The Beagle is a breed of small to medium-sized dog. A member of the Hound Group, it is similar in appearance to the Foxhound, but smaller, with shorter legs and longer, softer ears. Beagles are scent hounds, developed primarily for tracking hare, rabbit, and other game. They have a keen sense of smell and tracking instinct that sees them employed as detection dogs for prohibited agricultural imports and foodstuffs in quarantine around the world. Beagles are intelligent, and are popular as pets because of their size, even temper, and lack of inherited health problems. These characteristics also make them the dog of choice for animal testing.
Although beagle-type dogs have existed for over 2,000 years, the modern breed 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.
Beagles have been depicted in popular culture since Elizabethan times in literature and paintings, and more recently in film, television and comic books. Snoopy of the comic strip Peanuts has been promoted as "the world's most famous beagle".
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 (8.2 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 (known as the "stern") tipped with white. The white tip, known as the 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.
Color: 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.
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 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.
Dogs of similar size and purpose to the modern Beagle can be traced in Ancient Greece back to around the 5th century BC. Xenophon, born around 433 BC, in his Treatise on Hunting or Cynegeticus refers to a hound that hunted hares by scent and was followed on foot. Small hounds are mentioned in the Forest Laws of Canute which exempted them from the ordinance which commanded that all dogs capable of running down a stag should have one foot mutilated. If genuine, these laws would confirm that beagle-type dogs were present in England before 1016, but it is likely the laws were written in the Middle Ages to give a sense of antiquity and tradition to Forest Law.
In the 11th century, William the Conqueror brought the Talbot hound to 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. 19th-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:
little small mitten-beagle, which may be companion for a ladies kirtle, and in the field will run as cunningly as any hound whatere, only their musick is very small like reeds.
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.
The typical longevity of Beagles is 1013 years, which is a common lifespan for dogs of their size.
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 a range of illnesses; Hip dysplasia, common in Harriers and in some larger breeds, is rarely considered a problem in Beagles. Beagles are considered a chondrodystrophic breed, meaning that they are prone to types of disk diseases. Weight gain can be a problem in older or sedentary dogs, which in turn can lead to heart and joint problems.
In rare cases, Beagles may develop immune mediated polygenic arthritis (where the immune system attacks the joints) even at a young age. The symptoms can sometimes be relieved by steroid treatments.
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.