Sometimes talking about squirrel hunting is like bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner. You never know what reactions you are going to get. If you don’t come from a background where squirrels were part of your upbringing as a hunter it may be hard for you to understand. In much of the Southeast this bushytailed little rodent is the traditional first game that a young hunter will pursue. Another old tradition we have in the Southeast is hunting squirrels with dogs.
Hunting squirrels with dogs? Really? I have been given some funny looks from hunters who are not familiar with squirrel dogs. The next question is usually why would you hunt squirrels with a dog? Well in short, it is just plain ol’ fun and a great way to get the main ingredient for a squirrel, biscuits, and gravy dinner.
A Walk in the Woods with Fido
The premise of hunting squirrels with a dog is simple. You follow your canine buddy through the woods as he attempts to locate squirrels, chase them up a tree or discover the tree a squirrel is hiding in. Once the dog decides which tree the bushytail is in he will bark “treed.” A good squirrel dog will stay on the tree and bark until you arrive and you shoot the squirrel. The squirrel escapes by “timbering” running through the treetops. You pull the dog off of the tree, or we see the second coming.
In squirrel dog lingo a dog that is well-treed and has the squirrel pinned is “toenailed,” meaning the dog has its front feet on the bark of the tree and “has the meat.” The squirrel is in the tree.
Now all of this sounds very simple, but like many things in hunting (and life) it is not. A lot of folks think a dog treeing a squirrel is easy because they see their dachshund chasing squirrels in the backyard or at the city park. Have you ever sat in your treestand and watched a squirrel skitter through the woods? They will run the length of a downed log, leap on the side of a tree, then bounce off and hit two more trees before they actually climb one. Now imagine your squirrel dog coming along several minutes or an hour later. It takes an experienced dog with a good nose to sort it all out and settle on the right tree.
Once the hunter arrives at the tree, finding the squirrel is not always an easy task. Gray squirrels can be especially hard to spot (more so than fox squirrels) and will sometimes timber through the treetops. Experienced squirrel dogs watch the squirrel bouncing on the limbs and will follow, usually with a lot of barking. This can make for a lively chase!
If the squirrel stays put and the hunter makes the shot, usually the dog grabs the squirrel for a shake or two and then you are off in search of the next one. On days when squirrels are active there can be a lot of action.
Spotting a well-hidden squirrel may take some time (binoculars can help) and everyone in the party can get in on this. The more the merrier. Areas that have a lot of grapevines call for a vine-pulling contest (trying to get the squirrel to move). Some hunters, especially kids, enjoy this as much as the shooting. It is all part of the fun.
So if you think you would like to give the wonderful world of squirrel doggin’ a try, how do you go about it? Well, first things first, you are going to need a dog.
Cur, feist, or something else? Squirrel dogs probably show more variety than any other group of hunting dogs. Once upon a time many “farm dogs,” shepherds and border collie mixes made some great squirrel dogs. Most of the time however, if you are shopping for a squirrel dog candidate, you are looking for a cur or a feist.
Don’t be confused by the use of “cur” as a disparaging name for a dog. The cur dog, often known as the mountain cur, is an established breed and has a very loyal following. The feist may share some of the same ancestry with the cur and has been written about in history by no less than William Faulkner and Abe Lincoln. Feist dogs are usually smaller than the cur and will generally have less “range,” meaning they will not venture out as far from the hunter as a cur might.
Which camp you land in, cur or feist, does not really matter. What matters is that you pick a dog which you think will fit your own situation and hunting requirements. If your hunting is confined to small woodlots you may want to go with a feist, if you want your dog to cover a little more ground think about a mountain cur.
If no breeders are to be found in your area a quick search on the internet will reveal dozens of squirrel dog kennels and Squirrel Dog Central is as good a place as any to start. Buying a finished squirrel dog puts you in the game almost immediately, but be warned; fully-trained squirrel dogs are not cheap.
Some hunters prefer to skip the puppy stage and chose a young “started” dog, meaning the kennel owner is saying the dog has been exposed to the woods and squirrels and is displaying the desire to track and tree them. Regardless of age unless you have acquired a finished squirrel chaser you will need to start a training program.
Patience, patience, and take ‘em to the woods. More than any other canine, squirrel dogs are known for taking care of their own training. Over the years I have heard the owners of several good dogs say “I just took him to the woods and he trained himself.” To this I would say yes, and no.
There is no doubt keeping a squirrel dog candidate in the woods as much as possible is important but it is also necessary to instill some basic obedience training. Teaching your dog to come when called is critical and may save its life someday. Learning to walk on a leash and load in the truck is important as well.
Hunting a pup with an experienced dog is often a good way to start out but most trainers will say don’t rely on this too much. There comes a point where your dog must learn to do it himself. Experienced squirrel dog men will tell you nothing takes the place of boot leather, simply taking your dog to the woods and putting in the time and the miles.
“A dog can’t learn to hunt sitting in the kennel,” is a saying I have heard for most of my life. There is no magic bullet to take the place of this. Take your dog to the woods as much as possible. Cur dog icon Allen Franklin clarified this by saying, “Take your dog to the woods where there is game.” Franklin is from Sarahsville, Ohio, which is well-known in the cur dog world and has raised and trained many champions.
“Don’t put the cart before the horse,” says Carl Smith of Hilham, Tennessee, who is a household name to those who know squirrel dogs. “Too many people concentrate on treeing first, we all want our dogs to tree game, but the dog has got to find the game before he can tree it. Let your young dog learn to hunt and find game before you emphasize treeing too much.” (Patience, remember?)
Just go huntin’. To boil it all down, the best thing you can do is just take your young dog hunting. Young dogs, like young hunters don’t care if it is going to be a perfect day, they just want to go.
This in a nutshell, (all puns intended) is the basic allure of squirrel doggin’, the simplicity of it all. Expensive hunting leases, fancy gear, and high-priced tags are not needed. Public ground may have as many squirrels as private. Grab your .22 rifle and maybe a shotgun. Your turkey vest serves as a great squirrel carrier. Load your squirrel dog buddy and go.
Hunting squirrels with a dog may be the best way to introduce anyone, young or old to hunting. Kids are under no pressure to sit quietly; they can tramp through the woods and make all the noise they want. Everyone will get a kick out of watching the antics of the dogs and it is a very safe environment for new hunters. There is no need to load up until you reach the tree and once the squirrel is spotted there is all the time in the world to assist with the shot. It’s just a great way to spend time in the fall and winter woods.
Is it possible we have taken a lot of the enjoyment out of hunting with dead serious concentration on a buck’s antler size and a similar attitude when pursuing turkeys? I think so. You will find none of this in the squirrel dog world. This sport is all about what hunting should be, enjoying the great outdoors with friends and family.