It is not uncommon to see a hunter and a dog wandering through the woods.
However, it is a bit strange when the dog is an Australian Shepherd, not known as a hunting breed, and is looking for squirrels.
Curious as it sounds, it makes sense to Ed Hamrick, who has hunted squirrels with Australian Shepherds for 40 years.
“I think it’s a little unusual to find someone hunting squirrels with a dog,” said Hamrick, a two-time former director of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
“And it’s also a bit unusual to see this breed being used for that purpose. But I’ve had a lot of success with my dogs, so I’ve stayed with them.”
He got his current dog, Bella, two years ago when he retired from a long career in state government.
“She was my ‘retirement puppy,'” he said. “She didn’t take long to become a good squirrel dog.”
When Hamrick and Bella go hunting, he walks slowly through the woods. Bella stays 50 to 60 yards ahead, listening and looking for squirrels. Every once in a while, Hamrick said, she catches the scent of a squirrel.
“We move at a fairly measured pace, walking and stopping,” he said. “When he spots a squirrel, he goes to the base of the tree the squirrel is in and barks.”
Killing the squirrel becomes a game of hide and seek. When squirrels see a human, they usually circle to the opposite side of the tree and hide.
“You can spend a lot of time moving around, trying to get a shot,” Hamrick said. “A good dog will circle to the opposite side and attract the squirrel’s attention by jumping and barking. Either the squirrel will turn to the side you are on, or it will freeze there while you turn to the side it is on.”
After Hamrick drops the squirrel from the tree with a shot from his .22 bolt-action rifle, he has the luxury of watching Bella go looking for him.
“Two of the four squirrel dogs I’ve had would also recover,” he said. “That’s helpful when the squirrel lands on the downhill side of the tree in a steep ravine.”
Other dog breeds (Norwegian Mountain Dogs, Feists and Hounds) are better known for their ability to hunt squirrels than Australian Shepherds. Hamrick prefers the Australian breed because, as he said, “they make excellent companions for the rest of the year.”
When training a squirrel dog, Hamrick first teaches him the basic canine obedience commands: come, sit, stay. Once the dog is confident in responding to those commands, he leads them into the woods.
“When I trained my first dog, Nikki, I would make her sit next to me until a squirrel appeared and then let her chase after it,” he recalled. “All dogs have a natural instinct to chase squirrels. When I climbed the squirrel up a tree, I would go up to it and praise it for it.”
Some dogs bark when they see a squirrel, but others don’t. Hamrick said Nikki didn’t bark until an injured squirrel bit her.
“After that, she would always bark,” he said.
His other two dogs, Patches and Molly, were easier to train because they learned as much from their predecessors as they did from him.
“Nikki helped train Patches, and Patches helped train Molly,” he said. “There was a gap between Molly and Bella, so I had to train Bella by myself.”
Hunting with dogs can be surprisingly productive. Last year, Hamrick and his brother Mike experienced it firsthand.
“Bella caught a squirrel during breeding time of year,” Hamrick recalled.
“When that happens, sometimes you will find a female squirrel with four or five males following her. When Bella disarmed that squirrel, we found a total of six squirrels in that tree and the tree next to it. We ended up getting four of them.”
Hamrick said hunting squirrels with a dog “is a great way to introduce kids to squirrel hunting.” When his twin sons, Jamie and Hunter, were ready to start hunting, he took them out into the field with Patches and Molly.
“When you hunt with a dog, you don’t have to worry about scent control, staying still or being particularly quiet,” Hamrick said. “The goals are usually stationary and the children’s chances of success are higher. Also, children seem to like hunting with dogs.”
West Virginia squirrel season begins in early September and runs through the end of February. Most of Hamrick’s squirrel hunts take place in December, January, and February.
“I like to hunt late in the season because the leaves are already down and the squirrels are easier to see,” he said. “Winter is a good time to be in the woods. You see things you don’t normally see: scuffs, scrapes, tracks, dumb antlers. It is also a great exercise.
“It’s fair to say that squirrel hunting with a dog today is a bit unusual; it is a unique way of hunting. It’s so much fun and it’s a great excuse to spend time outside of God.”