The Beagle is a breed old enough to have its origins shrouded in mystery. We know for certain that, when the Romans arrived in the British Isles soon after the birth of Christ, they found small hounds already employed in hunting. About a thousand years later, William the Conqueror and his Norman soldiers brought along hounds of their own that probably influenced the Beagle. Thus, most researchers are not entirely certain whether the word Beagle comes from the Celtic word for “small” or the French word for “open mouth.”
In any case, after the Norman conquest, all-day hunts became a popular pastime among the landed aristocracy. The Beagle was a tiny dog in those days—perfect for hunting hares and rabbits in a group, since its little legs worked at a pace that ladies and elderly men could follow on foot.
Foxhunting became the rage among the upper classes during the 1700s, however. Both the Beagle and the pursuit of rabbits were handed over to those of more humble birth. One man is recognized as having shaped the breed from this point forward, and that is Parson Honeywood of Essex. He collected a fine pack of hounds in the 1830s, including not only the old type of Beagle, but also a long-eared, heavy-bodied British dog called the Southern Hound. He probably also had a few Harriers in his pack. His dogs were hunters to be reckoned with, so it is little wonder that most packs in subsequent years were descended from the parson’s hounds.
Beagles existed in America early in our nation’s history, at least since Colonial times. They were particularly popular in the South. These, however, were the variable hounds that existed before Parson Honeywood’s day. After the Civil War, General Richard Rowett of Illinois began to import some of the new, more uniform Beagles descended from Honeywood’s pack. Other breeders followed suit into the 1890s, firmly fixing the type of the Beagle in America.
The Beagle was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885. Two years later, the breed was considered sufficiently distinctive to have its own written standard.
Beagles were largely kept for hunting and field trial competitions in the late 1800s. It was not until after the World Wars that they became popular pets. In 1953, the Beagle reached the top of AKC registration statistics, a position it held for six years. Even today, the Beagle is still the 5th most popular dog in America.
There are two types of Beagle: the show dog and the working dog.
The show type is the ultimate house pet, thanks to its small size, easy-care coat, and friendly demeanor. It is also a useful watchdog and a superb therapy dog. Its presence and strutting gait make it a perennial winner at dog shows.
The hunting type, on the other hand, is not content to sit back and accept admiration. It was born to work. It can hunt rabbits and hares, alone or in a pack, for sport or for competition.
Beagles are also a traditional choice for patrolling airports. The USDA’s Beagle Brigade searches for agricultural contraband, but these little hounds can also detect drugs and weapons.
Merry is probably the word most often used to describe the Beagle. He is a sweet, outgoing, curious dog that loves nothing better than playing with children and other dogs—unless it is sniffing out something to eat. This is a breed that thrives on companionship. He cannot be left alone for long periods of time unless in the company of other dogs. Lonely Beagles tend to be noisy.
Even though Beagles are loving and smart, they are also determined and somewhat stubborn. They are skilled at finding new ways to get out of work. It takes a patient person to train and housebreak a Beagle. The good news is that this breed will do just about anything for food.
Owners should always remember that a Beagle’s nose rules his mind. This means that food left out unsupervised will inevitably be discovered and devoured; trash cans will be tipped over and searched thoroughly; anything smelly will be investigated and probably rolled in. Furthermore, interesting scents outdoors are irresistible attractions. A Beagle must always be kept on a leash or within the safety of a physical fence—an underground fence is not sufficient. Once a Beagle gets on the trail, he cannot be recalled.
At work, the Beagle’s happy spirit and pure determination really shine. He prefers to work with his nose to the ground and his tail up like a flag. He bays to alert the hunter to a promising scent and then pursues the game relentlessly.
Note the differences in temperament within the Beagle breed. Show bloodlines make the best pets, since they are laid-back and family-oriented. Working bloodlines have boundless energy, perfect for a day in the field. They are happiest when living with a pack of other Beagles. Also note that the Beagle’s popularity has made it a favorite with puppy mills. Puppy-mill Beagles are usually found at pet stores, and they are unfortunately known for nervousness and psychotic behavior.
Some of the most common health problems in Beagles involve their prodigious appetites. Prevent poisoning and gastrointestinal injury by keeping trash cans and other sources of human food safely locked away. Also, never leave your Beagle unattended. If you are not at home, your Beagle needs to be safe in his crate.
Beagles can put on the pounds very easily. Don’t let those soft, sad eyes trick you into thinking your pet needs just a little more food. Keep him on a strict diet, and keep him active.
Other health problems that appear to be common in the Beagle breed include:
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Cherry eye (prolapse of the third eyelid).
- Ear infections (can be avoided by regular ear cleaning).
- Deafness (not to be confused with selective hearing, also common in this breed).
- Cleft palate.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Luxating patellas (slipped kneecaps).
- Intervertebral disc disease.
- Umbilical hernia.
Also beware of dwarfism. Dwarfs sometimes appear in otherwise normal litters. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous breeders then pawn them off as “rare pocket Beagles.” These dogs are not throwbacks to old-time hunting dogs that could be carried in pockets; they are actually genetically defective. They usually suffer from numerous deformities that can cause arthritis and other discomfort throughout their lives.
- Small size.
- Excellent disposition (if obtained from a reputable source).
- Suitability for families with children.
- Low grooming requirements.
- Modest exercise needs.
- Adaptability to most climates.
- Keen nose.
- Determination when on the scent.
- Need for companionship.
- Difficulty in training and housebreaking.
- Untrustworthy behavior when unsupervised.
- Doggy odor.
- Moderate shedding.
- Tendency toward obesity.
- Numerous health problems.