Traits of the squirrel dogs known as Mountain Feist

Today’s installment mention two things that caught my eye – Mountain Feist can be used for hunting upland game birds, and they catch squirrels. Red squirrels cause problems for us on a regular basis. The first installment is here.

There are numerous strains and bloodlines within the Mountain Feist breed umbrella. A variety usually comes to existence to commemorate a notable individual dog, to recognize a long-held family line of dogs or to note the contribution of an influential breeder or kennel. More lines are being developed all the time from parent stock. Some of these varieties (by no means exhaustive) include –

Kentucky: Baldwin, Buckley, Grayson and Cadillac Jack.
Alabama: Sport Model, Lost Creek
Arkansas: Galla Creek, Snowball, Mullins
North Carolina: Thornburg
Tennessee: Barger
Virginia: Gray

Mountain Feist with squirrels

SQCH CH Kentucky Jody owned by Beth Kintz. Photo courtesy of Marcus Gray.

The breed standards for Mountain Feist and Treeing Feist have considerable overlap depending on the registry in question. The simple description for a feist-type dog is one that is under 18 inches in height at the whither (shoulder) with short hair and at maximum 30 pounds. The National Kennel Club maintains files for Feist, Mountain Feist and Treeing Feist. The United Kennel Club recognizes all feist-type dogs under the singular breed, Treeing Feist. Mountain Feist enthusiasts prefer erect ears but other carriages are acceptable. Traditionally, tails have been docked but a natural bob or full-length tail is permitted. Single breed/line registries and breeders associations do exist but these are in what seems to be a constant flux of creation and disbandment. The Mountain Feist is at a critical point in its existence where strains containing little or no known outside (non-feist) blood deserve careful management. As the majority of Mountain Feist are currently kept for hunting purposes, the working ability of the dogs is paramount to all other considerations. The quarry of choice: squirrels. In addition to bushytails, the breed excels at flushing game birds, jumping rabbits and more!

Similar Breeds

The Rat Terrier and Jack Russell Terrier are the two most commonly cited breeds when people come up to me and ask what kind of dog I have. While there are physical overlaps among small, often predominantly white, slick-coated dogs there are significant behavioral differences. The Mountain Feist is less interested in going to ground than terriers. They are ill-equipped to tunnel or enter small spaces as compared with shorter-legged, flexible terriers. Mountain Feist are built more for quick bursts of speed necessary to catch squirrels on the ground. My dogs catch squirrels quite often. An important way that Mountain Feist differ from other breeds is their “dual personality.” They are just as happy to lounge at your feet all day but when you are ready to hunt or hike all day so are they. In short, Mountain Feist are not hyper or neurotic, spastic destroyers of everything you own like improperly exercised terriers can be. However, Mountain Feist do require exercise as a sporting dog but it just takes them longer to get pent up with energy when compared to terriers. The final trait that, to many, is the most important is the ability to tree climbing game. Mountain Feist are tree dogs although many do not bark as much as most hounds while treeing.

Desirable Traits

A squirrel dog needs to have a certain combination of desirable traits to perform its job successfully. Anything beyond that which causes a dog to excel at a job better than others within the breed is what we mean by “above average squirrel dog.” A dog that is termed a “good reproducer” is one that effectively transmits the highly desirable traits to the next generation, often when crossed with multiple other dogs. So, a male may be termed a good reproducer if he passes his desirable traits to his offspring by more than one female. Otherwise, it might be (and often is) the female that is the good reproducer if she is a wonderful example of the breed.

Gray’s Prairie Daisy, Mountain Feist

Gray’s Prairie Daisy, owned by Marcus Gray. Photo courtesy of Marcus Gray

A good squirrel dog will use its eyes, ears and nose to locate game. Most squirrel dogs are hotter-nosed than hounds which can work an older track. The nature of squirrel behavior dictates that the dog locates where the animal currently is, not where it was located two days ago. Squirrels lay what I would argue is a difficult track for a dog to decipher in the timber, especially a young dog. Squirrels come down from a den, go to the ground, sit on a stump, run a bit, sit and eat, scamper over here and there, vault off of the bases of trees, climb leaning trees or just simply exit a nest and lay out on a limb. The ability to “wind a lay-up” is where a dog is able to smell a squirrel that has not yet come to the ground or has returned to an elevated position to rest or sun itself on a limb. The scenting in this situation is using all suspended scent in the air, similar to a bird dog checking the wind for distant bird scent. The head is raised and sometimes the nose is pointed slightly upwards and you can see the nostrils working. Often, the dog will move its snout ever so slightly back and forth in a kind of “I smell something” wobble. A “hot track” – one that is very fresh – will get a dog visibly excited where its tail will begin frantically wagging (if it has a tail). Again, comparing to bird dogs, this is akin to being “birdie.” A term borrowed from the coonhound world is the “short race” where a dog will be running through the timber with its head up or bounding much like a stotting mule deer or a fox hunting mice while looking for the squirrel. Generally a Mountain Feist pup will progress through stages of development, the timing of which depends on age and exposure to wild squirrels while hunting. Sight-chasing squirrels or listening for squirrels on the ground is followed by ground tracking and eventually figuring out how to wind a lay-up.

Mountain Feist are considered close-working hunting dogs in the scheme of all hunting breeds. However, there is some variation within that continuum and some varieties hunt closer than others. Most people prefer a Mountain Feist to hunt in a circular pattern between 50 and 300 yards. Some lines go deeper than 300 yards so if you love walking great distances between trees or make use of a four wheeler or vehicle to hunt; a deep hunter might be for you! I like a dog that adjusts to the density and behavior of squirrels. If there is a high population of squirrels, the dog hunts closer. It will range out deeper as necessary if squirrels are scarce. The circular hunting pattern is preferred so a dog will not simply run past squirrels in a straight line through the timber and will come back to check in with you every 5 – 15 minutes (unless treed).

In the last installment we’ll learn about choosing a puppy. The best was saved for last. Who can resist puppies, right?

Robin Follette

About Robin Follette

Maine Press Association award winner, 2013. Robin's Outdoors, Bangor Daily News, third place in Sports blogs. I grew up with a fishing pole in my hand and have always loved the outdoors. From gardening to hunting and fishing, kayaking, camping, hiking and foraging, most of my time is spent outdoors. I teach outdoor skills as a volunteer instructor for Hooked On Fishing - Not On Drugs and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman. Pro-staff at The Limb Grip. My personal blog is here. I'm currently working on my first book, a collection of short stories based on my outdoors experiences.