Mike Bridges can’t recall a time when there wasn’t a hunting dog around the house.

His grandfather raised fox hounds and beagles, and growing up, Bridges owned a shepherd-collie mix that could tree squirrels with the best of them.

These days, Bridges raises feist dogs, the traditional terrier-type treeing dog of the Southern mountains.

“Feists are people dogs,” Bridges said. “If they don’t like you, they won’t hunt with you.”

Bridges kennels his dogs on a wooded hillside in northern Knox County, close to the Union-Anderson county line. He has 24 dogs in all. His favorite is Tanner, a 26-pound, 5-year-old feist that locates squirrels with pinpoint accuracy.

Bridges hunts squirrels because he enjoys the company of his dogs. He bought Tanner from a kennel in Indiana when Tanner was 6 weeks old, and raised him in the house.

“You can’t just keep a dog in a lot till it’s a year old and expect it to tree,” he said. “You’ve got to fool with them. I usually get them started chasing a squirrel tail as a puppy.”

Feist dogs, as defined by the American Treeing Feist Association, should have smooth coats and weigh no more than 30 pounds. Their ears should be short, their bodies slightly stocky, and their legs can be straight or benched. Most are virtually silent on the track, but bark with abandon when treeing game.

Feist dogs are bred for function, not beauty. Some theorize the breed originated when the early settlers from England crossed their terrier types with the small dogs kept by North American Indians. Horace Kephart mentions feist dogs in his book, “Our Southern Highlanders,” published in 1913, and William Faulkner, the Southern novelist, was a known feist fancier.

Bridges said that while most well-bred feists tree by natural instinct, proper training is often necessary for a pup to reach its full potential.

One of Bridges’ training tools is an elaborate contraption called a squirrel tube that consists of three interconnected wire tubes and a box that temporarily houses a live squirrel.

A 20-foot wire tube on the ground connects to a vertical tube that in turn connects to a 20-foot wire tube stretched horizontally between two trees, 10 feet off the ground. When a pup is still young, say 4 months old, Bridges will let the squirrel run through the ground tube so the pup can get a close look at it. When the pups are a little older, he lets them bark at the squirrel as it runs back and forth along the horizontal tube above their heads.

At first, Bridges trains his feist pups as a group. Once they’re started, he takes them out one at a time, usually accompanied by an older dog.

“A lot of breeds will tree a squirrel,” Bridges said. “What you look for in a feist is that fierce desire to follow the squirrel through the limbs.”

Recently, Bridges worked five dogs on the squirrel tube. With him that day was his friend, Gary Chapman, who brought two feists - an adult named Gracie and a younger female named Precious.

“Gracie taught Precious how to tree,” said Chapman. “All I did was take them to the woods and let them go.”

Bridges uses the squirrel tube sparingly. Too much of it, he said, can spoil a dog and make it less inclined to bark at a squirrel that’s hidden from view.

Squirrel hunting has been on the decline in recent decades as turkey and white-tailed deer hunting have increased in popularity. Bridges likes that with squirrel hunting he can carry on a conversation and walk freely through the woods behind his dogs. He likes the fact that squirrels are plentiful - he eats them fried, with gravy - and he often invites children along on his hunts.

When it comes to training squirrel dogs, he swears by one simple rule.

“It takes a lot of hunting,” he said. “All my dogs, they need to be in the woods. They need it bad.”

Source: KnoxNews.com


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