Known and instantly recognized everywhere, few dog breeds are more universally adored than the Beagle. With his superb sense of smell and great tracking instincts, the Beagle has consistently been ranked as one of the AKC’s top 10 dog breeds for more than 30 years.
Beagle dog breed: a British, hunting history
The Beagle was developed in Great Britain around the 1830s from several breeds, including the Talbot Hound, the North Country Beagle, the Southern Hound and possibly the Harrier. From medieval times, the name “beagle” was used generically for various smaller hounds. Edward II and Henry VII both kept packs of “Glove Beagles,” so named because they were small enough to fit on a glove. Queen Elizabeth I kept “Pocket Beagles” that stood 8 to 9 inches at the shoulder, small enough to fit in a “pocket” or saddlebag so they rode along on the hunt. The larger hounds would run the prey to ground, then the small dogs were released to continue the chase through the underbrush. It is said that Elizabeth I referred to her dogs as “singing Beagles” and often entertained guests by allowing the Pocket Beagles to cavort on the royal table, darting around the cups and saucers.
Reverend Phillip Honeywood established a Beagle pack in Essex in the 1830s which formed the basis for the modern breed. Honeywood’s focus was on hunting prowess. Another Beagle devotee, Thomas Johnson, refined his breeding to produce hounds that were both able hunters and attractive to look at. By 1887 there were 18 Beagle packs in England; the Beagle Club was established in 1890, and the first standard was drawn up at the same time to give the breed a more consistent appearance.
The Beagle comes to the United States
Beagles arrived in the United States by the 1840s. The first were imported strictly for their hunting ability, and many were described as looking like straight-legged Dachshunds. Serious breeding began in the early 1870s when General Richard Rowett of Illinois imported the best dogs he could from England; These hounds were the models used to draw up the first breed standard. The American Kennel Club accepted the breed in 1885.
Interestingly, Beagles have always been more popular in the United States and Canada than in their native England. The National Beagle Club of America was formed in 1888, and by 1901 a Beagle had already won a Best in Show there. Two different Beagles have won ultimate honors at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the most prestigious all-breed competition in the country: “Uno” in 2008 and “Miss P” in 2015. In the United States, Beagles have consistently been in the top 10 most popular breeds for more than 30 years.
The Beagle’s super sense of smell
Together with the Bloodhound and Basset Hound, the Beagle has one of the best-developed senses of smell in dogdom. In the 1950s, John Paul Scott and John Fuller began a 13-year study of canine behavior. As part of their research, they tested the scenting abilities of various breeds by putting a mouse in a 1-acre field and timing how long it took the dogs to find it. The Beagles found it in less than a minute while Fox Terriers took 15 minutes and Scottish Terriers failed to find it at all. The Beagle’s long ears and large lips are thought to help trap scents close to the nose.
While most Beagles we encounter have a tricolor pattern with a black saddle, tan markings on the head and body and white trim, the breed standard states that Beagles can come in “any true hound color.” That includes red and white, a lighter lemon and white, chocolate tricolor (a dark brown saddle replacing the more familiar black) and blue tricolor (a blue-gray saddle instead of the black). The chocolate and blue dogs, being of genetically dilute coloring, will have lighter eyes, and brown or slate- gray noses, respectively.
The Beagle Brigade: Beagles as detection dogs
Beagles are in wide use as detection dogs in the Beagle Brigade of the United States Department of Agriculture. The dogs are used to detect food items in luggage being taken into the United States. Several breeds were tested, but Beagles were chosen because of their small size and friendly appearance (not all travelers are comfortable around dogs), intelligence, easy maintenance and willingness to work for rewards. Other countries, including New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Thailand, also employ Beagle detection dogs. Larger breeds are typically used to detect explosives, as this often requires climbing over luggage on large conveyor belts, where the Beagle’s size would be a disadvantage.
Beagles and animal testing
Beagles are the dog breed used most often in animal testing due to their size and mild nature. These medical, cosmetic, beauty and chemical tests are highly controversial. Testing of cosmetic products on animals is banned in the member states of the European Union. It is permitted in the United States but not mandatory if safety can be ascertained by other methods, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Beagles in popular culture
The Beagle has been a mainstay of comic strips and animated cartoons since the 1950s, with Snoopy appearing in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Snoopy is often billed as “the world’s most famous Beagle.”
The ship on which Charles Darwin made the voyage that provided much of the inspiration for On the Origin of Species was named the HMS Beagle.
Former U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson kept several Beagles, and caused an uproar when he picked up one of them by the ears during an official greeting on the White House lawn.
Porthos is a Beagle that belongs to Jonathan Archer, the captain on the TV series Star Trek: Enterprise.
Famous Beagle owners
With his sweet, affectionate nature, adorable looks and portable size, the Beagle has a worldwide fan club, including James Herriot (author of the All Creatures Great and Small books), Barry Manilow, KayCee Stroh, Andy Cohen, Bob Dylan, Meghan Markle, Miley Cyrus, Brazilian racing car driver Helio Castroneves and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones.