The origin of the Beagle is obscure without documentation as to early development. References to small Beagle type dogs, which hunted hare and were followed on foot, date back to 400 BC in Greece and to 200 AD in ancient Britain. During the Roman Conquest of Britain, interbreeding of the small hounds brought by the Romans with indigenous British hounds most probably occurred. Additional blending of European and British hound of the following ten centuries, including the white Talbot hounds brought to Great Britain by William the Conqueror, most likely contributed to the origin of the Southern Hounds, Foxhound and the Beagle. The Beagle, a small scent hound was well established by the 15th Century in France, Greece, Italy and England. The name applied to the breed seems to be of Celtic origin, beg or beag meaning small and indicative of the size of some of the hounds the Celts were using for hunting at the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.
Popular pets with the English Royal Family, tiny glove-sized (actually gauntlet sized) Beagles were bred for amusement and for their melodious “singing” voices. Queen Elizabeth I succumbed to their charms and owned an entire pack of tiny nine inch tall hounds.
By the middle of the 18th Century hare hunting with Beagles as an aristocratic sport was supplanted by foxhunting with larger hounds. As a result, in a sport that required a larger, faster hound, the English Foxhound became the darling of the “blooded gentry”. Fortunately, hare hunting with packs of Beagles continued to be popular with the farmers and small landholders of the southern counties of England, as well as Wales and Ireland, so the breed flourished. By the mid 19th Century the Beagle’s popularity brought in increasing interest in producing a good looking as well as utilitarian hound.
Scent hounds undoubtedly accompanied the early English settlers in America, but not much is known of these early Beagles. Around 1870 General Richard Rowett of Illinois improved the appearance of the Beagle by importing some good looking hounds from several of the excellent British packs. Interest in the breed grew and the demand for General Rowett’s Beagles mushroomed.
With the success of early dog shows and the establishment of the first United States Beagle Club, the breed became popularly established. Additional imports from England by Captain Assheton and James Kernochan brought the breed to its current look of a “miniature English Foxhound”. These early day United States Beagles were “dual purpose” hounds, excelling in both field and show ring. With the establishment of the National Beagle Cub of America in the late 1880s, a standard was adopted, with very few changes over the years.
One notable feature of the American standard the division of the breed into two varieties. The reasoning can be explained by a letter published in the May, 1892 issue of Forest and Stream written by an officer of the National Beagle Club, using the pen name “Bradley”. The 1892 letter from “Bradley” was written to refute an argument that the Beagle Club should amend the standard from a 15″ height limit to one of 16″ because they had recently raised the lower limit from 12″ to 13″. “Bradley” wrote: “Mr. Phoebus further argues that because the limit of the small class has been increased from 12 to 13 inches, that of the large should be increased in proportion. I cannot agree with him. When the subject of the field trials came before the National Beagle Club, owners of small dogs asked for a class for their favorites. The field trial committee thought it was not fair to run a dog a trifle over 12 inches in height against a 15 inch dog. The little fellow would have no chance to win, for he could not keep up with his large opponent. After careful consideration it was thought fair to make two classes – one for beagles 13 inches and under and one for those 15 inches and under. This was done to bring dogs which were nearly the same size in the same class. Then, that the bench show classes might correspond with the field trial classes, the change was made on the bench.”
One important early modification of the standard was a revision in the Scale of Points. The original Beagle Standard published in 1884 gave 35 points to the head, but by 1900 that had been reduced to 25 points. According to Mr. H. W. Prentice who wrote the book The Beagle in America and England, published in 1920, the reason for this was that, “The beagle, being essentially a hunting dog, this [the reduction of points for the head and adding those points to the body and running gear sections] has been done for the purpose of giving relatively greater weight to the physical equipment the dog for the field work required, consistent with the item of ‘general appearance’ in the standard, the ‘miniature foxhound, solid and big for his inches, with the wear and tear look of the dog that can last in the chase, and follow his quarry to the death.’ ” The National Beagle Club places great value on the Scale of Points in the standard to determine the relative value of the parts of the hound and the standard has existed in it’s present form since 1957. The fact that the breed standard includes a section on “Packs of Beagles” emphasizes the importance of the Beagle’s history as a hunting hound.
As urbanization occurred and open land diminished, a gradual separation of function followed. The once “dual purpose” beagle became either a field/pack hound or a conformation Beagle. The old English tradition of pack hunting with required livery still flourishes under the direction of the National Beagle Club with home running grounds at Institute Farm in Aldie, Virginia. Field trialers who run their beagles in braces, small or large packs are nationwide and field trials have proliferated. In the past twenty-five years, another variation of field trialing, the “Gun Dog” movement, has also become very popular. Conformation Beagling continues it’s appeal to many small breeders, replacing the once small in number famous large kennels.
Beagles have been near the top of the AKC’s registration statistics for decades. Their friendly nature, sturdy yet relative small size and good scenting ability make it a versatile, loving and amusing companion in a variety of activities. In addition to the show ring, field/pack trials and other organized performance events, Beagles are used to detect contraband at airports and borders, termite inspection and as therapy dogs in convalescent hospitals and retirement homes, and likely most important of all, marvelous family companions.
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