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Have you heard of the Feist dog breed? Or the Squirrel dog? If not, you are not alone. You likely have seen them but not known what you were looking at, because of their similarity to quite a few more popular dog breeds.  

Feist dogs are small to medium sized hunting dogs. They descended from terriers that English immigrants brought over to America.

You may not know them by name. And, upon looking at them, you may not be able to tell them apart from some other terrier breeds.

Whatever the case may be, Feist Dogs have been around for a very long time. In fact, many historians consider American pioneer dogs.

History Of the Feist Dog

In the United States, people referred Feist Dogs as early as in the 1700’s.

Notably, people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln mentioned Feist Dogs.

Both of these great figureheads actually wrote about “fyst” and “fice”  in their correspondence and diaries. 

Early American literature, such as William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, also made reference to Feist Dogs.

Origin of the Feist Dog

In the 1700’s, hunting was a big sport in England. The British relied on a variety of dogs for working, and in particular, for hunting.

Hundreds of years ago, English miners (and other working class immigrants) left the Continent and arrived in North America.

Often, immigrants brought their dogs along with them. The dogs they brought were frequently terriers of one kind or another.

Not surprisingly, as a few hundred years ago, there were already many terrier-type dogs around in England.

People eventually brought many of these dogs over to America. These included Fox-Terriers, Smooth Fox Terriers, Old English White Terriers, Bull Terriers, and Manchester Terriers. 

The mixing of old and new world breeds

These terriers were eventually crossed with other hunting breeds to enhance their speed and hunting ability. 

It was common to breed the English terriers with whippets, greyhounds, beagles and other types of hounds. As well, they were probably also bred with Native American dogs at various points.  

Sometimes, people referred to these dogs as  “ratters” because tracking and trapping rodents in trees was their trademark.  These dogs were highly skilled in this regard, and praised for these abilities.

In fact, some owners made a hobby of betting on the dog’s ability to track and trap rodents.

People often referred to them as the Rat Terrier, the Short-legged Rat Terrier or the Bench-Legged Feist. 

In 1999 The American Kennel Club recognized one variety as the Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, after the 26th President of the United States.

He was an avid hunter and was devoted to his family’s hunting Feist. Impressively, this dog rid the White House of rodents.

In turn, he coined the name Rat Terrier, and gave some acclaim to the breed and their value as hunters. 

The “rat” terrier

Historically, many English immigrants ended up in the American South, working the land. Very quickly, Feist dogs became rather useful as working dogs on farms.

In fact, It is thought that they were originally bred to rid the farms of vermin and rabbits that were plaguing the farm crops.  

Incredibly, there are actual reports of one Rat Terrier who singlehandedly killed over 2,500 rats in a just seven hours in a barn. 

But generally, while these dogs chase and track the prey, they don’t do the kill (more on this later on).

Physical Appearance

a feist dog laying down

Feists are generally small to medium-sized dogs. In terms of size, they usually range from 10 to 18 in (45 cm) tall. As far as weight goes, they sit somewhere within the 15- 30 pound range.

Generally, anyone familiar with the breed would describe them as sleek, muscular, and compact dogs. 

Many Feists have multicolored coats, though often white sections are very prominent. This is no accident. In fact, hunters bred Feists to be easy to spot so they could identify them from afar.

That said, the coat of a Feist dog can contain many colors. These include shades of white, brown ,grey, red and black. In terms of the style of coat these dogs have, its often rather short, soft and sleek. 

That trademark Terrier “look”

Having descended from Terriers, Feist Dogs bear a strong resemblance in appearance to most varieties of these breeds. 

This is especially true for the Smooth and Wire Fox Terriers, which were originally conceived of to chase away foxes. Of course, these dogs are now mainly just kept as pets.

That said, the well-known Jack Russell Terrier, is actually still sometimes used for ratting. 

Unlike show dogs, people bred Feist dogs purely to be hunters. Generally, show dogs tend to conform to a pretty specific standard aesthetic.

By contrast, breeders didn’t usually develop working dogs with appearance in mind to the same degree as show dogs.

Therefore, their look and appearance can actually vary quite extensively within the breed itself. 

Feists can be purebred, crossbred, or mixed with many different other breeds. As a result, there tends to be a large amount of variation in the way that they look.

That said, the few specific varieties that the American Kennel club recognizes have more specific and rigidly described traits. 

Because their appearance can vary so much, one can more easily identify them by the way that they hunt as opposed to their looks. 

The Feist Dog is easily mistakeable

A lot of people tend to get the Feist Dog confused with something more recognizable. One such common example is the Jack Russell Terrier.

Because many people aren’t exactly aware of the Feist breed, in places like shelters they are prone to being mislabeled. That said, someone who is familiar with the breed can quickly spot the differences.

For one thing, the Feist’s coat is not the same curly, coarse coat of a Jack Russel Terrier.  Secondly, Feist dogs have slightly elongated limbs compared to Jack Russells, as well as shorter tails.

So is it a Feist Dog or a Jack Russell Terrier? 

So, these dogs do tend to look a lot like Jack Russel Terriers overall. But do the similarities extend beyond just physical appearance?

In which other ways might we be able to tell these dogs apart?

Essentially, the answer lies within the way Feist dogs act and behave. This includes their overall temperament, as well as other specific behavioral traits. Often, these traits tend to differ quite a bit from Jack Russell Terriers. 

Often, when someone thinks of a Terrier, especially a Jack Russell, they think of constant barking.

However, Feists tend not to display this undesirable behavior to the same degree. This means that overall they are quieter dogs.

Though you can train either breed to reduce unnecessary barking, Feists do tend to have an easier time in this regard.

Jack Russells can also sometimes be prone to aggressive behavior, whereas this is less likely in Feist Dogs.

Varieties of Feist Dogs

Over the centuries, people have bred several distinct types of Feist dogs. Some historic and current varieties include:

  • Mountain Feist
  • Baldwin Feist
  • Buckley Feist
  • DenMark Feist
  • Galla Creek Feist
  • Kemmer Feist
  • Lost Creek Feist
  • Sport-bred Feist
  • Thornburg Feist.

These are just a few of the staggering number of Feist Dog varieties.

Each sub-type of Feist dog tends to have it’s own unique set of behavioral traits that are slightly distinct from other breeds

The Feist Dog is a Natural Hunter

While individual dogs can hunt in more than one way, in general, Feists work above ground to chase small prey, especially squirrels.

This differentiates them from terriers or Dachshunds, which are “earth” dogs that prefer to go low to ground to kill or tease out their prey, which is usually rodents, rabbits, foxes, or badgers. Generally, people refer to this style of hunting as “treeing”. 

Feist Dogs have a very strong instinctive need to chase rabbits, along with squirrels and other rodents.

Feists move and  jump around in a springy manner. Their sleek design and muscular frame allow them to propel themselves quite powerfully as they run.

Feist Dogs have longer limbs than many other terrier breeds. In some ways, this assists in agility and dexterity. Essentially, when they outstretch their long limbs, they can propel themselves great distances.

The wider “stance” made possible when they spread their limbs also aids in their ability to stay balanced while doing difficult or awkward maneuvers.

“Treeing” their prey

The difference between the Feist and hounds or terriers becomes obvious in their hunting styles.

When hunting, Feists, unlike hounds, are mostly silent while tracking, until they have a squirrel or other rodent cornered and trapped on a tree. 

What happens next is an intricate maneuver.

First, a Feist will catch a glimpse – or a scent, of some rodent (often a squirrel). Rather than catching and killing the animal itself, a Feist will “tree” the critter. Basically, “treeing” occurs in the following way.

Once the Feist Dog locks its sights on its “prize”, a high-speed chase ensues.

Here is where the impressive physical attributes of the Feist really shine. Because of their sheer agility and speed, one can often find a Feist Dog dashing around the forest with tremendous energy.

While the Feist Dog clearly pursues it’s prey with hopes of catching it, that is frequently not the outcome of the pursuit.

More commonly, the result is the Feist cornering the rodent until it runs up a tree, allowing it to be shot by the hunter.

Hence the phrase, “treeing’ an animal.

A Winning Personality

feist dog jumping

The Feist dog is a rather loyal companion. They are eager to please and are dependable, spirited, friendly and very intelligent.

The Feist is highly inquisitive and curious and loves to discover new things. This helps with ease of trainability. 

If you have a Feist Dog in need of training, you may want to check out this helpful list of online dog training courses.

As with most hunting dogs. they have very sharp senses.  Their alertness makes them great watchdogs, but since they are not aggressive and do not attack their prey, they are not the greatest guard dogs.

They do tend to be vocal, barking and growling when on the hunt, but then are very quiet once they have picked up the scent of their prey.  


Feists are vigorous and robust, and many enjoy a long lifespan, often living 15-18 years. Generally, they are strong, solid, healthy dogs. 

Because they people cross bred them, they won’t necessarily suffer some of the usual genetic health issues that their purebred ancestors do, but they can still suffer from certain genetic conditions. 

Some conditions that they could develop are hip dysplasia and allergy problem. Though something like hip dysplasia is more commonly seen in larger breeds like Samoyeds, it is not uncommon in Feist dogs.

Should You Get a Feist Dog As a Pet? 

Generally, the answer is yes.  But since there are so many Feist varieties, their temperament can differ quite a bit. 

First time raising a hunting dog?  The Thornburg variety are the most recommended as a family pet.  

Planning to leave your Feist unoccupied and untended for stretches of time? Best stay away from Hunters Creek Feists.

They tend to get destructive and loud when bored. If you do have one of these mischievous pups and need to leave them alone, you may want to invest in dog-proof garbage cans, and even dog-proof furniture.

But generally, Feists make good pets for people who like to spend time outdoors.

They do well with active people, older adults and older children. While they do need at least 30-60 minutes of very vigorous exercise a day, and really enjoy walking, jogging and hiking with their owners, they can also be quite settled indoors.

Most Feist Dogs love to swim.  They are energetic but they are not hyperactive dogs.

However, if the Feist is kept as a non-hunting pet, it’s wise to keep the dog on a leash especially in the presence of squirrels or other similar small animals. 

Your dog will likely take off, dragging you along, to chase a squirrel! 

Since they are working dogs, with very alert and sharp senses, they also enjoy games and challenges that are like tasks. 

But despite a very high activity level, they also have gentle personalities, and enjoy a good cuddle. But as with any hunter, it’s wise to socialize them early, to humans and to other dogs. 

And if you have a rodent problem in your home, the Feist will come in handy in chasing them away.  

Caring for a Feist Dog

Feists are generally pretty low maintenance dogs.  They don’t require any special grooming. 

While they are not hypoallergenic, they don’t shed much and their coats are soft and very easy to bath and brush.

They don’t have any special feeding requirements, other than the usual feeding guidelines based on weight, size and activity level. 

So you think you want one…

Make sure you do your research and come up with a breeder who is happy to answer your many questions about the puppy’s lineage.

Breeders can mix Feists with many other breeds, and as we’ve seen, their personalities can differ dramatically.

Therefore when inquiring about a Feist, you should definitely ask about the parents. 

This will give you a good indication of the dog’s future size, health and temperament. 

You want to be sure your Feist Dog will be well-suited to your family and to the lifestyle you can provide for your furry little friend. 

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