Information about the Feist

A Feist (or Fyce) is a type of small hunting dog, developed via crossbreeding of various other hunting breeds in the rural southern United States.

Feists generally are small (shorter than 18 inches/45 cm, and weigh less than 30 lbs/14 kg), short-coated dogs with long legs and a pointed (snipy) nose. The ears set high on the head and are button, erect, or short hang ears. Traditionally the tail is a natural bobtail or docked. As Feists are bred for hunting, not as show dogs, there is little to no consistency in appearance (breed type), and they may be purebred, crossbred, or mixed breed dogs. They are identified more by the way they hunt and their size than by their appearance.

Individual dogs can hunt in more than one way, but in general, feists work above ground to chase small prey, especially squirrels. This contrasts with terriers or Dachshunds, earthdogs that go to ground to kill or drive out the prey, usually rodents, European rabbits, foxes, or badgers. Most feists have an extreme drive to chase rabbits, squirrels, and all rodents.

When hunting, feists, unlike hounds, are silent on track until they sight a squirrel. They “tree” squirrels, keeping them in the tree by barking loudly and circling the tree, in the same manner that a coonhound trees raccoons. When they have “treed” a squirrel, they will chase the squirrel until it leaves their sight. During the chase they will wade through streams, leap over logs, and dash across roads to get to their “prey”. It is a good idea to leash the dog in the presence of a squirrel.

Although they put up a furious chase, feists rarely catch squirrels, expecting their owners to shoot them.

Various named varieties within the feist type umbrella have been developed, including the Mountain Feist which include the Baldwin Feist, Buckley Feist, Denmark Feist, Galla Creek Feist, Kemmer Feist, Lost Creek Feist, Sport bred Feist, and the Thornburg Feist. The Treeing Feist which include the Atomic Feist, Barger Feist, Boggs Creek, Cajun Squirrel Dogs, Charlie Feists, Fleming Creek Squirrel Dogs, Hickory Grounds Feist, Horse Creek Feists, Hurley Comb’s bred Feist, Mullins Feist, Riverun Feist, and the Rat Terrier. Both the National Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club recognize the Feist breed.

The feist is not a new type of dog. Written accounts of the dogs go back centuries, with several spelling variations seen. Abraham Lincoln wrote about them in a poem, “The Bear Hunt,” spelling feist as fice. Reference to them is included in the diary of George Washington in 1770 in which he wrote, “A small foist looking yellow cur,” and a feist is also featured in William Faulkner’s “Go Down Moses” in the line “a brave fyce dog is killed by a bear,” as well as in his short story “The Bear.” In her 1938 novel The Yearling, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings uses the spelling of feist to refer to this dog. Claude Shumate, who wrote about the feist for Full Cry magazine, believed that the feist was descended from Native American dogs, mixed with small terriers from Britain, and was kept as early as the 17th century. (Full Cry, December, 1987).

Similar dogs are the Smooth Fox Terrier, developed to flush out foxes for hunters in England (but now primarily kept for conformation showing and as a pet), and the Jack Russell Terrier, used for ratting. Fox terriers and feists are often predominantly white so as to be visible to hunters. There are many other variants of this type, such as the Parson Russell Terrier and Rat Terrier, and many locally developed purebred breeds. The original fox terrier type was documented in England in the 18th century.

Because of similarities in appearance, Mt Feists are sometimes mistaken for Jack Russell Terriers, particularly in shelters and dog pounds. However, certain physical characteristics separate the two, and can be easy to identify to the trained eye. The coat of a feist is generally softer and smoother than that of a rough-coated Jack Russell. Its legs are longer and the tail of a Mountain Feist is usually shorter than that of a Jack Russell.

Despite some physical similarities, however, the behavior and temperament of a Mountain Feist and a Jack Russell are often quite different.

Most feists are fairly quiet dogs, and lack the tendency toward excessive barking demonstrated by some Jack Russells and other hunting dogs. Jack Russells also tend to be more combative. Finally, while active, most Mountain Feists do not generally exhibit the frenetic energy of Jack Russells.

Some Mountain Feist bloodlines were indeed bred down from Jack Russell Terriers, crossing most likely with treeing dogs, such as Treeing Walker hounds. Jack Russell traits often remain visible despite this crossbreeding. These descendants usually are mostly white in color with brown or black around the head and neck, with tall stand up, or button ears. These dogs are usually hunted in packs in the Appalachian and Ozark mountains. They use their eyes and ears exceptionally well.

There has been considerable crossing of Feist dogs, since they are bred primarily for performance as hunting dogs. Feist dogs are the progenitor of what we now call the Rat Terrier. The Rat Terrier is a specific breed within the Feist umbrella. Because the word Feist refers to a general type of dog just as hound and terrier refer to a group of breeds, Rat Terriers are often called feist. The terriers brought to America in the 1890s from England were crossed with Feist dogs already here in addition to some of the Toy breeds (Toy Fox Terrier, Manchester Terrier and Chihuahua) to develop the Rat Terrier we know today.