Feist or Fiction? 

The Squirrel Dog of the Southern Mountains 


The Feist, a small, energetic hunting dog, has been an important element of Appalachian culture for more than 100 years. “Go back fifty years and just about everybody in the south has some hind of Feist,” says Randy Pannell, co-founder of the World St. Jude Squirrel Dog Championship. Throughout the southern mountains, working dogs like feist have often been the source of family pride and community identity. Good dogs were not only valued for their hunting ability, but also because of their assistance in daily chores or their important role as watchdogs.  According to one reputable source, the feist was essential to survival on the Appalachian frontier, serving as family companion, protector, and hunter of “whatever wild game that was available.”  While it is likely that feist were first used to hunt squirrels and other small game animals, there is some evidence that prior to the turn of the century, the breed was sometimes used for hunting black bear. The dogs were apparently used to “worry” the bear once it was cornered by the much large bear hounds. In Go Down Moses, William Faulkner (himself a feist owner) celebrates the bravery of a “fice” dog that is killed by a cornered bear.  

Mike Foster, an area supervisor for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, speculates that the feist originated from the bloodlines of the small mountain cur and terriers that remained isolated in the southern mountains for some years. This is a widely held view among feist owners, who generally believe their dogs share bloodlines with the small terriers of the British Isles, Particularly those bred in the last century to hunt rodents and snakes. However, Claude Shumate, who has probably written more about the breed than any other individual, argues convincingly that the modern feist is a descendent of dogs bred by North American Indians of the late Mississippian era. Shumate also maintains that the small dogs kept by Indians-dogs such as the short-nosed Indian dog and the small North American Indian dog-are most likely the foundation breeds of the modern feist. He hypothesizes that Indian dogs taken back to Europe in the 1500’s “influenced to some degree the development of small dogs in the Old World.” According to Shumate, European stock dogs, taken westward across the American frontier by hunters and trappers during the 1600 and 1700’s, already carried bloodlines of the various southeastern Indian dogs. 

Regardless of whether one accepts Shumate’s contention the early dogs brought to the American frontier contained Indian dog bloodlines, there can be little doubt that newly arrived European breeds into America did in facet mix with Native American breeds during the 1600s and 1700s. The intermixing of Indian and European dogs breeds most likely occurred randomly and probably went uncontrolled for more than a century as both dog and human adapted to like on the early American frontier. By the beginning of the twentieth century, we begin to see a more distinct type of feist. A hunting dog probably infused with genes from North American Indian dogs and on the physically resembled British Isle terriers such as the Manchester and fox terrier. These dogs, bred for their alertness, quickness, and ability to use eyes, ears, and nose in the hunt, were invaluable to early mountaineers. They became known for their unsurpassed courage and stamina and were most likely used for hunting a variety of game. Including bear, opossum, raccoon, groundhog, and squirrel.  Additional but perhaps more anecdotal information about the origin of the breed can be found by doing an etymological study of the word “feist.” The American Dialect Dictionary says one possible origin of the word is the black dog found in Goethe’s Faust. In the Faust legend, a small feist-like “poodle-dog” appears to Wagner and Faust outside the city gate and then transforms itself into a hellish beast, the devil incarnate, inside Faust’s study. The American Dialect Dictionary also gives a number of spellings for feist (feest, faust, fyste, fice, feist, fist) and several definitions of the words. The earliest recorded usage of the word dates to 1890, when in Kentucky the term was “often heard among Negroes and illiterate persons.” The Oxford English Dictionary maintains that the word “feist” probably originate from the Anglo-Saxon word fistan,  which literally means to fart or “break wind” – as in a dog that runs as if breaking the wind. Other definitions given in the American Dialect Dictionary include a small snarling dog, a small disagreeable dog, and an undersized vicious dog. Webster’s New International Dictionary defines the feist as “simply a small dog.” (8) The earliest mention of feist in Appalachian literature is found in Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913. In the book, a North Carolina bear hunter describes the feist as “one o” them little bitty dogs that generally runs on three legs and pretends a whole lot.” 

The Breed Today 

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, feists have been used almost exclusively for hunting small animals such as squirrels, raccoons, and opossums or simply kept as pets. Bill Hartsock, a feist owner from the Virginia coalfields, tells us the dogs are frequently used for hunting groundhogs in the southwest Virginia mountains.  During the early 1900s, however, there was a renewed interest in the breed, particularly among squirrel hunters and squirrel dog breeders in the region. In fact, in some areas of the South, the very word “feist” has become synonymous with squirrel hinting. The dogs are renowned for their ability to see, hear, and smell squirrels as well as for their facility for “treeing” them. A “treed” squirrel is one that is kept motionless by the circling and barking dog, thus becoming an easy target for the hunter.  The feist, as a unique or distinct breed, constitutes a curious situation.  Even though the American and United Kennel Club do not sanction it, many people recognize the dog as a separate breed.  Accordingly, a number of feist registries have emerged – for example, The American Treeing Feist Association and the United Squirrel Dog Registry.  Moreover, several prominent outdoor writers now consider the contemporary feist dog a “purebred”, registered breed. However, the issue of just how full blooded this purebred is hasn’t been decided and is still a matter of debate.  Although the feist is clearly viewed by some people as a distinct breed, the characteristics that make the dog “a feist” are less than concrete. Feist owner Dale Fowler, who grew up in the mountains of north Georgia, notes that there “seems to be a lot of folks who have their own ideas about what a feist is.” Fowler believes, however, that “if you’re talking about feist, you’re talking about a small dog with black and tan or black and white markings.” In terms of specific physical characteristics, feist are generally described as between 10-30 pounds and no more than 18 inches high. Some dog owners said they could be any color, but most agreed with Fowler saying feist can be a mixture of black, brown, or white. Some of the dogs have their tails docked or clipped by their owners, and many have brown spots or “copper pennies” over their eyes. Everyone I interviewed in the region agreed that the dog’s ears are set high on the head and are either straight or tilted forward. Consensus among most owners was that most feist should have pointed noses and be short hair and well proportioned. Almost all said the breed is aggressive, gritty, alert, and intelligent. One informant said the feist is defiantly not a terrier, while a number of others said the dog most likely “has a number of terriers in its background.”  Of course many people in the southern mountains still refer to any small, mixed breed dog as a feist. These individuals, typically non hunters, perceive the bred in broad, generic terms and have little reason to believe that feist dogs are nothing more than little, mixed up mongrels. Others, typically hunters, recognize the breed’s impure bloodline but argue that the dogs are similar enough in their physical characteristics and hunting behavior to classify them as a distinct breed. A third group, typically dog breeders and members of organizations like the American Treeing Feist Association, argue that the dog is definitely a separate breed and should be standardized through organized and controlled registries.   In fact, the American Treeing Feist Assocation (ATFA), the largest of the feist dog registries with more than 600 member’s nationwide, list specific characteristics of what constitutes the feist breed. Article IV of ATFA’s constitution specifies 12 breed standards, which include the following: 

 Keen to slightly stocky body; 

Short ears, slightly hung down, flopped straight are all acceptable. Cocked ears are very desirable; 

Long muzzle, keen; 

 Good strong legs-bench legs are acceptable; 

Full-length tail; stub tail will not prevent registration; 

Black, white, tan, red, yellow to lemon, or any variations of foregoing colors; 

Height: Males, 10” to 18”; Females, 10” to 17”; 

Weight: 30 pounds maximum; 

Good coat of hair, short; no extremely long- or shaggy-haired dogs; 

 Free gait, hunt with eyes and ears alert; 

 Virtually silent on track; 

 Shall tree squirrel or coon - game must be seen.  

The above standards, agreed upon by ATFA’s board of directors, do not, as one might suspect, neatly fit everyone’s definition of the breed. Some individuals argue that “shaggy” or longhaired dogs should be included in the standard; others say slightly larger or slightly smaller dogs deserve the feist classification. Despite such arguments, the ATFA, using the criteria cited above, had registered more than 600 dogs to date. F. L. Chrisman, the association’s president, said any dog not meeting the above criteria will not be registered as a feist. Intimately, through his group’s efforts, he sees the breed becoming standardized to the point the “they [the United Kennel Club] will eventually recognize the feist as a breed.” According to Chrisman, the National Kennel Club already registers feists, but in doing so does not adhere to strict breed standards and, in his opinion, does little to help or promote the breed.  In broad terms, the various definitions of the modern feist indicate two things simultaneously: (1) feists are definitely a distinct type of dog and (2) the breed is not yet formalized to the extent that there is not significant variation in people’s descriptions of the breed. Admittedly, some of the variation comes from local and regional differences, but other variation is obviously the result of breeders and registries not following a mutually agreed upon standard.  Although I was told a number of times that a feist is just a “little mixed-up dog,” everyone interviewed in the study either had specific physical characteristics in mind or could pick out a feist from magazine photographs and therefore had definite ideas on what is or isn’t a feist. However, there is certainly enough consistency in the descriptions to say that there is a distinct type of dog called the feist. My own feeling is that the dog is in the process of being formalized as a purebred dog by the various feist interest groups: hunters; field trailers, registry associations, and breeders. It is most likely in an early stage of the process, but I believe here is enough concern and awareness of the breed in the southern region to justify this conclusion. 

The Breed’s Future 

During the very early stages of my research on feist, I assumed the dog was relatively rare and that regional and national registries existed in an effort to preserve the breed. Only a few of the people we interviewed directly addressed the issue of rarity, however. Dale Fowler told us “there are not many around…seems like you never see a lot of these things,” but added almost immediately afterward that he personally did not think there was a conservation problem or that the breed should be considered endangered or rare. Apparently the dogs were at one time relatively scarce, but that situation has obviously changed today. Claude Shumate attributes the breed’s revival to the lessening of the availability of hunting lands caused by industrial and residential development, which in turn contributed to the resurgent of squirrel hunting, a sport that requires little hunting area. As squirrel hunting grew in popularity in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, so did the demands for a small, easily handled tree dog like the feist. Claude Shumate adds that feist dogs will continue to be sought after, particularly by older men who can no longer follow the larger, more wide- ranging hound and Cur breeds. 

As noted earlier, the reemergence of the feist as a popular hunting dog coincides with the emergence of national feist registries. Concerning the issue whether the existence of feist registries is ultimately a good thing for the breed’s future, there is noticeable difference of opinion among dog owners. A few of the people we interviewed locally have notable misgivings about registries.  One of the individuals we interviewed, for example, stated that the registries would destroy genetic diversity, while another claimed the registries would create a situation where only registered dogs would be considered pure feist. There is definite disagreement among the dog owners on how official the breed should become. Traditionally, physical difference among dogs has been a prerequisite of the breed, and some respondents felt that registries will minimize regional and local differences that are characteristics of feist. A few others avoided the argument directly and simply stated that as long as there are mountain people hunting small animals, there will be feist dogs, registered or not.  Another misgiving that emerged was stated best by one respondent to our survey who, even though some of his dogs are registered, said "many of the registries simply exist for profit."  This feeling was borne out in several local interviews, particularly with owners who do not register their dogs.  There is a concern that the registries will accept any application, feist or not, as long as the owner pays the registration fee.  The more dogs the register operators can register, goes the argument, the more money they can make - at owner expense.  Most of the owners agreed that there are a few honest registries, such as the registries of the American treeing Feist Association, but also stated that some registries were simply money making enterprises and thus do not exist for more nobler purposes such as the preservation and proper promotion of the dog breed.  For individuals promoting feist registries, the most common reason given for registering their dogs was to standardize and protect the breed.  Others said they register their dogs because it allows the animals to compete in the yearly field trials held by the feist registries; each entry must be registered prior to the hunt.  One owner who enters his dog in trial hunts "strictly for pleasure" also said he registered his dogs simply because "they deserve the recognition."  Winners of the field trials receive awards and trophies as well as the knowledge that their feist are exceptional squirrel dogs.  Certainly the emergence of registries has been a boon to dog traders and sellers and will help promote the breed in the future.  However, since the registries started doing business, registering dogs for a small fee, the price of god feist dogs has risen dramatically over the past ten years.  A few registered feist now sell for as much as $1,500, and pups readily sell for $150.  Ironically, the existance of registries may limit the breeding of feists to those solely belonging to the feist registries and associations.  According to one feist dog breeder, prior to 1990, buyers did not care if the dog was registered, "and now it is difficult to sell an unregistered dog."  It is entirely possible that in coming years, as interest in the dog continues to rise, feists will be harder to obtain by lower-income individuals who will no longer be able to afford the higher priced registered dogs.  Today, there is a plethora of websites selling registered dogs and puppies, with some animals selling for as much as $2,000. 

For many of the owners I interviewed, raising feist dogs was an important income source that contributed directly to family livelihood.  One woman told us she raises pups to help cover her husband's medical costs, while another person told us he yearly sells, for extra income, "a few pups and an occasional trained dog."  One of the interviewees told us he regularly places dogs for sale in various hunting dog magazines such as Full Cry and the Squirrel Hunter.  Although people made it known to us that the dogs are potentially worth a lot of money, no one went into detail on how much, in broad terms, the dogs supplemented their own incomes.  Squirrels, the ultimate quarry of the dogs, also supplement owner income.  Companies such as Strum Hide & Glove in Strum, Wisconsin, readily purchases, for a minimum fee, squirrel tails and hides from hunters.  Everyone I spoke to during the research either has hunted or still hunts with their feist dogs.  However, the dogs seem to be more than simply squirrel hunting companions.  When talking to feist owners, I was aware of their deep personal affection for the dogs.  For many of the owners, the dogs are a great source of pride.  In some rural communities a dog owner is known for his or her particular feist.  Feist enthusiasts often travel great distances to obtain the offspring of a particular animal.  For this reason, the dogs are also responsible for creating close friendship bonds with owners extending well beyond the southern mountains.  

In preparing this study, I talked to a number of people about an aspect of life that is truly important to them and one they seldom get to express verbally.  By illuminating the importance of feist dogs in the lives of rural Appalachians, I hoped to help create a critical understanding of the breed as its importance as a companion and hunting animal.  Hopefully the research will also encourage communication between the various interest groups who seek to preserve both feist dogs and the squirrel hunting tradition that is deeply associated with these animals.