The beagle is a member of the hound family of dogs, smaller yet similar in appearance to the larger Foxhound. The Beagle breed was developed in England (Great Britain) in the 1830’s as a hunting dog, primarily for hunting hare, an activity known as beagling. Beagles have a great sense of smell and superior tracking instincts which has led them to be commonly used as detection dogs for prohibited agricultural imports and foodstuffs in quarantine around the world. Beagles have been featured in popular culture since Elizabethan times, including in literature, paintings, film, television, and comic books.
Origin of the Beagle
The exact origin of the beagle is not fully known, which means we have to try and piece together facts and information to get the full beagle origin story. However, it is thought that in the 11th Century that William the Conqueror was responsible for bringing the St. Hubert Hound and the Talbot hound to Great Britain, which were subsequently crossed with Greyhounds leading to a new breed with good speed and stamina, traits needed for deer hunting. This new crossbreed is thought to be the start of the beagle breed.
Though the word beagle was used in mediaeval times to describe smaller hounds, it is thought that they were considerably different to the modern breed.
The Beagles Helping Hand – A Royal Approval
Before the advent of the modern beagle as we now know it, Edward II and Henry VII, both monarchs are thought to have had packs of ‘Glove Beagles’. As you’d expect from the name, Glove Beagles were small enough to fit on a glove, how small must have they been! Queen Elizabeth was also thought to have kept her own version of the beagle breed, known as the Pocket Beagle. Not quite small enough to fit in a coat pocket, the Pocket Beagle stood around 8 to 9 inches (20-23cm) and would be small enough to fit in a saddlebag while they rode along on the queen’s hunt.
The role of the Pocket Beagle extends past just sitting in the saddle bag though. While larger hounds would run the prey down to ground the smaller Pocket Beagle (and likely other smaller hounds) would finish the chase through underbrush to the prey’s ill fated conclusion.
Elizabeth I, who referred to her dogs as singing beagles, would allow her Pocket Beagles to entertain her guests at the dinner table by allowing the dogs to prance around on the table amongst the plates and cups, I can’t imagine that being much fun if I allowed my beagles do that!
As previously mentioned, the exact origins of the beagle are unclear and as such some 19th century sources refer to the Pocket and Glove Beagles interchangeably. This could mean they were the same small variety as opposed to two separate breeds.
The Beginnings of the Modern Beagle Breed
It is worth noting that as the beagle was developed as a hunting dog, that it’s fair to say it would have been developed by mixing other breeds to get the desired type of dog breed that would eventually become the modern beagle breed.
With that in mind, sometime in the 18th century two breeds had been developed for hunting hares (which is what beagles were eventually bred to do). These were the Southern Hound and the North Country Beagle (or Northern Hound). I won’t dive too deep into these dogs, but it’s likely they both had traits and characteristics that when combined would make an ideal hound for hunting hares.
The Pocket Beagle breed standards came to be in around 1901. However, the genetic lines for this strain of the Beagle is now extinct, though that has not deterred modern breeders from trying to recreate the variety, where in the US, smaller beagles seem popular.
It is thought that the first beagle pack was established in the 1830’s, by Reverend Phillip Honeywood in Essex. This first pack is believed to have formed the modern breed of beagle. It is thought that those early packs had strong representation from North Country Beagles and Southern Hounds, but unfortunately, as the lineage of Reverend Phillip Honeywood’s packs were not recorded we cannot be 100% sure.
It is thought (William Youatt) that the Harrier formed a major part of the beagles bloodline, again, the Harriers origin is not fully clear.
These early beagle packs from Prince Albert and Lord Winterton and Reverend Phillip Honeywood were small, about 10 inches (25 cm) at the shoulder. Curiously these beagles were pure according to white John Mills (writing in The Sportsman’s Library in 1845).
It’s worth noting that Honeywood’s pack was considered the finest among these early packs and his packs were predominantly produced for hunting.
Which leads us to the point where beagles started to become more than just hunting dogs.
More Than Just Hunters
A fellow Englishman, Thomas Johnson was responsible for refining the breed to produce dogs that were both attractive and capable hunters. Just quite why we are unsure, but we are glad he did!
Thomas Johnson developed two strains of beagles;
- Smooth-coated varieties.
The rough-coated beagle survived until the early 20th century but is now extinct, likely absorbed into the standard beagle bloodline.
By the 1840s, a standard beagle type was beginning to develop, with a large variation in size, character, and reliability among the packs.
In 1856 John Henry Walsh divided beagles into four varieties: medium, dwarf or lapdog, fox beagle, and rough-coated or terrier beagle.
John Henry Walsh described the beagle as resembling a miniature old southern hound with more neatness and beauty, and similar in hunting style.
By 1887, the threat of extinction for beagles was decreasing, with 18 beagle packs in England, and by 1902, the number of beagle packs had increased to 44 to cement their popularity and existence as a hunting dog and companion.
The Beagle Club was formed in 1890, and the first standard for the beagle breed was drawn up at that time.
The Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles was formed in 1891 to further the breed’s best interests and standardise the beagle.
Beagles Set-off For the US
Beagles of variable quality arrived in the United States by the late 1940s, and were imported strictly for hunting. These early US beagles were described as appearing to look like straight legged Dachshunds with weak heads, not like the modern style of beagle.
Serious efforts to establish a quality beagle bloodline in the U.S. began in the early 1870s by General Richard Rowett from Illinois who imported dogs from England to start breeding in the U.S.
Rowett’s Beagles are believed to have been the model for the first American standard for the breed.
The National Beagle Club of America was formed in 1888.
Popularity of the Beagle Breed
By the 20th century, the beagle breed has become widespread globally and the The Beagle Club in the UK held its first show in 1896.
Regular showing led to the further development of a uniform type of beagle.
Beagle shows were successful until World War I, when all shows were suspended. After World War I, the breed struggled for survival in the UK, with the last of the Pocket Beagles likely lost during this time and registrations falling to an all-time low. Reynalton Kennels, among others, managed to revive interest in the beagle post-World War I.
Beagle registrations in the UK dropped again after World War II but recovered quickly.
Beagles have been more popular in the United States and Canada than in their native England.
Some noted dates for beagles include;
- By 1901, a beagle had won a Best in Show title in the United States. The breed saw a strong revival in the U.S. after World War I.
- In 1928, beagles won several prizes at the Westminster Kennel Club’s show.
- In 1939, a beagle named Champion Meadowlark Draughtsman became the top-winning American-bred dog of the year.
- On 12 February 2008, a beagle named K-Run’s Park Me In First (Uno) won Best In Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show, the first beagle to do so.
- Beagles have been in the top-ten most-popular breeds in North America for over 30 years.
- From 1953 to 1959, the beagle was ranked No. 1 on the list of the American Kennel Club’s registered breeds. In 2005 and 2006, the beagle ranked 5th out of 155 breeds registered by the American Kennel Club.
- In the UK, beagles placed 28th and 30th in the rankings of registrations with the Kennel Club in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
- In the United States, the beagle was the 4th most popular breed in 2012 and 2013, behind the Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, and Golden Retriever.