Back to Basics: A Comparison of the Golden Retriever and the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever


In the late 1970s, we used to go to Canadian shows in Ontario and Quebec rather regularly to show our Goldens. I can still remember seeing my first Toller at the United Kennel Club show in Montreal and wondering what kind of Golden Retriever mix it was. This reaction is not so unusual even today, which makes a comparison between one of the most popular retriever breeds (behind Labradors) and the newest retriever breed to compete at AKC championship shows very interesting. While there are definite physical similarities, there are many differences as well. Each is a distinct breed.

Unlike so many breeds, the Golden Retriever can be traced directly to its founding litter, whelped in Scotland in 1865.  We know exactly which dog and bitch formed the foundations of the breed. The foundation sire was the only yellow in a litter of black Wavy-Coated Retrievers and the dam was Belle, a Tweed Water Spaniel (now extinct but one of several water spaniel breeds known at the time in Great Britain). There were not a lot of outcross breedings afterwards, though a few were made over the early years to a setter, a Bloodhound and another Tweed Water Spaniel. Because the breed’s founder, Lord Tweedmouth, kept careful written records (which was unusual for the day), we know just how each dog and bitch from the foundation litter was bred and, in their descendants, when outcrosses were made to improve the breed. 

The original function of the breed was to be a gentleman’s hunting dog, able to work well with other dogs when necessary, retrieving feathered game both in the water and on the rugged terrain of the Scottish Highlands. He was always considered a companion dog as well. Important to understanding the breed (or any breed) is understanding its history and function. The Golden was developed in Scotland and later in England, and the first importations to North America were recorded in the late 1800s. The Golden Retriever was recognized by AKC in 1925 and is now one of the most widely known of the retriever breeds,  enjoying global popularity.

The Nova Scotia Duck Toller, however, does not have such a precise history. His original function was as a “tolling” dog for working with ducks. The ancestors of today’s Tollers worked in Europe during the Middle Ages. We know that breeds that toll could be found in Holland, France and other European countries. Recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club in 1945, the FCI in 1983, the Kennel Club in 2002 and the American Kennel Club in 2003, the breed is thought to trace its origins to the Dutch Kooikerhondje, a small spaniel-like dog used by Dutch and French hunters to lure ducks into a trap.

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