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High-spirited, yet very lovable. The Feist traces his roots back to the Rat Terrier. American breeders are breeding three different varieties: the Mountain Feist, the Bench-legged Feist, and the Pencil-tail Feist. For squirrel hunting, this dog is par excellent. These dogs also take on rabbits, birds, any small game.

The coat of the Mountain Feist is short and smooth. Coat colors include tricolor with spots, red and white, red, black, black and tan, blue and white, red brindle, and white. The head has a medium length muzzle, with a slightly rounded skull. The eyes are small and dark in color. The ears are set well on side of head, wedge shaped, and held erect or semi-erect. The muzzle is medium length and tapering to a point. The nose is black and self-colored according to coat. The bite is scissor or level. 

The neck is medium length and strong. The topline is level. The chest is fairly deep and well ribbed. The back is straight and strong. Forelegs are straight and strong. Hind legs are muscular, with hocks slightly bent. The feet are small and compact, with arched toes and thick pads. The tail is set high and carried erect. Movement: Swift and very agile, with flowing gait.

Feists generally are small (under 18inches/45cm), short-coated dogs with long legs, usually white with dark spots, a pointed (snipy) nose and with ears set high on the head. Traditionally the tail is 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 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 fell terriers, earth dogs that go to ground to kill or drive out the prey, usually rodents, European rabbits, foxes, or badgers. Lurchers are larger dogs that catch the prey when the fell or the hunter drives it from the hole. Only the feists were developed in the US.

When hunting, feists, unlike hounds, are silent on track. They “tree” squirrels, keeping them in the tree by barking and circling the tree, in the same manner that coonhounds tree raccoons. Various named varieties within the feist type have been developed, including the Treeing Feist, Mullins Feist, Denmark Feist, Mountain Feist, Kemmer Feist, and Rat Terrier. The United Kennel Club recognizes a Treeing Feist breed.

The feist is not a new type. Written accounts of the dogs go back centuries. Abraham Lincoln wrote about them in a poem, “The Bear Hunt” (feist is spelled “fice”). Reference to them is included in the diary of George Washington in 1770 (“A small foist looking yellow cur”), and a feist is also featured in William Faulkner’s “Go Down Moses” (a brave “fice” dog is killed by a bear). 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 1600s (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, also used for fox hunting. 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 1700s.

Because of similarities in appearance, feists are sometimes mistaken for Jack Russell Terriers, particularly in shelters and pounds. However, certain physical characteristics separate the two, and can be easy to identify if you know what to look for. The coat of a feist is generally softer and smoother than that of a Jack Russell. Its legs are longer and in better proportion to its body, and the tail of a feist is usually shorter than that of a Jack Russell. Despite overall physical similarities, however, the behavior and temperament of a feist and a Jack Russell are quite different.

Most feists are fairly quiet dogs, and lack the tendency to excessive barking demonstrated by Jack Russells. Because feists were bred to hunt in packs, they enjoy the company of other dogs, whereas Jack Russells tend to be more combative, and may be too aggressive to share space with another dog. Finally, while active, feists do not generally exhibit the frenetic energy of Jack Russells.

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 1890’s 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.

The word ‘feist’ is described in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary as from the obsolete word “fysting” meaning “beaking wind, in such expressions as fysting dog or fysting hound”. “Feist” is defined as “1. chiefly dial: a small dog of uncertain ancestry…” Related to the word “feisty”.

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