Add a whole lot of enjoyment to your squirrel season by hunting with a four legged companion - a squirrel hunting dog!
When I was younger I did a lot of squirrel hunting in the woods next to my grandparent's farm in northern Wisconsin. They had a big Labrador retriever named Hooper. Although he wasn't trained to be a squirrel hunting dog, Hooper qualified as one. It just came naturally to him.
We'd head into the woods and Hooper would start running to and fro, always within sight of me. As soon as he'd see a squirrel he'd get after it and chase it up a tree. He'd sit at the base of the tree with his attention focused like a laser on that squirrel. If the squirrel jumped to another tree, Hooper would follow it and wait for me to arrive to give the rodent the coup de grâce.
It was great fun, and that old yellow lab was my favorite squirrel hunting partner.
I'd heard of squirrel dogs before, but in my neck of the woods, actual dog breeds that were raised and trained to hunt squirrels were largely unheard of. Coon dogs or "treeing dogs" for hunting raccoons at night were serious business in northern Wisconsin, but squirrel dogs were used only if you were lucky enough to own one with a natural aptitude for it.
Squirrel hunting with dogs was something that hunters down south partook of more than their northern brethren. States like Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio and the Appalachian region have kennels that cater specifically to squirrel hunters (and coon hunters).
Of course dogs have been used to help hunters find game since they were first domesticated by spear throwing humans. These days, American hunters use dogs to pursue mountain lions, black bears, upland game birds, waterfowl, rabbits, raccoons, wild hogs and more.
There's a contingent of people--including hunters--who frown upon using hunting dogs for big-game species like mountain lion and bear. I believe their condemnation is misguided and short-sighted. But that's fodder for another article. Although I do briefly address it in this piece on foolish things anti-hunters say.
While using dogs to hunt all of the critters listed above is pretty well accepted across the country, hunting squirrels with dogs has largely been a regional preference. Sure, there have always been a few folks in the Northern and Western states who have used dogs to hunt squirrels, but those people have been anomalies. In the South, the practice is as normal and widespread cornbread and grits.
I spoke with Kevin Spencer, owner of Squirrel Dog Dynasty, and he agreed that squirrel dogs are particularly popular in the South. "The use of squirrel dogs is growing in different parts of the country," said Spencer, "but shoot, look at southern states like Kentucky or Alabama...everyone has a squirrel dog down there."
Breeds and mutts
In the informal poll I took among Facebook squirrel dog enthusiasts, most indicated that they preferred feist and cur dogs over other breeds. Although several hunters did say that they have had excellent squirrel dogs that were not feists or curs.
Feists are small dogs. These dogs are valued for their intelligence, energy, desire to please, and hunting ability. They can be mutts or breeds with specific names like Smooth Fox Terrier, Thornburg Feist, Denmark Feist and Mullins Feist.
There is a difference between rat terriers, such as a Jack Russell terrier, which were originally bred as ratters, and a treeing feist which is bred to hunt prey that finds safety in trees.
Curs are larger than feists, though they share common traits. They too can be mutts, but can also have documented lineages with names such as the Mountain Cur, Black Mouth Cur and Treeing Cur.
Some curs are crossbred with other breeds to get the best traits of both. For example, Leopard Curs, Bluetick Coonhounds and Cajun Squirrel Dogs are a mix of cur and hound bloodlines. The aforementioned Thornburg Feist and Denmark Feist are cur and terrier mixes.
So you can see, this business of breeding and raising squirrel dogs is serious stuff and can get a little complicated.
What to look for
If you're looking for the best dog for squirrel hunting you have a lot to choose from. Spencer told me that he wouldn't get too hung up on finding a dog with papers, unless you want to enter your dog into competitions.
David Denton, of Denton's Loud & Proud Kennels out of Missouri, said that if you can find a dog, whether cur or feist, with "heart and drive" you've got a good squirrel dog.
Asking him how to identify heart and drive, Denton responded, "When it's extreme heat or cold outside a real deal dog doesn't stop. Their drive and their heart push them when they tree, and they have to hold that tree until you get there. That could take some time but they are still there doing their job. You can't teach these qualities. You can help bring them out but you can't teach them to have it. That's why not all so-called squirrel dogs make it. But then again, the ones that have that kind of heart will kill themselves to do their job..and they'll love every minute of it."
You want a dog that will track by relying primarily on sight and sound, with a little nose to round things out. Feists and curs generally fit the bill. Hounds, on the other hand, rely more on their nose than they do sight and sound. And hounds will bark as they trail a critter.
Think of coon hounds or lion hounds. Their barking as they trail a critter is part of the fun of the chase and helps their handler identify where they are and whether or not they've treed.
Squirrel dogs will be quiet while trailing a squirrel, until they get the squirrel treed, at which point they may bark to call you over. Neither do good squirrel dogs range far from a hunter.
Steven Schirmer of the Facebook group Squirrel Dog Hunters described it thusly:
"To me a good squirrel dog hunts with you. Both you and the dog work together as a team. I like to watch the dog work. Watch them work the scent and tree. I don't want my dog 600 or 700 yards out."
"I like feist dogs," he continued. "They're very versatile and smart. They seem to understand what you want when hunting together."
Matt Davis, an admin for the Facebook group Squirrel Dogs Are A Way Of Life says, "A good squirrel dog around here maxes out around 300 yards, treeing most of them less than 200 yards out. All my dogs will periodically return and check back in with me. I walk-hunt my dogs--as I walk they hunt circles around me."
Spencer says that if you have kids you would ideally want a young dog, a puppy that would grow up with and become accustomed to the children. He takes puppies that are from four to eight months old and turns them into good, reliable squirrel dogs within a month or two of training.
So, you want a dog with a friendly, lovable temperament and that is eager to please. You want one that won't range far away from you, and when the dog has located and treed a squirrel it will will let you know. That dog will then remain focused on that gray or fox squirrel until you come to dispatch it.
Your dog doesn't have to be a cur or a feist but those are the dogs that are bred for and have a natural aptitude for squirrel hunting.
If you are looking to get into squirrel hunting with a dog, I'd say that the best first step you could take is to join some of Facebook squirrel dog groups that are online. Ask questions. The members of those groups are hunters and dog lovers, and I've found them to be generous and passionate when talking about squirrel dogs.
You may get twenty different answers to a single question, but that's the nature of squirrel hunting with dogs. There seem to be dogs to suit every need and every person.
Hunting squirrels with a dog will doubtless add a great deal to your squirrel season, and will surely increase your enjoyment--and the amount of squirrels you bag.