Best Boat Dogs

By Michael Vatalaro
Published: June/July 2011
Updated: April 2014

Many boaters would like their dogs to enjoy being on and around the water as much as they do. After all, who wants to leave Fido behind when the rest of the family is headed to the lake for a day of waterskiing and swimming?

While many familiar breeds associated with the water such as labs or retrievers make excellent boat dogs, some boaters may not have the space either at home or on their boats for a "full-sized" or large dog. And while just about any adventurous dog, whether full-bred or mixed, can become a great boat dog, there are less common breeds that are specifically raised to love the water and work on, from and around boats.

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Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever

While still rare in the U.S., Canadians have enjoyed the company of these energetic and hardworking retrievers for decades. With a reddish coat and a head and muzzle similar to a golden, some mistake "tollers," as they are called, for small or stunted retrievers. Tollers are water-loving, working dogs bred to aid hunters and retrieve waterfowl. "Tolling" means to swim offshore, to splash around in the water and attract curious ducks and other waterfowl closer to the hunter. But expecting a toller to act like a little lab or a golden is a big mistake. These highly intelligent dogs learn quickly, but will frequently make their owners question exactly who's in charge.

"Labs are wonderful because you're the king to a lab," says Mary Johnson, a BoatUS member since 1982 who now owns her second toller, Minnow. "That's not how tollers view the world. Tollers think of you as a sibling." It's not that they can't be trained or don't listen, Johnson says, "they kind of mull over what you are asking them to do and decide if it's in their best interest."

Photo of Finn enjoying the speed of the family bowrider
Elvenwood's Golden Snitch, or Finn to his friends, enjoys the speed of the
family bowrider. Photo by Michael Vatalaro

As boating companions, "the problem is not getting them in the water," says Christie Canfield, the public education coordinator for the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Club (USA), "it's getting them out." Tollers live for the water and playing fetch, says Canfield, whose three tollers love to head out on the boat on the lake with her. The smallest of the retrievers, most tollers come up about to your knee when sitting and weigh between 30 and 50 pounds. They have a double coat, with a longer, "wash and wear" outer coat over a thick undercoat that keeps the dogs warm even in cold water. A weekly brushing will keep most tollers' coats in good shape although they do shed seasonally.

Canfield cautions that tollers aren't for everyone. They are high-energy dogs that require a lot of exercise and as a working breed, they need a job or activity to keep them occupied and learning, whether it be agility trials, hunting, flyball, or just teaching them new tricks. In fact, her organization has produced a publication referred to as "The Top Ten Reasons Not to Own a Toller."

But for boaters, the toller's compact size, water-loving nature and general desire to be with their owners can be irresistible. Jim and Jeanne Wolf of Elvenwood Kennel in Portsmouth, VA, have placed several of their pups in boating households. One of them, Elvenwood's Admiral Arlo, or Arlo for short, has his "own" canoe.

Photo of a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever in a dingy

Something to consider when taking a toller aboard, according to Jeanne, is that most tollers have no fear of water and don't seem to care whether they swim in a lake or the Atlantic. Which means life jackets are a must on open water and sometimes tethers must be used to keep the dog in the boat, though that varies from dog to dog. At least one toller owner has taken to using a ski rope to tether the dog to the boat so they can reel him back in when he strays too far. Some won't jump from a moving boat, but others, such as Johnson's first toller Dory, can't control themselves. Dory loved the water so much, says Johnson, she would cry when they drove over bridges.

"She would last about 30 minutes in the boat and then jump over," says Johnston. "I couldn't fish because I spent my time trying to keep her in the boat."

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