Dogs add something special for hunters chasing squirrels
George Bossart is above all a dog man.
From the immaculate kennels in the back yard of his Acme home to the Laurel Highlands Coon Hunters hat on his head to the crates in the bed of his pickup to the rug on its passenger seat — it marks Suzie's spot when you're not around — he's all about dogs.
A couple of his canines are unusual, though, at least for this part of the world.
Suzie and Ginny, both treeing curs, are squirrel-hunting dogs.
“They use all three senses — sound, sight and smell,” Bossart said. “Any movement, they'll catch it, better than another dog. They can actually tree a squirrel by the sound of their claws running over bark. And if a squirrel's been on the ground, they'll smell it.”
At work, the dogs cruise the woods silently, sometimes moving so quickly it's hard to imagine them having a purpose.
But when they tree a squirrel, as they did four times in about three hours one day last week in the woods around Kecksburg, they “open up” — barking, howling, leaping and frenetically clambering as far up the tree as gravity and their nails allow — to alert Bossart that it's time to move in.
When he shoots the gray or fox squirrel they've cornered, they move in briefly as if to confirm everything their senses had told them, then take off after the next one.
“If it isn't fun for a dog, treeing, then you might as well forget it. But if they take to it, boy, they seem to live to do it,” Bossart said.
Hunting dogs with squirrels is something that took root long ago and lives on most strongly in the South.
“When you get down to Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, that's really the heart of squirrel hunting with dogs,” said Jim LaPratt of Gagetown, Mich., owner of the website Squirrel Dog Central.
“I think it started as a subsistence thing, when people were always worried about putting food on the table. It was a way a dog could sort of earn his keep, too.”
That's how Donald Moats, president of the World Tree Dog Association in Lisbon, Ohio, got started in the sport six-plus decades ago.
“Well, we did it for the meat. I was born in the mountains of West Virginia, and back then, it was pretty tough. If you didn't grow it or kill it, you didn't eat it,” Moats said.
“But I had a little dog that learned to hunt squirrels, and it went with me everywhere I went.”
That's not nearly so common here. Though squirrels are perhaps the most abundant game animal in the state — hunters kill in the neighborhood of 700,000 annually, and biologists say that's a fraction of the harvest the population could stand — fewer people are hunting them than ever, and fewer still are doing it with dogs.
They're missing out, LaPratt said.
“It's just a lot of fun, especially for kids,” he said. “Taking a kid squirrel hunting with a dog is the perfect thing because being absolutely quiet isn't so essential. You can walk through the woods and talk and still shoot some game.”
Most squirrel dogs are one of two varieties: curs or fiests. The best of them — like those crowned at the Tree Dog Association's world championship, held on the grounds of the Western PA Coon and Fox Hunters Association grounds in Parker on Saturday — are “five-digit dogs” in that they can be worth upwards of $10,000, LaPratt said.
Training them isn't necessarily hard, said Bossart, who has three champion squirrel dogs to his credit.
“The main thing, I think, is just to get them out where there are lots of squirrels. I think they best learn on their own,” he said.
Most curs and fiests will “tree anything that will go up a tree,” Moats added.
“The more you hunt them for whatever it is you're after, the more they seem to take to it,” he added.
How successful dogs can make a squirrel hunter can vary. There are times when they can provide almost nonstop action, LaPratt believes.
“A guy with a dog, he's going to go five or 10 to one, I would guess, on squirrels, compared to a guy without a dog. In a good woods, by the time you shoot one squirrel, skin it, and pack it up, your dogs are on another. You can pack up your limit in a hurry,” he said.
Even when things aren't that hot, a good dog — which can “hear a squirrel cutting a hickory nut 200 yards away” — makes for an efficient day in the woods, Moats said.
“They don't waste any of your steps. If you hear one barking, they've got a squirrel treed,” he said.
Bossart won't go so far as to say that hunting squirrels with dogs is dramatically more productive than hunting them without one. A hunter who finds a nice stand of hickories or oaks that has produced a bumper crop of nuts, and who can sit still and quiet, can certainly get his share, he said.
Dogs don't make squirrel hunting foolproof either, he said. On days when the squirrels just won't leave their dens or nests, not even a champion dog can track them down, he said.
But if he's hunting squirrels, you can bet there will be a dog involved.
“Most of the squirrel hunters I know who use dogs, they just like to see the dogs do well more than anything. They like to see the dogs work,” he said. “That's the really fun part.”