If you know your gundogs, you can no doubt recognise a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever; but it?s unlikely you?ve ever seen one in the shooting field, as very few tollers in the UK work to the gun. Identification is easy, for all tollers come in the same shade of fox-red, usually with a white chest and white-tipped tail.

Toller enthusiast Helen Withey reckons that there are probably no more than a dozen people in the UK working these attractive Canadian dogs, despite the fact that they have the potential to do anything from beating to picking-up.

She believes that part of the problem is that they are classified as retrievers. ?In temperament, they are much more like spaniels as they are fizzy, busy dogs. They?re not as easy to train as Labradors, but they hunt well, have good noses and can retrieve brilliantly. They are intelligent dogs, and this can be part of the challenge in training them.?

As its name suggests, the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever has its origins in the Canadian province, where it was originally bred as a decoy dog. The hunter, hidden in a blind or hide, would send the foxy-looking toller to trot up and down on the water?s edge, luring the inquisitive duck within range of his gun. Once a duck was shot the toller was expected to retrieve it.

Originally known as the Little River duck dog, the breed?s bloodlines are thought to include a mix of gundogs, ranging from Chesapeake Bay and golden retrievers to the Brittany type. Many people believe that there?s a touch of collie in there too. Though the toller was first recognised by the Canadian Kennel Club in 1945, the fi rst dogs didn?t reach Britain from Canada until 1988; the British breed club wasn?t established until 1993. Further imports have taken place from Sweden and the Netherlands, but the gene pool remains small. Though almost everyone with a toller is aware of the breed?s origins, very few have been tempted to work their dogs. One notable exception was John Norris of Nacton Decoy in Suffolk. He acquired his first toller in 1991 to work the pipes of the decoy, and this was probably the first time that a toller had been used as a piping dog in a classic duck decoy. John went on to train his dogs to perform for the gun: the first person to do so in the UK. Today, John no longer has any shooting dogs, though he has tollers trained for deerstalking. However, dogs from his Decoymans Kennel have been very influential in developing the working side of the breed in this country, and most tollers that go shooting are from Decoymans bloodlines.

My annual encounter with tollers is at the CLA Game Fair, where members of the Toller Club of Great Britain give a daily demonstration in the Working Dog Ring. This year, though, I had an unplanned bonus when I came across Helen and her partner, Stewart Barrett, working their dogs on the Nash Hall shoot in Essex. Helen lives in Norfolk, where she trains dogs professionally and runs a small boarding kennel, but she?s a regular at Nash Hall, where she has worked her dogs for many years. Though members of the syndicate all know Helen?s dogs well, she nonetheless always takes the precaution of working them in high-visibility jackets. ?They do look very much like foxes, so it makes senseto ensure that no mistakes are made by Guns who are unfamiliar with the breed.? I asked her why tollers remain a rarity in the shooting field. ?Not many people have heard of them. Another difficulty is the reluctance of many gundog people to try a different breed. As a result, there are very few individuals, especially experienced handlers, who are prepared to try to train a virtually unknown retriever. The best advertisement for the breed is for people to see them working.? Helen confirms that they are the sort of dogs that want to work for you all day long but, like most spaniels, are not
happy sitting at a peg as they?d far rather be doing something. They can be sensitive dogs and need careful handling, but the breed?s success in agility competitions demonstrates that they can be trained to a high standard.

One of the advantages of the toller when compared with other retrieving breeds is their size. They are about the same weight and height as working springers, standing about 20in at the withers and weighing around 40lb. They fit easily into a small house, but are quite happy if kept in an outside kennel. Helen uses her dogs for both beating and picking-up, but concedes that the breed does have one disadvantage ? they like singing. ?When two or three tollers get going together, they can make a dreadful racket. This is a fault that has to be stopped at an early age or it will become a habit.? Helen has eight (non-singing) tollers, and any puppies she breeds are invariably sold before they are born.

Visit the Toller Club of Great Britain at www.thetollerclub.org.uk, or see Helen?s website, www.norfolkdogtraining.co.uk (tel 01379 852499).