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Feist or Fiction
"The Origins and History of the American Feist"
By Keith Holt

The origins of the Feist are perhaps, the most enigmatic of any American dog. One of the earliest, if not the earliest recorded reference to the Feist was by George Washington, circa 1770, whereby the dog was referred to in his diary as, "A small foist looking yellow cur." William Faulkner and Abraham Lincoln also made early references to the Feist. Despite a handful of historical references to the Feist, little has been recorded about their exact genetic origins. There are competing theories as to the historical origins of the feist. One popular theory is that the Feist is the descendant of European (most likely British) terriers, crossed onto Native American hunting dogs. The Native American hunting dog x European terriers origin theory can probably only be applied to a handful of the older “strains” of feist and not so much the broader category of the “Treeing Feist” of today. Peculiarly enough, there is in the Southeast region of the United States, a pariah “breed” of dog, the Carolina Dog, which is believed to be a remnant of ancient Native American dogs. These Carolina Dogs, especially the black tri-colored, piebald individuals, bear some resemblance to a larger feist. The Native American dog connection to the Feist may or may not ever be established via DNA but the oral traditions implicating Native American dogs x European Terriers does at least offer a starting point in any investigation, regarding the genetic origins of the Feist. Another popular view concerning the Feist’s genetic origins is that the Feist is simply a type. A type is similar to a breed in that there is a defined point of exclusion, that is, there are certain dogs that cannot “fit” (as if there were a very loose standard in play) into either category. A popular, historical definition of a breed is one where there is a group of domesticated animals, who share common descent and common characteristics. A type need not necessarily share common ancestry or common physical traits. Historically, types were most often utilized as hunters and or working dogs, i.e. hunters/ratters/cattle dogs, etc, whereby a dog’s pedigree or more commonly, the lack thereof had little to no importance. The dog or dogs in question were historically, severely culled and only the animals that displayed the desired characteristics and abilities were bred. Today’s feist may carry a number of breed or type titles; Mountain, Bench, Pencil Tailed, Flop Eared, Traditional or Treeing Feist, others are the products of decades of line breeding and are, in some cases breeds of their own, like the Buckley Mountain Feist and Mullins Feist. Despite the relative purity of some strains, there are a number of Treeing Feist, who carry the genetics of the Mountain Cur as well as a host of other breeds. Depending on the particular registry’s standards, numerous breeds and their combinations may be registered as (Treeing) Feist. Whatever the exact genetics of a particular dog, the Feist remains a small to medium sized dog, with a relatively short coat, which is erect to button eared and contains therein, a great propensity to tree and or bay game. 

 “A Summarized History Concerning the Genetic Origins of the Rat Terrier”

For those of us who have been involved with the Rat Terrier, most are fairly well educated as to the origins of the breed. I will, to the best of my knowledge and ability give a “refresher” course to some and to others, inform them as to the history of the Rat Terrier. The Rat Terrier “began” sometime in the 1820’s, when the British began “crossing” the Fox Terrier and the Manchester Terrier. The Fox Terriers of the 1820’s were a very different dog than the modern Fox Terrier in several ways. First of all, the Fox Terrier in the early decades of the 19th century was more of a type, rather than a breed. The Fox Terrier of the early 1800’s, was a sort of “catch all” category, and Fox Terriers were called such because of regional dialect tendencies, or they were used on fox, or were of a certain phenotype. Bull and terrier crosses, Black and Tan Terriers, Old English Terriers and a multitude of other breeds and types made up the lineage of the early, 19th Century Fox Terrier. The Fox Terrier of earlier days was a tough, gamey terrier that was used on both below and above ground quarry. The larger sized Fox Terriers were often too large to go to ground and were used on a number of British game species (we know that they weighed at least, upwards of 20 lbs or more, 20 lbs is what the original standard called for as a maximum weight of a Fox Terrier male,  circa 1876). The other significant “part” of the early “Rat Terrier” cross was of course, the Manchester Terrier. The Manchester of the early 1820’s was a relatively recent cross of the Black and Tan Terrier (many liken it to a Black and Tan Fell Type or even the Welsh Terrier) and the Whippet. The working Manchester was likewise, a tough and feisty terrier that was commonly used to hunt rabbits and rodents, ranging from the small mouse to the larger “reed rats” common in and around Manchester. These hybrids, the “English Feist Terriers,” proved to be par excellent in the rat pits of industrialized Britain. Upon importation to the American continent, sometime in the later 19th century, the English Feist Terriers received “infusions,” from several breeds and types. The Americans “crossed” their Fox Terriers, Feists and other terrier types onto the English Feist Terriers. The American Feist types most probably imparted or at the very least “strengthened” any treeing ability that the English Feist Terriers possessed. Other American breeders added beagle, this was most common in the South and most probably was an attempt to strengthen the nose, still, other breeders added Whippet in order to increase the terrier’s speed, which would lead to its’ ability to course and catch rabbits. The English Feist Terrier would receive a new moniker, via their new patron, Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt was an avid hunter, conservationist and lover of nature. Roosevelt gained the Whitehouse only to find that it was infested with rodents. Teddy brought his terriers, of uncertain lineage to the Whitehouse, whereby they performed a wonderful job on eliminating the vermin. Teddy proclaimed the attributes of his “rat terriers,” and so the English import, was on its’ way in becoming the American Rat Terrier that we know today. It has been brought to my attention that the term rat terrier had been used in America in the 1800’s but I am inclined to conclude that any such references prior to 1900 described more of a generic type, a ratting type of dog and not a breed. The 1930’s would see Toy Fox Terrier genes make their way into some Rat Terrier lineages, reducing size and refining the Rat Terrier’s physical characteristics. Later, the Chihuahua would contribute to a further reduction in size, and aide in the development of the “Toy” Rat Terrier size. Despite, the infusions of non-hunting/working and or toy breeds into some Rat Terrier lines, not all Rat Terriers are descendents of these crosses, or at  least contain very little of those genetic contributions. With the advent of competition squirrel hunting, we saw some Rat Terriers compete in these events under the Treeing Feist “breed or type” category. Some breeders/hunters would effectively “remove their dogs from the Rat Terrier breed” and adopt the Treeing Feist name.  There have been in years past, at least a few Rat Terrier-“Treeing Feists,” who have won numerous competition hunts. The typical Rat Terrier fits easily within most Feist or Treeing Feist categories/standards and of course shares some common ancestry with some, non-Rat Terrier Feists. Today, there are numerous registries that recognize the Rat Terrier as a breed and as fate would have it; the Rat Terrier is the sole or primary ancestor of the Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, the American Hairless Terrier and the emerging Decker Hunting Terrier. The hunting Rat Terrier of the 21st century may continue to exist in its own right or under the Treeing Feist or Decker Hunting Terrier name.

A special thanks to Michael Croucher http://www.jazzfeists.com 
American Treeing Feist Association http://www.americantreeingfeist.com
Jack Buckley http://www.angelfire.com/ky3/sqdog 

Here are a few photos of some Feist
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