believe it!” The only other extant breed in the world that specializes in this foxy technique is the Dutch gundog known as the Kooikerhondje, aka Dutch Decoy Spaniel.
But tolling is only half the job. The dog also marks the game, swims to the spot, and retrieves the prize in his buttery mouth. “A good Toller’s mouth is so soft that sometimes the duck just falls out at your feet,” says Waterstaat. “It’s really more a balance than a bite.”
The notion of a “decoy dog” was not born in North America; Europeans since early Renaissance times had used dogs to lure waterfowl into nets. But it was in Nova Scotia, settled by the French in 1604 and wrested away by the English a hundred years later, that the Toller was perfected.
Creating the Toller
History has failed to record the name of the genius who first thought to breed a true retriever that could imitate the curious hunting technique of the fox, whose color and movements exert a strange fascination over waterfowl-so much so that they will swim to certain death just to get a better look. “The breed’s creators were fishermen and farmers, and breeding wisdom was handed down orally over generations,” says Waterstaat.
“There are no breeding records from the dog’s early history. Not until the early 20th century can we pick up the story. But we’re sure retriever-type dogs were the basic stock, and that farm collie was probably added to it, as well as a spaniel-type.” The “Yarmouth Toller” and “Little River Duck Dog” were once alternate breed names.
Whatever its exact components, the Toller is a nifty bit of genetic carpentry. The compact size, red coat with white markings, luxuriously feathered tail, and quick movements all fairly scream “I’m a fox!” to gullible ducks, while the classic head, sturdy construction, and boundless prey drive are pure retriever.
Although Nova Scotia was the undisputed capital of duck tolling, the practice was not exclusively Canadian. Waterstaat cites American sporting journals of the mid-1800s containing detailed references to “toling” (the second “L” would be added sometime after the Civil War).
America’s tolling mecca was Chesapeake Bay, with some 19th-century breed historians maintaining that tolling was actually invented there. Whether this is so or merely the boast of patriotic American sportsmen, it is certain that by the turn of the 20th century, tolling was a way of life for hunters up and down the Atlantic coast, as far south as the Carolinas.
To the Brink and Back
Through most of the 20th century, the Toller was a dog with a fiercely devoted cult following here and in Canada, but several factors were working toward the breed’s demise. The supply of Canadian breeding stock had steadily dwindled, American-bred dogs were ineligible for Canadian Kennel Club registration, and most Tollers were purchased by hunters more interested in working the dog than breeding it.
A wake-up call for the American fancy came in 1973, when it was reported that the Toller was “presently in danger of extinction as a pure breed.” At such moments, either a breed dies out or someone stands up and refuses to let it happen.
Sue Van Sloun, of West Point, Massachusetts, stood up.
A one-time AKC Labrador Retriever exhibitor, Van Sloun acquired her first Canadian-bred Tollers in 1978 and never looked back. She is the founder and past president of the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club (USA), and her Sylvan kennel name graces many important American pedigrees, such as the aforesaid Rusty Jones, among many others.
She remains today a mentor’s mentor, a sort of spiritual godmother to the breed, revered for her commitment to the Toller’s health and welfare. “Sue Van Sloun is my best friend in the world,” says Gretchen Botner, the breed club’s chair of public education, who, with her husband, George, is founder of Tradewind Tollers. “She’s who I got my first Toller from, and she’s been my mentor over the years.”
Waterstaat, a founding member of the club, recalls: “Sue was one of the first people I knew who had a personal computer. She created a database. Whenever somebody expressed a strong interest in Tollers, she would add their names. So when we decided to form the club in 1984, we had a list of Americans who were interested in, or who already had, Tollers.
“The club was founded by 25 or 26 fanciers. Most of them were getting their dogs from Canadian breeders. There were few people breeding in the United States at this point. We couldn’t show American-bred dogs in CKC shows, and, of course, showing at AKC events was a long way off.”
It was the rare-breed ring that provided the Toller a showcase during its climb to AKC recognition. “These shows allowed us to gather as a group and become friends,” says Botner. “And they let a lot of judges — AKC judges — see their first Tollers. Breeds like ours and the Anatolian Shepherd might never have been seen as a possible family dog or show dog without the exposure afforded by these shows.”
Keeping the Toller Alive
Even during the club’s early years, with the Toller’s popularity at its lowest ebb, the founding members knew what they wanted and refused to compromise. Waterstaat says “the club had its eye on AKC affiliation from the very beginning. But what we wanted to do was develop a strong club first. We wanted a club that was viable, that had had all the pieces in place before we asked for AKC recognition. ‘Tollers excel in a lot of things, but we feel it is hunting ability that makes them Tollers-it’s what makes them good at these other things. If we lose that, we’ve lost the essence of A born athlete: The Nova Scotia Duck the breed.”
That the breed has come all the way from near-oblivion to AKC recognition stands testament not only to the Toller’s charm and versatility but to the dedication of the breed’s American devotees, who work as hard for their dog as their dog works for them.