By Brian Swartz
Weekly Staff Editor
DIXMONT — When a full-time business involves man’s best friend, everybody’s happy — especially at Wassookeag Retrievers on the Simpson Corner Road (Route 9) in this rural western Penobscot County town.
Years ago, David Robichaud commuted to work in Bangor, first from Dexter and later from the farmhouse that he and his wife, Susan, exquisitely remodeled in Dixmont. Susan commuted to her job as a nurse.
Some 22 years ago, the Robichauds starting breeding retrievers when they lived on Lake Wassookeag in Dexter. “I first trained my dog for hunting,” David recalled. “He was Rufus, a big chocolate Lab. Then friends asked me to train their dogs.”
“We had dogs and started showing them,” Susan said. “We were doing hunt tests, dog tests and obedience trials.”
“It was our hobby,” David said.
Several years ago, the Robichauds decided to turn their hobby into a full-time business. Wassookeag Retrievers now raises and breeds Labrador retrievers — “we have all three colors,” Susan stressed — and Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers.
The Robichauds also board and train dogs and offer day care for dogs, too. “A lot of local people work in Bangor and leave their dogs here for the day,” David said.
“Our main focus is our training and boarding and obedience training,” he said.
One breed that captures attention at Wassookeag Retrievers is the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, a breed not well known in the States the year that the Robichauds took a yellow Lab to a Canadian dog show. Their entrant placed first. Then “the tollers followed the Labradors into the show ring. That’s when we first saw them,” David said.
Because “we liked the uniqueness of the breed,” the Robichauds decided to breed tollers, too.
Bred to resemble a fox in coloration and approximate size (the dogs are larger), tollers are excellent hunting dogs, according to David. He explained that when hunting ducks, a fox often moves aimlessly and rapidly along the shore; such behavior lures or “tolls” ducks to paddle closer to shore to investigate.
Then the fox may catch a duck dinner.
“When you’re hunting with a toller, you hide in your duck blind and throw a stick or ball out there,” David said, making a tossing motion with his right hand. “The toller chases it and runs back and forth with it,” and curious ducks paddle inshore to watch.
“A very good toller becomes very animated at work,” he said. “The ducks get curious,” and early in the hunting season “can come in easily within 25-30 yards” of shore.
“You can toll black ducks early in the season, but the smart ones get wary as it passes,” David noted.
After a hunter shoots a duck — the Robichauds both enjoy duck hunting — a toller swims out to retrieve it.
Although bred as hunting dogs, tollers “are great family dogs,” Susan said. “They have excellent temperaments.”
“They are very good dogs in the house, very calm,” David said. “They can go one minute from being very active in the yard, and as soon as they come indoors, they calm right down.”
With three ponds, fields and woods on their property, the Robichauds have created trails along which they exercise dogs. The Robichauds train hunting and sporting dogs — and the dogs’ owners.
“We teach the owners to teach their dogs in the right way,” David said.
He explained that “if a dog is trained correctly, it will learn to do what you want because it wants to please you, not because it feels threatened.”
“You want the training to be a positive experience for the dog,” David said.
For example, when introducing a young hunting or sporting dog to gunfire, an owner should never expose the dog to loud gunshots “the first time you start training it,” he said. “The noise could frighten the dog and ruin it for hunting.
“I have the dog sit while I go way out in the field and fire a starter pistol well away from the dog. We make the experience fun; the dog then associates hunting and gunfire with having a good time,” David said.
Wassookeag Retrievers does hunt tests, which Susan described as “fun.” The business hosts an American Kennel Club hunt test for the Penobscot Hunting Retrievers Club, of which David is the president and Susan is the treasurer.
The test involves the dogs making “marked retrieves” on land and in the water, according to David; based on their skills, dogs earn ratings as “junior,” “senior” and “master hunters.” Qualifications are strict for each level.
Open to all retriever breeds (including standard poodles), a field test may involve 100 entries and prove as exciting for dog owners as for their dogs. Every field test adheres to AKC guidelines.
The Robichauds carefully breed Labs and tollers. “The pedigree is important,” Susan said. “It can tell you what to expect from the puppies.”
“Our goal is to breed puppies that have the overall characteristics of the breed,” David said.
Perhaps 30 toller breeders exist in the United States; as the breed gains popularity, the demand has risen for toller pups. The Robichauds breed about two litters of tollers per year; along with the Labs, litters average six to eight puppies.
And as with the Lab pups, prospective owners must “come here to be interviewed and to meet their puppies,” Susan said. “We want to meet the people who are opening their homes to our dogs.”
“It’s fun to educate the new puppy owners,” she said. Under state law, puppies cannot be sold until they are eight weeks old.
The Robichauds sell their dogs “mostly in New England and New York,” she said. The American Kennel Club only recently recognized the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever as a separate breed, Susan noted, while the Canadian Kennel Club recognized the breed a long time ago. Tollers were developed in Nova Scotia in the early 19th century.
The Robichauds love their work. “Our day starts at 5 o’clock every morning and ends by 9:30 [p.m.] when we’re putting the last dogs in for the night,” David said.
“It’s nice to know you can get up in the morning and go to work for yourself,” he said.