The Beagle

The Beagle sings a merry tune as he follows his nose through life


Beagle puppies are among the cutest critters on God's green Earth. Doubters of this bit of wisdom are referred to the soft drink commercial of several years ago in which a pack of Beagle puppies overwhelmed a small child, bringing gales of laughter as they licked his face. No one could watch that commercial without bursting into hearty laughter themselves — or without gaining instant appreciation for the puppies that brought such joy to a little boy.

Beagles are merry adults, eager to romp and play with children, toys, or other dogs. Pack animals to the nth degree, they need companionship more than most other breeds. Indeed, a Beagle left to his own devices will be noisy, destructive, or both.

Mist shrouds the actual origins of the Beagle as it does many other breeds, but there is little doubt that the merry rabbit hunter shares ancestors with the larger Harrier and English Foxhound. Although legends exist about hounds in King Arthur's Camelot, the Beagle is probably descended from Talbot Hounds that traveled to England with William the Conquerer in 1066.

There are records of dogs that hunted in packs with their keepers in both England and Wales in the 13th Century. Early on, these hounds were divided by size; the large ones hunted deer and other large game and the small ones hunted hares, rabbits, and pheasants. The small hounds were called “beighs” or “beagles,” perhaps after “beigle,” the French word for “useless or of little value,” or “beag” the Celtic word for “small.”

These early hounds probably did not resemble the Beagles of today. In the 1700s, rabbit-hunting dogs all but disappeared in England as fox-hunting grew in popularity. Farmers kept the breed alive by keeping packs of Beagles, but it wasn't until the 1800s that the breed developed into the dog we know today as the happy-go-lucky dog with a nose that doesn't quit.

The Beagle came to the US in 1876 and was recognized by the American Kennel Cub in 1884. Today it is one of the country's most popular breeds; in 1996, its 56,946 new registrations placed it fifth among 143 AKC breeds.

Beagle physique

The Beagle is a well-muscled, small-to-almost-medium-sized dog with a keen sense of smell and a wanderlust that can lead him into trouble. He comes in two sizes — under 13 inches tall and 13-15 inches tall. Weight for the smaller dogs is 18-20 pounds; for the larger dogs is 20-30 pounds.

The standard allows “any hound color,” which includes tri-color (black, brown, and white), red and white, lemon and white, and tan and white. Solid white or tan is possible but very rare. The color pattern can include mottling, ticking, or grizzling.

The Beagle's soft brown eyes are probably his most appealing feature. One long gaze into the eyes and the potential owner is likely to become an actual owner, for the breed has mastered the trick of looking as if he doesn't have a friend in the world. Ears are long — but not as long as the Basset's. When pulled forward, they should almost reach the end of the nose; when at rest they should tip over and lie close to the head.

The Beagle's compact body is longer than tall. He carries his moderately-long tail like a flag above his back, providing a marker when he follows scent through tall grass.

Beagle coat is hard and short but sheds. It is a double coat, with fine undercoat and coarser top coat; it is generally thicker in winter and sheds most heavily in spring.

The Beagle as pet

Although he has a merry and tractable disposition, the Beagle is not the dog for every family. His wanderlust, need for activity, and loud voice make him unsuitable for sedentary families or for apartments or unfenced yards. This is a sociable dog developed to work in packs. If he's an only pet, the Beagle's family must be prepared more than most to provide stimulation for the dog to keep him home. Otherwise, his need for companionship and his desire to follow his nose to adventure could lead him to adopt another family, get arrested for running at large, or worse, get hit by a car.

Gentle and generally pleased with life, the Beagle can also be stubborn and difficult to obedience train or house train. Few Beagles compete in obedience trials, for they are easily distracted by the sight or scent of any animal that crosses their path — or crossed it hours ago. However, training is critical for the breed — especially the command to “come.” However, since Beagles who know the command under most circumstances may not obey when hot on the trial of a squirrel or rabbit — or the neighbor's cat — owners must be ever vigilant to keep Snoopy home. The intent of the chase is the chase, and the drive is deep. Once a Beagle is out of sight, he may be gone forever.

Beagle stubbornness should not rule the day; a puppy kindergarten and basic obedience class are in order for the new Beagle owner to learn how to train the puppy to be a well-mannered dog. Happy-go-lucky, gentle dogs still need manners, and Beagle owners need patience to deal with their pets' lack of enthusiasm for formal training. A good obedience instructor can help develop both.

Because of his strong desire to explore the universe, the Beagle should never be allowed outside a secure area unless he is attached to a leash. No underground fence for this little guy; if a rabbit wanders by, Snoopy will be after it, radio-collar shock or no. And if the kids have a habit of racing out the door with Snoopy in hot pursuit, make sure the gate is locked. Otherwise, confine Snoopy so he can't get out. Shelters often have an abundance of Beagles and Beagle mixes, many of them picked up as strays. Few get adopted.

The voice

The Beagle voice charms his fanciers and annoys his detractors. He barks at strangers and if left alone too much, but barking isn't the problem — it's the bay, or half-howl, that causes neighbors to curse the day you bought your pet.

The Beagle howl and bay help the hunter locate his dogs when they “give tongue” on the trail of the quarry, but they can quickly become nuisances in city and suburban neighborhoods. Potential owners must be aware that not only is the Beagle likely to vocalize, it is difficult to train him to stop. Unfortunately, when a Beagle is left alone, he may lament his situation long and loud. This characteristic can be handled in a couple of ways: don't get a Beagle if you work full time; don't leave your Beagle alone in your yard; hire someone to visit your Beagle during the day if you must work; or find a doggies day care center.

Grooming and health

Some Beagles love to roll in disgusting organic matter and may need frequent baths, but they usually need little more than a weekly brushing to remove dead hair. Their droopy ears do need attention because they are subject to yeast and other infections. Owners should know what healthy ears smell like so they will know in a whiff if an infection is developing.

Ticks and fleas can be a problem if the Beagle spends much time in tall grass or brushy areas. Owners can set aside a quiet half-hour after each outing to search for these parasites, time that provides for bonding as well as grooming.


Beagles are relatively long-lived (12-15 years), but they are susceptible to a number of diseases and conditions, including glaucoma, cataracts, retinal atrophy, epilepsy, hypothyroidism, and invertebral disk disease. Prospective buyers should seek breeders who will discuss these diseases and at least present eye certifications on the breeding stock.

Beagles come not only in two sizes, they come in two types — field and show. Field-type dogs are bred to hunt and have a higher energy level. They may also be more pack-oriented and less likely to thrive as the only dog in a household. Show-type dogs are more compact and have been bred for temperaments that do well in families.

The cuteness of Beagle puppies has made them favorites of the pet store trade. However, pet store Beagles are likely to be high-strung and harder to house train than dogs bred in private homes and kennels by breeders who concentrate on good health, good temperament, and trainability in their puppies.

For more information about the breed, buy or borrow Beagles, A Complete Pet Owner's Manual by Lucia Vriends-Parent published by Barron's. this is an inexpensive but thorough book about the breed and a perfect gift for anyone contemplating adding one of these delightful and sometimes frustrating pets to their family.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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