Introduction to the Treeing Feist: a squirrel dog breed history.
"A squirrel dog is a purebred or crossbred dog that works with its human handler to tree squirrels. Squirrel dogs do this to please their handlers, for the thrill of the chase, and for the kill. There are many dogs that will chase squirrels in a park or in their owner's yard. Calling these 'squirrel dogs' is like calling those honky-tonkin' Romeos, with their big belt buckles, hats and boots 'cowboys.' They may look like cowboys and even talk like cowboys, but they're only cowboys if they work on a ranch and ride a horse. Similarly, only dogs that consistently hunt and tree wild squirrels are legitimate squirrel dogs."--David A. Osborn, 1999
The Treeing Feist Squirrel Dog may be one of the best breeds for your farm or ranch. They are an extremely versatile dog that can be taught to perform many tasks that will be consistent with the goals of many homesteaders. Controlling rodent pests, protecting livestock from predators such as foxes and raccoons, hunting small game and notifying your family of visitors while remaining friendly toward people are all part of the Treeing Feist job description. This loyal breed thrives in a rural environment, has an overwhelming desire to please and gets along well with children. If you are interested in helping to preserve and promote this relatively rare breed or would just like a good "all around" farm hand, the Treeing Feist might be a good fit for you.
According to the United Kennel Club, "the feist breeds are descended from the terriers brought over by English miners and other working class immigrants. These terriers probably included crosses between the Smooth Fox Terrier, the Manchester Terrier and the now extinct White English Terrier. Some of these dogs were crossed with Whippets or Italian Greyhounds (for speed) and Beagles (for hunting ability.) Eventually, these tough little terriers evolved into today's squirrel hunting Feists."
In his popular book, Squirrel Dog Basics, David A. Osborn writes a detailed description about the origins of the breed. According to Osborn, "Treeing Feist is a catchall name that includes various types of small dogs that have proven treeing ability." Some people use the term "feist" or "fyce" to refer to any small mongrel dog. In fact, a Treeing Feist is a small form of American Cur. Some are the products of generations of planned breeding. This is why enthusiast groups prefer to call their dogs "American Treeing Feist" or "Mountain Treeing Feist." This distinguishes selectively bred, charismatic hunters from other little dogs with uncertain lineage and unproven abilities.
The word "feist" probably was first used in Britain to describe what we now call Rat Terriers. In the U.S., its usage may have been common in Kentucky as early as 1890. However, there is much speculation about its origin and how it became associated with these little dogs. It is suggested that the word is equivalent to Britain's terrier, referring to a general type of hunting dog rather than to a specific breed.
One thing is for sure: feist-like dogs have been around for a long time and have played a significant role in the lives of rural Americans. People eking a living out of the remote southeastern mountains particularly cherished them. However, feists became less important as the mountains became industrialized. As a result, their numbers are said to have fallen alarmingly. During the early 1980s, a few people wrote in Full Cry magazine to rally support for starting an organization to save and promote the Mountain Feist.
The response was significant. The Mountain Feist Association was founded in 1984. Any feist-like dogs, regardless of geographic origin or genetics, were eligible for registration as Mountain Feists. This association disbanded in 1985. The American Treeing Feist Association was founded in 1985 to improve and promote the breed as a hunting dog. In 1986, the Mountain Feist Breeders Club was founded to single-register individuals for the United Squirrel Dog Registry. The Mountain Treeing Feist Organization was founded in 1992. These enthusiast groups have influenced the growing popularity of the Treeing Feist. In 1999, the Traditional Treeing Feist Club was formed.
Today, many Treeing Feists are first generation, crossbred offspring of other widely recognized breeds. For example, some are Rat Terrier and Fox Terrier crosses. The various enthusiast groups will register any dog that meets their breed standard; many breeds may qualify. A smooth-coated Fox Terrier, smooth-coated Jack Russell Terrier, Manchester Terrier, Rat Terrier, or a smooth-coated mongrel may be registered as a Treeing Feist. However, these same groups do not recognize the offspring of two registered Treeing Feists if they have long hair, or if they are heavier or taller than allowed by their breed standards. Furthermore, these non-conforming feists cannot participate in sponsored ability-related events.
Claude Shumate of Columbus, Georgia, believes that the original Treeing Feists were descendants of small dogs kept by early Native Americans. He suggests that these small Indian dogs may have been transported to Europe during the 1500s, influencing the development of some European terrier breeds. Either way, both may contribute to the genetics of the Treeing Feist.
Danny Williams of Paintsville, Kentucky, believes that today's Mountain Treeing Feists evolved because dogs kept by southern Appalachian Indians bred with terriers introduced by European and British immigrants. He believes that these Indians used packs of feist-like mongrels to catch small game, to pull loads, and to keep their families warm during cold winter nights. Dogs that failed to serve these functions probably were eaten.
Regardless of their true origins, there are many widely recognized strains of Treeing Feist. However, most do not yet have organized, strain-specific registries, and crossbreeding of strains is common. Some Treeing Feists are good combination dogs, hunting both squirrels and raccoons. They have been used to hunt bear, bobcat, cougar, fox, opossum, and rabbits; to flush game birds; and to hunt turkeys. Wayne Cauley, a hog hunter from Soperton, Georgia, prefers using Treeing Feists. His little baying dogs compete well against much larger dogs in field trials and hog hunts.
The Official Breed Standard of the Treeing Feist as described by the National Kennel Club includes the following criteria:
"Size: Height is 10-22 inches. Weight is 10-35 pounds (depending on the registry.)
Coat: Hair is short. No extremely long or shaggy coats are allowed. Coat may be any solid-color, or mixed-colors of any pattern."
For more information about the Treeing Feist and other squirrel dog breeds visit:
* Squirrel Dog Central: www.sqdog. com/
* United Kennel Club, Inc. (Cur and Feist Page): www.ukcdogs.com/HPCurFeist.htm
* National Kennel Club, Inc.: www. nationalkennelclub.com/
* Marc and Beth's Outdoor Adventures--Gray's Treeing (aka Mountain) Feist Squirrel Dogs (Marc Gray and Beth Kintz): http://squirrelhuntergray. tripod.coral
MARCUS B. GRAY
GRADUATE RESEARCH ASSISTANT DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE AND FISHERIES SCIENCES
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY