Posts Tagged ‘Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retriever’

After all the controversy over Alexander Dauber’s heretical cross between a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever and an Australian shepherd, Dauber has decided to do another outcross.

To a Welsh springer spaniel!

Dauber is doing these outcrosses to save Nova Scotia duck-tolling retrievers, which are a quite inbred breed that has some issues with MHC diversity and heterozygosity, which tends to show up in severe autoimmune diseases.

As a breed, they have no obvious exaggerations, so they should be living well into their teens.

Depending upon whom one consults, the average lifespan of this breed is in the 7 to 10 year range.

Which is pathetic.

Dauber has caught all sorts of hell from the pure blood brigade cultists, and even received very harsh criticism from Dr. Bruce Cattanach, who did a similar outcross program for nothing more than cosmetic reasons. (Cattanch is a good man and great scientist, but he’s dead wrong here.)

Tollers need greater MHC diversity as a population,  and within the dogs, they also need greater heterozygosity.

Toller fanciers regularly troll any posts on these dogs, claiming they live to be 14, 16, or 25 years old, usually with anecdotal evidence.

They really don’t understand what shape this breed is in, and they really don’t care.

I’m sure to catch hell from these people, but Mr. Dauber’s work is important, regardless of what the nattering cultists say.


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I think the dogs are tollers. They appear right at the end.


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This is a homozygous natural bobtail Pembroke corgi that was born alive. You can tell from its profile that it has something very wrong with its back end.

Over at BorderWars, Christopher Landauer has taken down one of the great myths that breeders of dogs with a certain type of natural bobtail often like to perpetuate.  (I should warn you that the images on this post are quite graphic. Reader discretion advised.)

The myth is that although this trait is a considered lethal when inherited in a homozygous manner, these homozygous natural bobtails are never born.

This myth has gained certain currency in Europe, where tail docking is becoming illegal in country after country. If docking is illegal, then many breeds are going to have to breed for a consistent tail type and carriage. When breeds have been docked for generation after generation, no one has selected for any kind of consistency in the tail, which makes the dogs harder to show. If a breed has a wide variety in phenotypes, it’s very difficult for judges to make a selection about which dog is truly meets the standards.

So it might be a good idea to produce lines of dogs that don’t produce any tails at all.  Dogs that are born pre-docked.

Sounds like a wonderful idea, eh?

The first breed to undergo an experiment to produce natural bobtails was the boxer.  Dr. Bruce Cattanach bred a white boxer to a Pembroke corgi with a natural bobtail. After just a few generations of breeding back to the boxer breed, he was able to produce naturally bob-tailed dogs that were virtually indistinguishable from high quality conformation boxer in the UK.

This particular outcross was performed without any consultation of the German Boxer Club. Germany is the patron country of the boxer in the FCI, and the German Boxer Club refused to accept any dogs that are naturally bobtailed. The German and FCI standard now disqualifies any dog that is naturally bob-tailed, and all the boxers I saw in Germany had long, whip-like tails.

This particular outcross is essentially a failure on breed politics grounds. The majority of boxer clubs in the world will not accept these dogs. And there is really no health or working reason to dock a boxer. Most boxers are family pets. They aren’t running over fields covered in thorn bushes that might damage their tails, as would be the case for a German short-haired pointer, and they aren’t guarding flocks of sheep from wolves that might try to catch them by the tail, as would be the case for a Central Asian ovtcharka. Boxers look fine with tails. The only downside to a boxer with a tail is that it might be mistaken for a pit bull and result in some bizarre hysteria.

But even if this natural bobtail didn’t totally fail breed politics, there are actual health and welfare reasons to be skeptical of it.

Cattanach contends that natural bobtails are not a problem in terms of health.

However, as you will see in Chris’s post, there are risks of breeding natural bobtails together.

Although homozygous natural bobtails are rarely born, they still are born on occasion.

And when they are born, they have severe deformities.

The dog pictured above was a homozygous natural bobtail that was born in a natural bobtail to natural bobtail breeding.  It was euthanized shortly after birth. It was born with no anus, no tail, and an open hernia that leads into the spinal canal. This animal simply could not have survived.

This is the photo of the back end. I should warn you that this image is quite graphic, and it may be disturbing to some readers.

No anus. No tail. And an open hernia into the spinal canal.

Another homozygous natural bobtail corgi was also born. This one also had no tail and no anus. Its intestines and lungs were full of gas, and it had severely wasted muscles in its hindquarters. It also had a kinked spine.

Any breeding can produce dogs with deformities. My uncle bred a puddin’  Jack Russell that was half puddin’/ half JRTCA to a bitch that was derived English farm stock that likely included some border terrier or Patterdale ancestry. The two dogs produced three litters. The first one had two healthy puppies.  The next had three.  The fourth had five, but one of these had spina bifida and had to be euthanized. This was an entirely outbred litter, and neither parent had any defects or disease.  But a birth defect still happened.

However, when one breeds natural bobtail to natural bobtail one is accepting a relatively higher risk that a truly deformed puppy might be born, and in this situation, we have to consider the ethical implications.

Now, we do have lethal traits that are inherited in a somewhat similar way to this form of natural bobtail. The dominant hairless dogs– the xoloitzcuintli, the so-called Chinese crested dog, and the Peruvian Inca orchid–are hairless because of a mutation that in theory is inherited the way it is often claimed that natural bobtails are.  These hairless dogs do not produce solely hairless offspring when bred together. That’s because homozygous hairless puppies are never born. They die before they ever develop into puppies. All of these hairless dogs are heterzyous hairless, and they all carry the recessive coated trait. In every hairless breed of this type, there will be coated puppies born. It’s very simple.

Cattanach claims that the natural bobtail is just like this hairless trait.

But the two corgi pups show that it is not.

If it were just like the hairless dogs, these two puppies would never have been born.

And because they were born alive, there is a real welfare consideration that has to be made.

The German Boxer Club made the right decision. As Europe pushes harder against tail docking, the future is going to be with long-tailed boxers, not gimmicks with natural bobtails.


I find it particularly interesting that Cattanach has come out against the Australian shepherd/Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever cross-breeding program.

This particularly program is controversial, and it is totally failing breed politics. But it is an outcross for an entirely different reason.

Nova Scotia duck-tolling retrievers have low MHC/DLA haplotype diversity. These MHC/DLA genes control immune response, and because tollers have such low diversity, they have very real issues with autoimmune disorders.

The only way to increase diversity in haplotypes is to outcross or bring in unregistered dogs from Nova Scotia– which may or may not have diverse MHC haplotypes.

This crossbreeding has been criticized for using an Australian shepherd, a breed that comes in merle and is sometimes more reserved in temperament than toller people might like.

Also, one person in Germany is doing the crossbreeding, and one person doing the crossbreeding on his own cannot save the entire breed. His dogs likely won’t be included in the bloodlines of the breed.

However, he is doing something.  And its for the health of the breed. Maybe the breed clubs will accept his dogs one of these days.

However, this is a beautiful example of cognitive dissonance within the dog fancy.

Cattanach claims that it’s okay to outcross to a corgi to introduce a cosmetic trait into boxers– even if this cosmetic trait can result in severely deformed puppies.  And even if this outcross winds up failing totally when it comes to the politics of the boxer fancy, he still promotes it as a sucess.

But if anyone tries to outcross another breed for health reasons, it’s a bad idea.

It’s really interesting the amount of cognitive dissonance that exists within the dog fancy at large.

It’s everywhere.

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Great post at Border Wars.

Also check out the post debunking some dubious scholarship on Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever COI’s.


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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

Nicolas Denys!

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.

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Kinda like coyotes.




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A typical tolling dog from Nova Scotia, 1917.

Now, after you’ve read the accounts of the English and Dutch decoy dogs from yesterday, I’m sure you want to know where Nova Scotia fits in all of this.  Is there a connection between the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever of today and the decoy dogs of England?

Well, it is difficult to make a direct connection, for the earliest confirmed attempt of a Nova Scotian breeding a dog for this purpose was by man named James Allen. The story goes that in 1860,  James Allen of Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, bred an English wavy-coated or flat-coated retriever bitch to a “Labrador-type dog .” Now, we know pretty clearly what a Labrador-type dog in that part of the world was– a St. John’s water dog. However, I don’t think the female wavy-coated retriever was exactly what everyone think she was.

She was said to have been purchased from an English schooner, which seems to be a weird place for a retriever to be. In those days, retrievers were owned almost exclusively by the gentry, and when a dog of the same genetic make-up and origin as a retriever was owned by a commoner, it was normally called a Newfoundland or Labrador.  Further, if we are thinking that this dog was a member of the wavy and flat-coated type that Dr. Bond Moore and Sewallis Shirley were “improving” into a standardized breed, we might want to reconsider, for in the 1860’s through the 1890’s, the vast majority of wavy/flat-coated retrievers were large, heavily-boned creatures, like Zelstone or Paris. If the bitch were of the type the Paris or Zelstone represented, breeding her to a St. John’s water dog would produce puppies that looked a lot like St. John’s water dogs. Paris was said to have been entirely of St. John’s water dog ancestry, and it is well-known that Zelstone was primarily of that extraction.  It wouldn’t have been an outcross at all, and it wouldn’t have produced smaller dogs.

This bitch was said to have been liver or red in color, depending upon your source. There were red and yellow wavy-coats at the time, but these were far from common.

It seems to me much more likely that she was an “English retriever,” a term that could have meant lots of things, not the least of which is that she could have been a “ginger ‘coy dog.” Such dogs would have been relatively common in England, and it is likely that some people were using them as retrievers. Perhaps the schooner that brought this bitch to Nova Scotia had brought her along with the hope of doing some duck and seabird hunting along the rocky coast. After all, egging and market hunting were common activities along the Maritime coasts, as was duck and sea bird hunting.  A dog like this could have been brought along just fill the stores of the ship, which would be longing for fresh meat after the long voyage across the North Atlantic.

Yarmouth County is on the Bay of Fundy, which is an excellent fishing ground, and for its wide variance in tides.  The people who lived there, like so many people in Atlantic Canada, were tied to the sea and to the land for survival. Hunting and fishing were not games. They meant life itself.

Perhaps James Allen heard from the ship that this little retriever was of a type that could toll in ducks. Maybe he didn’t believe at first, and then they showed him. And that may have been how he got the idea.

There is usually a discussion in these texts that the Nova Scotians discovered on their own that ducks could be enticed with a fox-like dog. Sometimes, a Native American group is suggested as a source for that information. The simple fact is that using decoy dogs to catch ducks would have been common knowledge throughout England, and the decoy dogs would have been common enough to have occasionally wound up in the Americas. It seems to me that the English would have been a source for this knowledge than the Nova Scotians, who themselves might have known about the technique before they left to settle in the Maritimes.

Allen and later other breeders began developing a strain of tolling dogs, using whatever they had available. Some say that cocker spaniels were used as the primary outcross, and that may be. However, the decoy dogs in England were often mixtures of spaniels and small collies, and it might be that some of these cocker spaniels were known decoy dogs or cocker/collie crosses. The fact that St. John’s water dogs were used in the outcross also would have also increased the size, as would the possible input of the traditional farm collie of Nova Scotia.

Whatever their exact origin, there was a defined strain of reddish-colored retrieving dog in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, by 1900. And contrary to what some wags might say, they were actually used to toll ducks into the gun.

I came across this account of a toller being worked in an issue of Forest and Stream which is dated to October 1917.  The article includes an account of a man who gunned over these dogs in Nova Scotia. This is an account that “self-styled experts” who deny the history of this breed might not want to read. Tolling is real, and it is was used on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, it was used for decoy traps. In Nova Scotia, it was used for the gun.

The account begins with a story of a fox in Nova Scotia catching ducks in this manner, and it then goes into intimate detail how a tolling dog was used in Nova Scotia– by someone who actually did it!

The idea of tolling ducks came from the fact that the fox has been known for many years to possess the power to attract wildfowl by reason of his color and his movements along the shore, and many a fat duck has paid the penalty of his curiosity and furnished a meal for foxy old Reynard on the shores of our inland lakes. It was my delight and privilege to see a fox at work on one occasion. We were hunting moose near the Boundary Rock in Nova Scotia, and as our canoe turned a bend in the Coufang River, I saw directly ahead of us and in plain sight, four blackducks. Wondering why they did not fly at sight of us, I glanced ahead of them, and there on the top of a flat rock which projected into the water lay a fox with his nose between his paws Every second or so he would raise his brush and give it a flip from side to side. The ducks were swimming directly toward him intently watching that whitetipped tail, and not more than fifteen yards away from his waiting hungry jaws. Just then my hunting companion coming down the river in the canoe behind us, and catching sight of the fox, shot at him. The bullet from his Winchester hit the rock beneath him and spoiled what otherwise would have without a doubt ended in a little tragedy, and would have been a sight which very few have ever witnessed.

I have always felt perfectly certain that that fox would have carried away with him one of those four birds, a victim of curiosity. But what a transformation that bullet worked! Into the air went fox, ducks, and pieces of granite boulder, and my hunting companion remarked as he lowered his rifle between his knees, “I guess that rock was red hot, the way that fox took to the air.”

If you are a dog man, the first time you see a Tolling dog, your attention will at once be arrested, and after looking critically at them, you may remark—as hundreds have done before—what kind of dogs are those, Chesapeake Bays, or what? If time is no object, the answer will probably be that they are Tolling dogs, and when the explanation is forthcoming that they are used to toll ducks within range of the gun, your questions will come thick and fast, such as: Do they go in the water? —How far will ducks come to the dogs?— Do the dogs know they attract the birds? —Will they retrieve the birds you shoot?— But if time is limited, you would likely get the answer: Oh, they are duck dogs, or just dog, I guess.

We will suppose you are a duck shooter and are aso skeptical, and came from Missouri and want to be shown, and it is finally agreed that we repair to where we know ducks congregate. It is not yet daylight when we reach our “blind” on the edge of the sandy shore of the bay. This blind is one I have tolled many a fine shot from, and is composed of three or four old lobster pots, which have been cast ashore in the surf, and a few old roots ot trees—the whole covered with dead seaweed, and just large enough to conveniently hide us and the dog. Making ourselves as comfortable as possible, and pulling our coat collars up and our wool caps well down (for the month is December and terribly cold, the lakes are frozen and the ducks are now in their winter feeding grounds), you turn your head and see the yellow flicker of a lamp through the kitchen window in the farmhouse across the great salt marsh behind us, where we enjoyed the warmth from the big wood stove an hour ago, as our breakfast of fresh eggs and biscuit, washed down with steaming tea, was eaten, and you half wish yourself back there again. It is “star calm,” not a breath of air and very frosty. Our dog is curled up tight, his nose covered by his fox-like tail, and he is the only one of us three who is comfortably warm. But just listen to those blackducks as their trembling quack reaches us from out there in the bay! Buff hears them, too, and quick as lightning his ears prick as he raises his head. If you touch him now you will feel him trembling, but not with cold, only suppressed excitement. And now the east begins to pale, and presently objects are dimly discernible. Those old stake butts out there stuck up through the sand look like a flock of geese, while in the gray light the bridge spanning the North Creek looms up like a church spire. We hear the winnow of wings as ducks fly from the salt creeks where they have spent the night, and as they join their companions in the bay in front of us they create quite a commotion among them.

Presently we see a black line on the glassy surface of the water, which slowly develops into a flock of twenty birds or more. The tide is almost up to our blind this morning, and everything seems to favor us. The ducks are now in plain sight—foxy old beggars. Some of them know the danger zone of this shore from years of constant persecution. About two hundred yards away they flap their wings and preen their feathers as the rising sun begins to warm them, and now I guess we will “show the dog.” Reaching into the back pocket of my hunting coat, I pull out a hard rubber ball. Just look at Buff, who has been watching my every movement; see the pupils of his eyes dilate as he spies the ball! Did you ever see such concentration as he watches that sphere of rubber! Next to his master it is the dearest thing on earth to him. One bounce of it upon the kitchen floor will lure him from the finest dish of roast beef scraps and gravy without a moment’s hesitation.

I can divine your thoughts without much study now. You are thinking “what a shame to scare those ducks” and that perhaps they may come on shore again as the tide begins to fall, and you cannot help feeling certain that every duck will “jump” as soon as he sees the dog. But wait, you watch the ducks, and whatever you do, don’t shoot until I give the word, for it is the sure ruination of a Tolling dog to shoot over him while he is outside the blind. If you do so, your dog will soon want the first shot himself, and when the birds come close, he is likely to plunge in after them without waiting for the gun.

Patches of sand stretch out upon each side of us and afford a footing for the dog, and we can play him from either side of the blind. I toss the ball and away goes Buff; picking it up, he canters back and drops it in my hand. Out again, go ball and dog. I watch your face and it is a study, as through the “peekhole” in the seaweed you anxiously watch the birds and this is what you see: With stretched necks and wondering eyes, every duck looks intently at the dog, and as the ball falls in among some dead seaweed, causing him to use his nose to find it, his bushy red tail works and wiggles above the beach grass, and a dozen birds turn and swim for shore, their necks a second ago stretched so long now folded in, and with soft meamp-amp, meamp they swim rapidly toward us with just a gentle breath of wind behind them. Buff plays beautifully, returning with the ball even faster than he romps after it. How round the birds look with their necks drawn in, giving them a stupid appearance, and the sunlight shimmering from the yellow bills of the drakes. Now as the dog comes near us again, the hot scent of duck strikes his sensitive nostrils; and stopping with upraised paw, he looks toward them, but a chirp brings him back to us. Not for worlds would he refuse to “play.” See him tremble as we push up the safeties of our guns. Here are the birds right against us, though not well bunched, being strung out across our front. They are only thirty-five yards or so away when Buff drops the ball into my open palm for the last time, and I whisper “Down.” Now there is one of two things to do, we may either rise up and shoot, picking out our birds and trying to stop one with each barrel, or remain quiet until the ducks begin to get uneasy, and not seeing the dog, start to swim away, when they will invariably bunch.

If you can forget the freezing nights and blustery days when you have almost perished waiting for a shot, or perhaps the long crawls through slush or mud when trying to stalk these wariest of all their kind, then let us each try and make a double and be satisfied. But if you have only occasionally had a flock shot and would like one now, let us hold our fire, which we decide to do. See that old drake stretch his neck and swim up and down, looking with the keenest of all eyes, and turning slowly from us; the birds swim together, their heads turned sideways, looking over their shoulders at the blind. I nod, and the two pairs of 12-bore barrels poke out above the fringe of seaweed of the blind. As we raise to shoot, Buff peers over the blind beside me. With a whimper and stiffened sinews he awaits the report. Both shots snap out as one, and into the air seven terrified birds spring straight up. three of their number falling to our second barrels. There are two cripples, one of which swims about in little circles, shot through the head in front of the eyes, and wading off as far as hip boots will allow, we each kill our bird.

Buff by this time has almost reached the nearest drifting victims. Watch him swim! There is only one breed of dog could catch him now, and that the Tolling dog. No need to tell him to retrieve. Dropping his bird on the sand he plunges in again and again until the eighth and last duck is safely recovered. Buff takes a roll in the sand and a shake, and trotting up to me, rubs against my leg, and while he looks up into my face, I stroke his wet hair—wet only on the outside, for no water ever penetrates to the skin through that otter coat —and if he and I were alone I would take his honest head between my hands and whisper in his ear, “Good boy,” while with a funny little growl in his throat he would say in his own way, “We did the trick.” He always looks for this following a successful toll.


It is well known that ducks will not toll to windward. They will come to the dog across wind, from the windward, and also when there is no wind. Blackducks toll with their heads drawn down, bluebills with their heads up and necks stuck out. butterballs on their tails almost, and all the mergansers with heads erect and necks straight up. Perhaps the Tolling dog is most deadly when shooting ducks before they leave the lakes in the fall, and when the birds are young. I have seen young blackducks swim so near the blind that their pads could be distinctly seen beneath the water. Bluebills are said to be the easiest of all birds to toll, but although I have had many fine shots at them in this manner, my personal experience teaches me that the blackduck tolls the best, and I have seen wary old birds in the month of January act like perfect fools at sight of a well-played dog. They seem to be hypnotized, and when once their gaze has become centered upon the dog, will scarcely notice moving objects.

It is as natural for a Tolling dog to retrieve and play with a stick or other object thrown as it is for a setter to point, or a coach dog to follow a team. Most duck shooters use a stick to toll their dogs with, and some a lot of sticks, but the properly trained dog needs but one object to work upon (pg. 463, 490-492).

So the story of the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever is exactly as is commonly stated. This is a beautifully written account of how the dog would toll in the ducks from the water, which is not the way ducks are normally hunted. Normal duck-hunters call in the ducks with calls that are designed to bring in the birds on the wing.

With the tolling dog, the ducks come in on the water, and then they are shot. This works almost exactly the same way that the decoy dogs enticed the ducks into the the elaborate traps in England. It’s just they aren’t being led down a pipe. The dog in this case is leading the ducks to the duck blind.

Now, I do know that this whole story sounds like malarkey.

But seeing as this account is by someone who did it– probably many times– I think we can assume that this is exactly how tollers were used.

See earlier post:

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This is Heidi, the decoy dog at the Nacton Decoy in Suffolk. These images appear in Bill Tarrant’s Hey Pup, Fetch It Up!: The Complete Retriever Training Book (1993). She appears to have been a spaniel/collie-type cross, but she vaguely resembled a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever.

In this book, there are photos of her actually tolling the ducks into the trap. These photos, I would think, should put to death the notion that this is somehow a made up claim. The English,  the Dutch, and the Nova Scotians would not have used dogs to bring entice ducks into traps or to the gun if it didn’t work.  It sounds fanciful that ducks would be attracted to a dog, but it is a behavior that has been observed many times. Why would these elaborate traps, which are called decoys, have ever been built and maintained if the dogs were not of great use in bringing the ducks in?

Why does it work? Tarrant had no clue, nor did Sir Peter Scott, the renowned British ornithologist and waterfowl conservationist, who had a very close relationship with the Nacton Decoy. At the time Tarrant was documenting the decoy, Scott’s Wildfowl Trust was operating it. Although Scott was into the Loch Ness monster, this particular zoological phenomenon was and is well-documented. Ducks will follow a dog for some unknown reason.

That last paragraph is probably key to how this behavior works.

Most predators rely upon surprise to catch their prey, and if we are talking about a terrestrial predator trying to catch a bird, surprise is very important. If a fox knows the duck see it, it is less likely to try to stalk them.  If the fox is seen before it launches an attack, the ducks merely take to the sky, where no fox can follow.

The reaction of ducks to dogs was first discovered in the Netherlands, where it was later introduced to England:

If the decoy dog had been known to Caius he would have included it with delight in his list of bird-taking dogs. But though he mentions the ‘subtlety’ of ducks, and that the water- spaniel, of which he gives an accurate description, was used to retrieve them when wounded, he says nothing of the more artful devices of the decoy-man’s dog. He notes that the water-spaniel was especially useful for fetching back arrows which had been shot at water-birds and were floating, and that the dogs were so clever that they often picked up other people’s lost arrows and brought them as well as their masters’ arrows.

It is clear from this that decoys were not known at all as early as that, and that the belief that they were a late introduction from Holland is correct. The decoy dog’s business is to run in and out of the screens which lead to the pipe, and so to induce the ducks to follow him. A mistake or momentary disobedience by the dog might lose the best ‘ take’ of the season, yet so intelligent and well trained are these dogs that they practically never do wrong.

–C.J. Cornish, “Dogs That Earn Their Living” in The Cornhill Magazine (1900).

The Dutch decoy dog has become a standardized breed, but the English decoy dogs were always considered mongrels. Randomly-bred dogs of various types were used in the decoys. Heidi actually looks like something between a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriver and a Kooikerhondje, but she came “from the dog catcher.”  Other decoy dogs from Nacton were quite different from Heidi. The point was that the dog should be reddish in color and have a bushy tail. It could be of any ancestry, just so long as it was biddable and playful.

Dog historian Col. David Hancock, M.B.E., shows that such dogs could be used to draw ducks into the gun, and that hunters using guns didn’t have to use small red dogs to do so. He points out that even a large dog like a golden retriever could be used to toll ducks in.

Some wildfowlers [duck hunters] hunting the open shoreline have used decoy dogs to lure ducks within shooting range by throwing sticks for the dog to retrieve and arousing the natural curiosity of the birds. The skill of the hunter lies in throwing the stick for the dog the right distance at the right moment so the ducks aren’t frightened away by the menace of an advancing dog, but made curious by the enticing waving of its bushy tail. The dog makes a normal retrieve of the stick, but does so in a playful manner with plenty of tail wagging. This decoy dog does not entice the birds by deliberately frolicking about, as foxes have been seen to, but is used essentially as a retriever of sticks. However, this playful retrieve does lure the duck within range of the hunter’s gun.

I see many resemblances to the Golden Retriever in the Canadian decoy dog, both in their sunny nature and their perpetually waving tails. A Golden was quite recently used as a decoy dog in East Anglia, charming many visitors. So the next time you throw a stick for your Golden Retriever, you may be re-enacting the role for which the dog’s ancestors were greatly valued, not merely idling away time and providing exercise. We may not, in these sophisticated times, need all of the wide-ranging skills of our dogs, but each must be exercised and we should honour their innate desire to be active, their instinctive interest in hunting and their inherent talent for serving mankind.

Hancock points out that decoy dogs were about the only way commoners, who didn’t have ready access to firearms, would have been able to procure ducks for the table.  These traps were so effective that they essentially fed consumer demand for wild duck meat for centuries.

The skill of the decoy dog lies in giving the inquisitive ducks only fleeting and seemingly tantalizing glimpses of its progress – usually its tail’s progress – through the reeds and undergrowth. The decoy dog takes great care never to give the ducks cause for suspicion. Before the use of firearms and indeed when their range was very limited, these dogs must have been enormously valuable to duck hunters. For the humbler hunters, they likely represented the difference between eating or starving. In the 19th century, just 10 decoys around Wainfleet produced 31,200 head in one season, mostly for the London markets.


At the end of the 19th century, “ginger ’coy dogs” were frequently seen alongside the Lurchers in gypsy camps, especially in East Anglia. James Wentworth Day, the celebrated country sports writer, refers to them in his 1938 The Dog in Sport, linking them with the ‘Fen Tigers,’ the rough countrymen who cut sedge and dug peat from the Fens and were skilled wildfowlers. In his mammoth “ultimate dictionary of over 1,000 dog breeds,” Desmond Morris describes the Red Decoy Dog as a small rufous dog employed to lure wildfowl into nets. He suggests that their behaviour in doing so was modelled on comparable behaviour in foxes.

Because no pedigree breed in this mould has been handed down to us, very few contemporary references are made to these gifted and once invaluable dogs. Rather, as with ancient water dogs, they are rarely acknowledged in the histories of our gun-dog breeds. Both decoy dogs and water dogs were usually handled by humbler hunters such as farm labourers and gypsies. Very little has been written about them.

This type of commoner would have been exactly the same sort of person who would have settled in British colonies, like Nova Scotia.

Although we tend to think of Nova Scotia as being settled by Scots, there were plenty of English settlers.  Some of these people were likely wild poachers, who just decided to leave England for the wild country across the Atlantic. Perhaps they were threatened with transport to Australia. Perhaps they just wanted to go some place and live off the land.  But this demographic is exactly the same type of person that wound up settling in North America– and doing well.  It is likely that these dogs were part of the market culture in Nova Scotia, which was big up and down the East Coast of North America.

It doesn’t take much imagination or logic to see how these decoy dogs could have founded the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever.

One of the reasons why tolling is not normally used to shoot ducks is that the ducks come swimming toward the dog. It is generally considered unsportsmanlike. Shooting into a body of water is also illegal in many places. However, market and subsistence hunters probably won’t have that same moral or legal restrictions.

So a tolling dog would have definitely been of use.

If this behavior is well-established and has been observed by true experts, like Bill Tarrant, Desmond Morris, and Sir Peter Scott, we might conclude that a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever is exactly what its name implies. One does not base hunting strategies, including ones that are this successful, upon on mythology.

So although the use of dogs to decoy ducks sounds fanciful, it is real.

And in the Netherlands, kooikerhondje are still being used for this purpose, regardless of what the “self-styled experts” say.

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These are very hard to tell apart form certain performance-line goldens.

Of course, goldens have been bred to be hyper-biddable, and tollers have been bred to play.

And that’s the big difference between the two in terms of behavior.

Tollers always have straight coats, but goldens are often wavy.

The real way you can tell this is a toller is that its color is more uniform and not as shaded as one normally finds in goldens. It has a foxy, collie type appearance.

Some goldens have heads like this, but they are nowhere near the majority of the breed.

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I think there was some confusion about my post on the golden retriever/toller cross.

I need to point out that golden retriever varies a lot more in type than the toller does. Goldens are much more common than tollers and have been adapted to a wide variety of disciplines.

Some goldens look very much like Zelstone, especially dogs from English or European conformation stock.

But there are other goldens that are very lightly boned and somewhat more “wolfish” in terms of their head shape. These dogs are fairly common in working lines, especially in the United States. Think of a drop-eared, long-haired retrieving dingo.

When I said that I would have a hard time telling a toller/golden cross from a pure golden, I was thinking more of a dog like this.

So after perusing the internet for images that showed a golden of this type juxtaposed with Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, I found what I was looking for. I found this photo on the Dynamic Goldens website. The dog on the right is a toller, and the dog on the left is a smaller, dark working-type golden of the type I just described.

(Source for image)

Now, look again at the toller/golden cross. Which dog does he more strongly resemble?

The golden traits seem to be prepotent over the toller traits. And don’t assume that white markings mark the toller either. On the Dynamic Goldens website, there is another dog with some white on her.

Some goldens, especially field line dogs, have the brown skinned trait, which may be accompanied by dudley nose. Some of these dogs can also have a lot of white on them.

Although most tollers are brown-skinned, there are black skinned tollers.

So there are traits where the two breeds converge, and identification is actually quite difficult.

The way I tell tollers from goldens is that toller invariably have a collie-type appearance, whereas goldens of this working type will remind one more of a setter or spaniel. The red decoy dog from England was likely a collie relative, and tollers have a bit of farm collie crossed into their strain as they were being developed in Nova Scotia.

Now, it is possible that goldens were crossed with tollers at once point, but their original ancestry is not the same. They both derived from the old wavy-coated retriever and the St. John’s water dog, but the toller has the red decoy dog at its base. Goldens, as far as I know, have no relationship to red decoy dogs.

I can tell the purebreds apart, but I would have a hard time telling a golden/toller mix from a pure golden from working lines. The areas where the two breed converge in appearance get muddled, and because tollers are so rare, I just assume that it’s a working-type golden.

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