Squirrel!

Nature’s busybody.

We confess a fondness for squirrels – a critter we’ve also heard referred to as a tree rat, Nature’s Meth Head,  roof monster, squacker, nut grabber, fairydiddle, and, if you’re from Des Moines, Iowa —  a squinny.

If you’re a dog, however, “squirrel” is shorthand for WHAT WAS THAT?  “Dug,” the lovable Golden Retriever from the Pixar movie, Up,” mastered it:

By any name, you can’t help but admire an animal that can climb a tree, shake a few acorns out of it, run back down the tree trunk, and dig a hole before the acorns even hit the ground.  Many a dog has been outwitted and outmaneuvered by squirrels, and honestly, we’re a little sad if the tables are turned and a dog wins. Yes, we know squirrels can be a real nuisance. They raid bird feeders, and if they take up residence in an attic, garage, campsite, or birdhouse to build a nest, it seems impossible to get them out.  We find them entertaining to watch, anyway.  And squirrel babies???? Squeal.  Just saying.

Most dogs seem programmed to chase squirrels, and most squirrels seem to have as part of their genetic code a gift for teasing and outsmarting dogs in a “neener neener” sort of way. The tension between these two species is so inherent that if it were to end, we would be on the lookout for walking dead because surely the Zombie Apocalypse would be upon us.

There are no squirrel-dog breeds that we know of, not officially, anyway, but some hunters might disagree with us and point to the Great American Squirrel Hunting Dog, aka the Mountain Feist, a breed that is recognized by the United Kennel Club.

“Feist” is an ancient word used to describe a small, smooth-coated and usually noisy dog. Not surprisingly, perhaps, feist (the word is both singular and plural) were first bred from crosses of terriers with hunting hounds in the southern United States, specifically in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma (though one source writes that the feist came out of small terrier breeds imported by European settlers into North America and crossed with native american dogs). The word, “mountain,” was eventually added to certain “feist” to differentiate dogs originating from the Southern Highlands from those that came out of the Low Country, the latter said to have had a higher incidence of outcrossing to other breeds like pointers. Over time and many generations, the treeing ability was sharpened to hunt primarily for squirrel, as was gameness and courage: There are plenty of stories of squirrels inflicting severe bites on feist hunting them.

The recipe for the feist’s genetic origins may never be really known, but what is certain that when hunters needed a low maintenance dog to hunt squirrel for the stew pot,  they developed a clever, wicked fast dog that instinctively knew to periodically check in with the hunter like a boomerang. As one hunter put it on a feist forum, even if the dog lost track of you, they’d meet you back at the truck. They added that training a feist specifically to be a squirrel dog is more like explaining a procedure to a child than barking out commands to a dog.

The UKC hosts the World Championship World Squirrel dog hunt on extensive squirrel dog trails geared towards advancing the natural abilities of the Mountain Feist. The next event is on March 25 & 26, 2023 in Tell City, Indiana. There are also several Mountain Feist Squirrel Dog groups on Facebook including Mountain & Treeing Feist Squirrel Dogs, Mountain and Treeing Feist Squirrel Dogs of South Carolina, and Feist Squirrel Dogs.

Image: Squirrel Dog by ©John Pavel/Dreamstime

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