Although beagle-type dogs have existed for over 2,000 years, the modern breed was developed in Britain around the 1830s from several breeds, including the Talbot Hound, the North Country Beagle, the Southern Hound, and possibly the Harrier.
Beagles have been depicted in popular culture since Elizabethan times in literature and paintings, and latterly in film, television and comic books. Snoopy of the comic strip Peanuts has been promoted as "the world's most famous beagle".
In the 11th century, William the Conqueror brought the Talbot hound to Great Britain. The Talbot was a predominantly white, slow, deep-throated, scent hound derived from the St Hubert Hound which had been developed in the 8th century. At some point the English Talbots were crossed with Greyhounds to give them an extra turn of speed. Long extinct, the Talbot strain probably gave rise to the Southern Hound which, in turn, is thought to be an ancestor of the modern day Beagle.
From medieval times, beagle was used as a generic description for the smaller hounds, though these dogs differed considerably from the modern breed. Miniature breeds of beagle-type dogs were known from the times of Edward II and Henry VII, who both had packs of Glove Beagles, so named since they were small enough to fit on a glove, and Queen Elizabeth I kept a breed known as a Pocket Beagle, which stood 8 to 9 inches (20 to 23 cm) at the shoulder. Small enough to fit in a "pocket" or saddlebag, they rode along on the hunt. The larger hounds would run the prey to ground, then the hunters would release the small dogs to continue the chase through underbrush. Elizabeth I referred to the dogs as her singing beagles and often entertained guests at her royal table by letting her Pocket Beagles cavort amid their plates and cups. Nineteenth-century sources refer to these breeds interchangeably and it is possible that the two names refer to the same small variety. In George Jesse's Researches into the History of the British Dog from 1866, the early 17th century poet and writer Gervase Markham is quoted referring to the Beagle as small enough to sit on a man's hand and to the: Standards for the Pocket Beagle were drawn up as late as 1901; these genetic lines are now extinct, although modern breeders have attempted to recreate the variety.
By the 1700s two breeds had been developed for hunting hare and rabbit: the Southern Hound and the North Country Beagle (or Northern Hound). The Southern Hound, a tall, heavy dog with a square head, and long, soft ears, was common from south of the River Trent and probably closely related to the Talbot Hound. Though slow, it had stamina and an excellent scenting ability. The North Country Beagle, possibly a cross between an offshoot of the Talbot stock and a Greyhound, was bred chiefly in Yorkshire and was common in the northern counties. It was smaller than the Southern Hound, less heavy-set and with a more pointed muzzle. It was faster than its southern counterpart but its scenting abilities were less well developed. As fox hunting became increasingly popular, numbers of both types of hound diminished. The beagle-type dogs were crossed with larger breeds such as Stag Hounds to produce the modern Foxhound. The beagle-type varieties came close to extinction but some farmers in the South ensured the survival of the prototype breeds by maintaining small rabbit-hunting packs.
Although credited with the development of the modern breed, Honeywood concentrated on producing dogs for hunting and it was left to Thomas Johnson to refine the breeding to produce dogs that were both attractive and capable hunters. Two strains were developed: the rough- and smooth-coated varieties. The rough-coated Beagle survived until the beginning of the 20th century, and there were even records of one making an appearance at a dog show as late as 1969, but this variety is now extinct having probably been absorbed into the standard Beagle bloodline.
In the 1840s, a standard Beagle type was beginning to develop: the distinction between the North Country Beagle and Southern Hound had been lost, but there was still a large variation in size, character, and reliability among the emerging packs. In 1856, "Stonehenge" (the pseudonym of John Henry Walsh, editor of The Field), writing in the Manual of British Rural Sports was still dividing Beagles into four varieties: the medium Beagle; the dwarf or lapdog Beagle; the fox Beagle (a smaller, slower version of the Foxhound); and the rough-coated or terrier Beagle, which he classified as a cross between any of the other varieties and one of the Scottish terrier breeds. Stonehenge also gives the start of a standard description:
By 1887 the threat of extinction was on the wane: there were 18 Beagle packs in England. The Beagle Club was formed in 1890 and the first standard drawn up at the same time. The following year the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles was formed. Both organisations aimed to further the best interests of the breed, and both were keen to produce a standard type of Beagle. By 1902 the number of packs had risen to 44.
On its formation, the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles took over the running of a regular show at Peterborough that had started in 1889, and the Beagle Club in the UK held its first show in 1896. The regular showing of the breed led to the development of a uniform type, and the Beagle continued to prove a success up until the outbreak of World War I when all shows were suspended. After the war, the breed was again struggling for survival in Britain: the last of the Pocket Beagles were probably lost during this time, and registrations fell to an all time low. A few breeders (notably Reynalton Kennels) managed to revive interest in the dog and by World War II, the breed was once again doing well. Registrations dropped again after the end of the war but almost immediately recovered. In 1959 Derawunda Vixen won "Best in Show" at Crufts.
As a pedigree dog, Beagles have always been more popular in the United States and Canada than in their native country. The National Beagle Club of America was formed in 1888 and by 1901 a Beagle had won a Best in Show title. As in the UK, activity during World War I was minimal, but the breed showed a much stronger revival in the US when hostilities ceased. In 1928 it won a number of prizes at the Westminster Kennel Club's show and by 1939 a Beagle, Champion Meadowlark Draughtsman, had captured the title of top-winning American-bred dog for the year. On 12 February 2008, a Beagle won the Best In Show category at the Westminster Kennel Club show for the first time in the competition's history. In North America they have been consistently in the top ten most popular breeds for over 30 years. From 1953 to 1959 the Beagle was ranked number one on the list of the American Kennel Club's registered breeds; in 2005 and 2006 it ranked 5th out of the 155 breeds registered. In the UK they are not quite so popular, placing 28th and 30th in the rankings of registrations with the Kennel Club in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
It is not known why the black and tan Kerry Beagle, present in Ireland since Celtic times, has the beagle description, since at 22 to 24 inches (56 to 61 cm) it is significantly taller than the modern day Beagle, and in earlier times was even larger. Some writers suggest that the Beagle's scenting ability may have come from cross-breeding earlier strains with the Kerry Beagle. Originally used for hunting stags, it is today used for hare and drag hunting.
The general appearance of the Beagle resembles a Foxhound in miniature, but the head is broader and the muzzle shorter, the expression completely different and the legs shorter in proportion to the body. They are generally between 13 and 16 inches (33 and 41 cm) high at the withers and weigh between 18 and 35 lb (8 and 16 kg), with females being slightly smaller than males on average.
They have a smooth, somewhat domed skull with a medium-length, square-cut muzzle and a black (or occasionally liver), gumdrop nose. The jaw is strong and the teeth scissor together with the upper teeth fitting perfectly over the lower teeth and both sets aligned square to the jaw. The eyes are large, hazel or brown, with a mild hound-like pleading look. The large ears are long, soft and low-set, turning towards the cheeks slightly and rounded at the tips. Beagles have a strong, medium-length neck (which is long enough for them to easily bend to the ground to pick up a scent), with little folding in the skin but some evidence of a dewlap; a broad chest narrowing to a tapered abdomen and waist and a short, slightly curved tail tipped with white. The white tip, known as the "stern" or "flag" has been selectively bred for, as it allows the dog to be easily seen when its head is down following a scent. The tail does not curl over the back, but is held upright when the dog is active. The Beagle has a muscular body and a medium-length, smooth, hard coat. The front legs are straight and carried under the body while the rear legs are muscular and well bent at the stifles.
Beagles appear in a range of colours. Although the tricolour (white with large black areas and light brown shading) is the most common, Beagles can occur in any hound colour.
Tricoloured dogs occur in a number of shades, from the "Classic Tri" with a jet black saddle (also known as "Blackback"), to the "Dark Tri" (where faint brown markings are intermingled with more prominent black markings), to the "Faded Tri" (where faint black markings are intermingled with more prominent brown markings). Some tricoloured dogs have a broken pattern, sometimes referred to as pied. These dogs have mostly white coats with patches of black and brown hair. Tricolour Beagles are almost always born black and white. The white areas are typically set by eight weeks, but the black areas may fade to brown as the puppy matures. (The brown may take between one and two years to fully develop.) Some Beagles gradually change colour during their lives, and may lose their black markings entirely.
Two-colour varieties always have a white base colour with areas of the second colour. Tan and white is the most common two-colour variety, but there is a wide range of other colours including lemon, a very light tan; red, a reddish, almost orange, brown; and liver, a darker brown, and black. Liver is not common and is not permitted in some standards; it tends to occur with yellow eyes. Ticked or mottled varieties may be either white or black with different coloured flecks (ticking), such as the blue-mottled or bluetick Beagle, which has spots that appear to be a midnight-blue colour, similar to the colouring of the Bluetick Coonhound. Some tricolour Beagles also have ticking of various colours in their white areas.
English and American varieties are sometimes mentioned. However, there is no official recognition from any Kennel Club for this distinction. Beagles fitting the American Kennel Club standard—which disallows animals over 15 inches (38 cm)—are smaller on average than those fitting the Kennel Club standard which allows heights up to 16 inches (41 cm).
Pocket Beagles are sometimes advertised for sale but the bloodline for this variety is extinct, and, although the UK Kennel Club originally specified a standard for the Pocket Beagle in 1901, the variety is not now recognised by any Kennel Club. Often, small Beagles are the result of poor breeding or dwarfism.
A strain known as Patch Hounds was developed by Willet Randall and his family from 1896 specifically for their rabbit hunting ability. They trace their bloodline back to Field Champion Patch, but do not necessarily have a patchwork marking.
The Beagle has an even temper and gentle disposition. Described in several breed standards as "merry", they are amiable and generally neither aggressive nor timid. They enjoy company, and although they may initially be standoffish with strangers, they are easily won over. They make poor guard dogs for this reason, although their tendency to bark or howl when confronted with the unfamiliar makes them good watch dogs. In a 1985 study conducted by Ben and Lynette Hart, the Beagle was given the highest excitability rating, along with the Yorkshire Terrier, Cairn Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, West Highland White Terrier and Fox Terrier. Beagles are intelligent, but as a result of being bred for the long chase are single-minded and determined, which can make them hard to train. They are generally obedient but can be difficult to recall once they have picked up a scent and are easily distracted by smells around them. They do not generally feature in obedience trials; while they are alert, respond well to food-reward training, and are eager to please, they are easily bored or distracted.
Beagles are excellent with children and this is one of the reasons they have become popular family pets, but they are pack animals, and can be prone to separation anxiety. Not all Beagles will howl, but most will bark when confronted with strange situations, and some will bay (also referred to as "speaking", "giving tongue", or "opening") when they catch the scent of potential quarry. They also generally get along well with other dogs. They are not demanding with regard to exercise; their inbred stamina means they do not easily tire when exercised, but they also do not need to be worked to exhaustion before they will rest, though regular exercise helps ward off the weight gain to which the breed is prone.
Beagles may be prone to epilepsy, but this can be controlled with medication. Hypothyroidism and a number of types of dwarfism occur in Beagles. Two conditions in particular are unique to the breed: Funny Puppy, in which the puppy is slow to develop and eventually develops weak legs, a crooked back and although normally healthy, is prone to range of illnesses; Hip dysplasia, common in Harriers and in some larger breeds, is rarely considered a problem in Beagles.
Their long floppy ears can mean that the inner ear does not receive a substantial air flow or that moist air becomes trapped, and this can lead to ear infections. Beagles may also be affected by a range of eye problems; two common ophthalmic conditions in Beagles are glaucoma and corneal dystrophy. "Cherry eye", a prolapse of the gland of the third eyelid, and distichiasis, a condition in which eyelashes grow into the eye causing irritation, sometimes exist; both these conditions can be corrected with surgery. They can suffer from several types of retinal atrophy. Failure of the nasolacrimal drainage system can cause dry eye or leakage of tears onto the face.
As field dogs they are prone to minor injuries such as cuts and sprains, and, if inactive, obesity is a common problem as they will eat whenever food is available and rely on their owners to regulate their weight. When working or running free they are also likely to pick up parasites such as fleas, ticks, harvest mites and tapeworms, and irritants such as grass seeds can become trapped in their eyes, soft ears or paws.
Beagles may exhibit a behaviour known as reverse sneezing, in which they sound as if they are choking or gasping for breath, but are actually drawing air in through the mouth and nose. The exact cause of this behaviour is not known, but it is not harmful to the dog.
Beagles were developed primarily for hunting hare, an activity known as beagling. They were seen as ideal hunting companions for the elderly who could follow on horseback without exerting themselves, for young hunters who could keep up with them on ponies, and for the poorer hunters who could not afford to maintain a stable of good hunting horses. Before the advent of the fashion for foxhunting in the 19th century, hunting was an all day event where the enjoyment was derived from the chase rather than the kill. In this setting the tiny Beagle was well matched to the hare, as unlike Harriers they would not quickly finish the hunt, but because of their excellent scent-tracking skills and stamina they were almost guaranteed to eventually catch the hare. The Beagle packs would run closely together ("so close that they might be covered with a sheet") which was useful in a long hunt, as it prevented stray dogs from obscuring the trail. In thick undergrowth they were also preferred to spaniels when hunting pheasant.
With the fashion for faster hunts, the Beagle fell out of favour for chasing hare, but was still employed for rabbit hunting. In Anecdotes of Dogs, Jesse says: In the United States they appear to have been employed chiefly for hunting rabbits from the earliest imports. Hunting hare with Beagles became popular again in Britain in the mid-19th century and continued until it was made illegal in Scotland by the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 and in England and Wales by the Hunting Act 2004. Under this legislation Beagles may still pursue rabbits with the landowner's permission. Drag hunting is popular where hunting is no longer permitted or for those owners who do not wish to participate in blood sports but still wish to exercise their dog's innate skills.
The traditional foot pack consists of up to 70 Beagles, marshalled by a Huntsman who directs the pack and who is assisted by a variable number of whippers-in whose job is to return straying hounds to the pack. The Master of the Hunt is in overall day-to-day charge of the pack, and may or may not take on the role of Huntsman on the day of the hunt. Beagles may also be employed individually or in a brace (a pair).
As hunting with Beagles was seen as ideal for young people, many of the British public schools traditionally maintained Beagle packs. Protests were lodged against Eton's use of Beagles for hunting as early as 1902 but the pack is still in existence today, and a pack used by Imperial College in Wye, Kent was stolen by the Animal Liberation Front in 2001. School and university packs are still maintained by Eton, Marlborough, Wye, Radley, the Royal Agricultural College and Christ Church, Oxford.
Beagles have been used for hunting a wide range of game including Snowshoe Hare, Cottontail rabbits, game birds, Roe Deer, Red Deer, Bobcat, Coyote, Wild Boar and foxes, and have even been recorded as being used to hunt Stoat. In most of these cases, the Beagle is employed as a gun dog, flushing game for hunter's guns.
Beagles are used as detection dogs in the Beagle Brigade of the United States Department of Agriculture. These dogs are used to detect food items in luggage being taken into the United States. After trialling several breeds, Beagles were chosen because they are relatively small and unintimidating for people who are uncomfortable around dogs, easy to care for, intelligent and work well for rewards. They are also used for this purpose in a number of other countries including by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in New Zealand, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, and in Canada, Japan and the People's Republic of China. Larger breeds are generally used for detection of explosives as this often involves climbing over luggage and on large conveyor belts, work for which the smaller Beagle is not suited.
Testing of cosmetic products on animals is banned in the member states of European Community, although France protested the ban and has made efforts to have it lifted. It is permitted in the United States but is not mandatory if safety can be ascertained by other methods, and the test species is not specified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When testing toxicity of food additives, food contaminants, and some drugs and chemicals the FDA uses Beagles and mini-pigs as surrogates for direct human testing.
Anti-vivisection groups have reported on abuse of animals inside testing facilities. In 1997 footage secretly filmed by a freelance journalist inside Huntingdon Life Sciences in the UK showed staff punching and screaming at Beagles. Consort Kennels, a UK-based breeder of Beagles for testing, closed down in 1997 after pressure from animal rights groups.
Beagles are used in a range of research procedures: fundamental biological research, applied human medicine, applied veterinary medicine, and protection of man, animals or the environment.
Although bred for hunting, Beagles are versatile and are nowadays employed for various other roles in detection, therapy, and as family pets. Beagles are used as sniffer dogs for termite detection in Australia, and have been mentioned as possible candidates for drug and explosive detection. Because of their gentle nature and unimposing build, they are also frequently used in pet therapy, visiting the sick and elderly in hospital. In June 2006, a trained Beagle assistance dog was credited with saving the life of its owner after using his owner's mobile phone to dial an emergency number.
Beagles appeared in comic strips and animated cartoons from the 1950s with the Peanuts character Snoopy (billed as the "the world's most famous Beagle"), Odie from the comic strip Garfield, Walt Disney's Beagle Boys and Beegle Beagle, the constant companion of Hanna-Barbera's Grape Ape.
They have appeared in numerous films, taking a central role in Cats and Dogs, and the title roles in the adaptation of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's book Shiloh and the live-action version of Underdog. They have played supporting roles in films including Audition, The Monster Squad and The Royal Tenenbaums, and on television in Star Trek: Enterprise, EastEnders, The Wonder Years, and To the Manor Born among others.
Bagel, one of Barry Manilow's two Beagles, appeared on several of his album covers. Former US President Lyndon Baines Johnson had several Beagles, and caused an outcry when he picked up one of them by its ears during an official greeting on the White House lawn.
The ship on which Charles Darwin made his voyage which provided the material for his travel book The Voyage of the Beagle and much of the inspiration for On the Origin of Species was named HMS Beagle after the breed, and, in turn, lent its name to the ill-fated British Martian lander Beagle 2.
b. Youatt states that the Southern Hound may have been native to the British Isles and used on hunts by the Ancient Britons.
c. The Harts posed the following question to a panel of 96 experts, half of which were veterinary surgeons and the other half dog obedience trial judges:
d. The specific references in each of the author's works are as follows:
Shakespeare: "Sir Toby Belch: She's a beagle, true-bred, and one that adores me: what o' that?" Twelfth Night (c.1600) Act II Scene III
Webster: "Mistress Tenterhook': You are a sweet beagle" Westward Ho (1607) Act III Scene IV:2
Dryden: "The rest in shape a beagle's whelp throughout, With broader forehead and a sharper snout" The Cock and the Fox, and again: "About her feet were little beagles seen" in Palamon and Arcite both from Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700)
Tickell: "Here let me trace beneath the purpled morn, The deep-mouth'd beagle, and the sprightly horn" To a Lady before Marriage (published posthumously in 1749)
Fielding: "'What the devil would you have me do?' cries the Squire, turning to Blifil, 'I can no more turn her, than a beagle can turn an old hare.'" The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) Chapter 7.
Cowper: "For persevering chase and headlong leaps, True beagle as the staunchest hound he keeps" The Progress of Error (1782)
Pope: "Thus on a roe the well-breath'd beagle flies, And rends his hide fresh-bleeding with the dart" The Iliad of Homer (1715–20) Book XV:697–8