Feists generally are small (shorter than 18 inches/45 cm, and weigh less than 30 lbs/13.61 kg), short-coated dogs with long legs, a pointed (snipy) nose. The ears set high on the head and are button, erect, or short hang ears. Traditionally the tail is a natural bobtail or 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 and their size 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.
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 a coonhound trees raccoons.
Various named varieties within the feist type umbrella have been developed, including the Mountain Feist which include the Baldwin Feist, Buckley Feist, Denmark Feist, Galla Creek Feist, Kemmer Feist, Lost Creek Feist, Sport bred Feist, and the Thornburg Feist. The Treeing Feist which include the Barger Feist, Boggs Creek, Cajun Squirrel Dogs, Charlie Feists, Fleming Creek Squirrel Dogs, Hickory Grounds Feist, Horse Creek Feists, Hurley Comb's bred Feist, Mullins Feist, Riverun Feist, and the Rat Terrier. Both the National Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club recognize the Feist breed.
The feist is not a new type of dog. Written accounts of the dogs go back centuries, with several spelling variations seen. Abraham Lincoln wrote about them in a poem, "The Bear Hunt," spelling "feist" as "fice." Reference to them is included in the diary of George Washington in 1770 in which he wrote, "A small foist looking yellow cur," and a feist is also featured in William Faulkner's "Go Down Moses" in the line "a brave fyce dog is killed by a bear," as well as in his short story "The Bear." In her 1938 novel The Yearling, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings uses the spelling of "feist" to refer to this dog. 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 17th century. (Full Cry, December, 1987).