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In Praise of Little Dogs
It seems that big hounds are always popular with hunters, but there are times when a small dog is a better choice. Here are four little guys that can get the job done!
By Carolee Boyles
Mention hunting dogs, and hunters wax eloquent about big dogs like golden and Labrador retrievers, English pointers or German shorthairs. But hunting dogs don't need to weigh 70 pounds to be effective. Smaller dogs not only are just as good at hunting as larger dogs, but they are also sometimes a better choice.
If there's any one description you can apply to all small sporting dogs, it is "versatile." Each one of them has a specialty, but any can be trained to do multiple kinds of hunting if you so desire.
Beagles have been in the United States since the 1890s and have been used to hunt everything from rabbits to deer. Their name seems to have come from the Celtic word "beagle," which means "small."
Dennis Van Amburg owns Van's Beagles and has been involved with the breed for more than 30 years. He says beagles are hardy, bold little hounds that are adapted for running through thick briars, habitat where rabbits like to hang out.
"Briars can't penetrate to their skin, because they have two coats of hair," Van Amburg explains. "They have longer hair on top, and once you get down next to the skin they have a really dense, heavier coat."
The beagle belongs to the group known as scent hounds, which means they do the bulk of their hunting with their noses.
"Most of my dogs I use for rabbit hunting," Van Amburg says. "But they're good for a lot of things. Pest control companies take really little beagles and train them to sniff out termites. Dogs like that may sell for six or seven thousand dollars."
Beagles also make excellent deer and fox hounds, although Van Amburg says they don't do too well on raccoons.
"They're really good-natured dogs," Van Amburg assures. "They make great show dogs, wonderful hunting companions and field event dogs, and they make a great companion and pet at home. They're an all-around great dog."
Beagles are divided into two size classes, although these aren't distinct sub-breeds. Dogs of both sizes may occur in a single litter.
"There's a 13-inch dog and a 15-inch dog," Van Amburg says. "The smaller dog is usually 20 pounds and under, and the larger one runs from about 20 to 30 pounds. You can have a litter where both parents are 13-inch dogs, and one or more of the pups will be a 15-inch dog."
According to Van Amburg, coat color also is unpredictable.
"You can get all colors in any litter," he notes. "There are blue ticks, red and white, chocolate, lemon, and tri-color or typical beagles."
For Van Amburg, the very best thing about beagles is their loyalty.
"Once they develop a strong bond with you, they'll do anything to please you," he says. "They listen well and they mind well. They're really loyal little dogs."
According to Osborn, the feist is recognized as a breed by all the multi-breed registries, including the Canadian Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club. However, the name is also used generically to describe dogs for their specific squirrel hunting behavior.
"A feist can be a very pedigreed family of dogs that's been bred to tree squirrels for generations," Osborn says. "It also can be a full-blooded rat terrier, as long as it meets the size and coat characteristics for a treeing feist."
Breeds such as rat terriers and smooth-haired fox terriers can be cross-registered as feists, and some crosses between recognized full-breed dogs can be registered as feists also.
"There's a lot of controversy about all this," Osborn continues. "Some people believe that these dogs come from the old-time feists that the Native Americans had. Other people say European terriers were the primary influence in their ancestry. In my opinion, they're dogs that were carried down through the generations because of their function and utility, and they very likely have many different breeds in their ancestry."
Although today's feists are primarily used for hunting squirrels, they can be very versatile dogs.
"Until the 1950s or so, most rural homes had these small multi-purpose dogs," Osborn says. "They might have been used to keep predators from killing the yard chickens, or to protect the home from intruders. Also, their owners might take them out and tree squirrels, possums and even raccoons. Today, many family lines of feists have been specifically bred to be squirrel dogs."
The common thread, however, is that feists are very small dogs.
"Dogs of either sex can't weigh more than 30 pounds," Osborn points out. "Males can't be more than 18 inches, and females can't be more than 17 inches. But some of the registries vary a bit from that."
Most registries include some measure of function as well. For instance, an official of the registry must have actually seen the feist treeing a squirrel or raccoon. That part of the breed standard makes the feist unique among hunting dogs.
A feist's suitability as a house dog and pet varies tremendously depending on which family line the dog comes from.
"They're happiest when they're family members," Osborn says. "But some family lines make better pets than others, just because some family lines are so excitable that they try your patience a bit as a pet. Other family lines are very content lying on the couch with you."
The ideal feist, Osborn contends, stays with its hunter on the way into the woods.
"I have my dog on a leash," Osborn says. "Then I release my dog, and he runs out and searches for a squirrel. How far he goes to look for a squirrel differs. Some handlers don't like their dogs to get out of sight. Other handlers want their dogs to go wherever they need to go to find a squirrel. If they can't find a squirrel where they went, they check back to see what the handler wants them to do. There's a tremendous amount of variation in terms of hunting behaviors and hunting styles."
Once a dog locates a squirrel scent trail on the ground, Osborn continues, it follows that scent to a tree and uses its eyes and ears to try to locate the animal.
"Once they locate a squirrel, then it's their job to stay at that tree and bark until the handler gets there," Osborn concludes.
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