In researching the origins of Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, I thought that the origins of this breed would be traced to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
And mostly, that is what I’ve found. It seems the exact strain that we now call “the toller” traces to that particular date.
However, the technique of using dogs to lure ducks to the gun in Nova Scotia is older than that. As I noted earlier, Europeans have been using decoy dogs to trap ducks for centuries, but finding the first account of someone using dogs for this purpose in North America was somewhat more difficult. I noted that some toller sites claimed that the Acadians brought them over, and that Nicolas Denys had written about them
I knew that Nicolas Denys was a seventeenth century French colonial leader and soldier in Acadia, and I have read references to his accounts of life in French-controlled Acadia in Farley Mowat’s Sea of Slaughter. The work that Mowat uses in the text, and the only text that Denys wrote– as far as I know– is The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America (1672).
Well, to the Google I did go, and I found it very rather quickly. And the passage is very clear:
Of the Foxes [Renards] there are several kinds distinguished by colours. Some are found wholly black, but those are rare. There are black ones mottled with white, but there occur more of grey mottled with white; but more commonly they are all grey and all red, leaning towards the reddish. Those animals are only too common. All these kinds have the disposition of Foxes, and are cunning and subtle in capturing the Wild Geese and Ducks. If they see some flocks of these out on the sea, they go along the edge of the beach, make runs of thirty to forty paces, then retire from time to time over the same route making leaps. The game which sees them doing this comes to them very quietly. When the Foxes see the game approaching, they run and jump; then they stop suddenly in one jump, and lie down upon their backs. The Wild Goose or the Duck keeps constantly approaching. When these are near, the Foxes do not move anything but the tail. Those birds are so silly that they come even wishing to peck at the Foxes. The rogues take their time, and do not fail to catch one, which pays for the trouble.
We train our Dogs to do the same, and they also make the game come up. One places himself in ambush at some spot where the game cannot see him; when it is within good shot, it is fired upon, and four, five, and six of them, and sometimes more are killed. At the same time the Dog leaps to the water, and is always sent farther [and farther] out; it brings them back, and then is sent to fetch them all one after another (pg. 384-385).
This text strongly suggests that using dogs to toll ducks to the gun was a tradition that dates several centuries before the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever developed into its present form. It also suggests that this technique for duck hunting was introduced by the French, not the English.
It also has to have been a successful technique for bringing in ducks to the gun, or it wouldn’t have lasted in Nova Scotia for so many years.