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The legendary Avery Nickerson penned in his brochure in reference to Toller temperament that they “were bold as brass, and tough as nails”. In speaking to him many years ago he was very concerned that show only breeders would never understand the correct temperament or what was important in a Toller and refused for many years to sell his Tollers to anyone who might show them. I can certainly understand his concern. Unless a person has trained a retriever in the field, particularly to the advanced levels, they can not begin to appreciate the temperament required to do the job. The Toller is the smallest breed of pure retriever, and thus there are even more requirements if they are to perform at the same level as the rest of the retriever group.
People inquiring about the temperament of the Toller always ask: What breed are they like? Well they are unique, just as Lab or Golden temperament is unique. Further just as there is a great variation in those breeds temperaments, there is in Tollers as well. The currant USA standard is helpful, but bares further explanation. In a discussion on any retriever breeds temperament, I interchangeably discuss how the dog should work and act in the field. Temperament includes such aspects as birdiness, and trainability.
I feel ideal Toller temperament is as follows: Tollers are a versatile retriever where one dog can be successful in several different venues. This versatility has not only currant significance, but historical as well. While the Toller was primarily developed to perform as a Tolling Retriever, they were used as a flushing retriever, hunting small game, and even a herding dog. The people that developed the Toller did not have the luxury of owning numerous dogs, each a specialized purpose. The Toller was their only dog, and it had to do it all.
An active retriever, with a high energy level. More a feeling of the Herding group then say a Spaniel in this area. Energy should be focused. Intense, with good concentration. Many having the “Border Collie Eye”. This is a unique aspect to the Toller, and very different then the rest of the retriever group.
While they should be a team player, they must be independent. This independence is crucial because a retriever’s main job is to mark and independently find birds that have been shot. They should never give up and ask for help from their handler, showing good perseverance. But when called upon, they must perform as a team, and be responsive to the handler’s commands. This is a very fine line.
Like any retriever they have a keen desire not only to retrieve, but also in birds. Showing interest in ditty birds in the yard is NOT birdyness! The desire to find birds, game birds intensifies the desire to retrieve. There is a difference between the desire to retrieve and the desire for birds. Many of the herding and working group are natural retrievers, however they are not in the slightest bit interested in birds. Most pointing breeds and spaniels are incredibly birdy, but most have little desire to retrieve the bird after it has been shot.
Another important facet and how a Toller differs from the other breeds of retrievers is the combination of intelligence and desire to please. This is also a gift from their “collie blood”. In retrievers, particularly Labs, an intelligent one is NOT the best dog for the field. That is because most Labs do not have a strong desire to please their owners/trainers. But a Toller should. This makes teaching concepts more of a show and tell then forcing/punishing the retriever. This negative training is what is commonly done with Labs. Teaching is sometimes a slower approach, but very effective in training a Toller. Differing then the Border Collie, where you can repeat the EXACT same exercise over and over again and expect the dog to try to perfect it again and again, will bore a Toller to distraction. A Toller does not work that way. Drills have to have meaning and variation, and most retriever drills such as the double T, and teaching marking concepts work exactly the way a Tollers mind works. For instance when teaching a pup to mark longer marks, we start fairly close, insuring success, and then back up again and again as we repeat the mark. So while the mark lands in the same spot, the distance and complexity increases. Tollers excel in this type of learning situation. Tollers also thrive on praise. You have got to let them know you are pleased with their performance.
The Toller should be an outgoing dog, friendly and easily introduced to new things. They should not require the amount of work that is necessary to properly socialize most breeds of the herding group.
Lastly, one might criticize a Toller for a lot of things; (control comes to mind). But one thing they normally have is style. No, not the same style of a field trial Lab, but that varies due to size differences as anything else. A 55-pound Lab has more the style of a sleek sports car, an 85-pound Lab a fright train! So what does it mean, “Style like a Lab”? Toller style, while varying, should be intense, fast. Sometimes bouncy, their love for the game either on land or water is evident. The wheels are always turning.
The greatest problem I see in temperament is that many Tollers are too soft. They can not take the pressure required to train them successfully in the field. The problem this creates is that the rate of progress is so slow. Whether a hunter or a field trial competitor, one does not want to have to wait until the Toller is an older animal to be competitive or to hunt over successfully. This goes hand in hand with the lack of focus and concentration found in many young dogs. They want to go, and are eager, but are not focused enough once they get out there to remember what they ran out there for. These two areas are of particular concern because unless you work the dog in the field, a softer, less active dog is a better for bench show competition, and as a companion. This has lead to (in my opinion) the extreme difference in temperaments between the field Labs and the bench show Labs. Tollers have to be tough; they are a smaller dog. They should not and need not have an “edge” to them to be successful in the field. I have seen this aspect sometimes manifest itself in ways that is unnecessary and contradicting to what should be a gentle and friendly nature. No Toller is as aggressive and hard going in the field as Flash, and yet he has never met a person who he did not want to call friend. He is totally non-aggressive to all other dogs, and to humans. And that is how it should be.
Tollers do not do as well in a pressured, forced situation. Field Trial Labs are pushed at a faster rate then a Toller can go. Tollers cannot take the failure rate that is common in training Labs. They need more success, even as adults. This creates some problems when predominately Lab field trainer trains a Toller. Sometimes as mentioned above this is extreme, but a Toller with good temperament can be trained by professional trainers with little problem if the trainer has been successful with other breeds of retrievers and individualizes their program to the individual retriever.
Companion/pet owners sometimes make the mistake and think that the Toller because of its smaller size is a “Fluffy, wussy dog”. They are rudely awakened to find out that their fluffy ball of fuzz has not only taken over the house, that it has decided to be the pack leader, and has growled and bitten to prove the point. This owner-induced problem (in most cases) has lead to the demise to more then one Toller. This should not be. Further many companion owners are not prepared for the energy level. It is the duty of all Toller breeders to inform and educate prospective Puppy People of the true temperament and nature of the Toller.
Tollers can and do make excellent companions for active households, can and should do well with children. All retriever pups are mouthy, and the pup has to learn that it my not bite down at an early age. Further most Tollers if pushed to far will defend themselves, and a family with small children must take control of their children, or the result will not be happy.
In conclusion, the Toller having the up, happy temperament they have can adapt to many different life situations, and venues, but one must always keep in mind, particularly when breeding that the Toller is a hunting retriever first and foremost, and should have a temperament that can and does work in the field.