The frantic barking of the dogs drove us deeper into the hollow. We had made a pact at the beginning of this hunt to take it easy and not go too fast, especially uphill.
After hearing the intensity of the barking of the two squirrel dogs, they all went out the window. All over the world it sounded like they were saying, “Where are you?” “Come here quickly!” “We have a wooded one!” I glanced over at my friend, Chris, who was breaking up the brush a few yards to my right, if anything he was even more determined to get to the dogs than I was. The ancient attraction of hunters to dogs drew us forward, heedless of rocks and brambles and the angle of the hill.
“Do you hunt squirrels with a dog?” “Why do you need a dog to hunt squirrels?” “How exactly does it work?” I have been asked these questions and many more by skeptics, scoffers and some just curious. I always tell them that if you’ve never hunted squirrels with a dog, you don’t know what you’re missing.
• The essence of hunting. Like any hunting dog, a squirrel dog’s main job is to find game for you. Basically, the hunter takes a walk in the woods and follows the dog as he runs and sweeps the area for squirrels. Different dogs do this in different ways. Some dogs are powerful and run at full speed until they find the scent of a squirrel. Some are more careful and scan the area as they pass, using their eyes and ears as well as their nose. When the dog finds a squirrel track on the forest floor, he will usually follow it up a tree. After checking a bit to make sure this is the tree the squirrel is in, the dog will perch on it and bark to alert the hunter that it has found game.
Now some people think this is easy and tell you that their poodle or Scottish terrier chases squirrels in the park every day. It’s true that almost any dog will chase squirrels on sight, but think of the squirrels he has seen on a lazy afternoon at his deer stand. A squirrel runs or jumps across the ground, runs along a fallen log, bounces 3 feet up the side of the tree, jumps back, and heads off in another direction. The squirrel dog may appear 15 minutes to an hour later and you must unravel this trail. The experienced dog will carefully follow this maze, determine which tree the squirrel finally climbs and will stay there, then start barking “tree.” The good dog stays in that tree and won’t be distracted until his hunter gets there or the world ends, whichever comes first.
When the hunter or hunters reach the tree, the task of finding the squirrel at the top of the tree begins. Large, towering oak trees will have dozens of places for a squirrel to hide and it may take several minutes of intense searching to find the squirrel. (Good binoculars really help.) Often an ear or a strand of hair is all you’ll see at first; it takes a lot of experience to become a good chipmunk spotter. If more than one hunter is present, the best method is to circle the tree and get as many eyes on it as you can. Often the squirrel will move around on a limb if one of the hunters moves on the ground, and another hunter will see it. When the squirrel is seen and shot, most squirrel dogs grab the squirrel on the ground (that’s their reward). Many male squirrel dogs allow the dog a quick taste and then the dog must release the squirrel (no running off with the squirrel or playing tug of war) and then the dog is told, “Okay, go get another one.”
• Cur or fist? If you decide to take the plunge and join the wonderful world of the squirrel dog, your first question may be what breed of dog am I looking for? There’s no question that dogs of many different breeds have been good squirrel dogs, but for the most part and to help you get off to a good start, you’ll want to look at the two most popular breeds of squirrel dogs, the cur and the fiest.
The term “cur” is not to be confused here with a derogatory name for a dog, cur dogs have been bred for hunting since colonial times in America. The modern cur, better known as the mountain cur, was refined beginning in the 1940s into the dog cur we have today. Curs, in general, are larger than fists and will typically move farther out in search of prey. Good cur dogs use their eyes, ears, and nose to look for squirrels and can generally be known for having “more noses” than most party dogs. (Note that some party fans will disagree with this, there is a lot of rivalry between some squirrel dog fans, like Ford vs. Chevy or Glock vs. 1911 pistols.)
Curs dogs are often known to be highly intelligent, loyal and can even be more sensitive than other dogs. A cur dog can take a little while, but once he bonds with you, that’s it, he’s your dog. All dogs are individuals and even dogs from the same litter will vary in traits, but in general, if you think you don’t want a squirrel dog straying too far into the woods, the fiest may be a better choice for you than a cur. . The original mountain cur, the Kemmer cur, the Stephens cur, and the Tennessee brindle are all different types of cur dog.
Flies are typically smaller than dogs and can be a bit more “fiesty” than a dog, which is likely a result of some of their Terrier ancestry. Like dogs, Feasts make great “companion” dogs, and if you can, take them with you everywhere, especially when they’re young. This is a great way to bond with any dog and will result in you working in the woods together and turning him into a squirrel dog. Mullens Fest, Barger Fest, Mountain Fest, and American Treeing Fest are all breeds you can see in the Fest category.
Most puppies and dogs make excellent family dogs, they are good with children and will be a loyal companion for as long as they live. The only drawback is that, like all dogs, they don’t live long enough.
If you are unfamiliar with the world of squirrel dogs and don’t know anyone with dogs, the best route is to do your homework and find a reputable breeder and have a few conversations with them before you jump in and get a puppy. If possible, go see the parents in the woods, this is the best way to predict what the cubs might do.
Larry Case is a retired West Virginia Department of Natural Resources captain and lifelong outdoorsman. Larry writes for various newspapers and magazines. His website is www.gunsandcornbread.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.