Ancient hunting dogs can be divided into two categories, those that were bred to hunt primarily by scent or primarily by sight. The beagle is a part of the family of dogs known as scent hounds. The exact origin of the beagle is uncertain, however, we do know that the ancient Greeks and Romans had small dogs that hunted by scent as far back as 400B.C. The word "beagle" probably originated from the French word "begle", which carries a connotation of little or small.
The Romans were thought to have brought small scent hounds to England that were interbred with hounds that already existed in England at that time. These small scent hounds also became established in France, Italy and Greece and it was approximately in the 1400's that these small scent hounds were being referred to as beagles. Being bred for the hunting of small game, they were primarily used for the hunting of hares.
Beagles of unknown origin were used in the United States for hunting prior to the 1870's. Excellent hunters, their appearance was probably quite different than the beagle we envision today. The appearance of the beagle in the United States took a turn in the 1870's - 1880's with the importations of beagles from England.
The National Beagle Club of America was formed in 1887. It was through the efforts of the members of this club that the beagle was developed with consideration for both type and function. The NBC has its running grounds at Institute Farm in Aldie, VA. It is at these running grounds that the regular membership holds its competition for packs of beagles, which includes a Master and Whips dressed in formal attire. The judging is based on the ability of the pack to follow the scent of a rabbit, levelness of pack, merit of individual hounds, manners of the hounds and the dress of the Master and Whips. At present the N.B.C. also holds an annual AKC Licensed SPO field trial and a Triple Challenge event in which beagles are judged on the basis of their combined performance in brace, stakes and conformation show.
A popular sport of beagling is the brace field trial where beagles are judged strictly on their ability to follow the scent of the hare or cottontail rabbit, to the smallest detail, in a slow methodical pattern. A version of this is the small pack option, in which the tracking pattern is faster than the traditional field trial. These activities are administered by the Beagle Advisory Commission of the American Kennel Club.
The United Beagle Gundog Federation conducts a variation of this sport, where the beagles work at a much faster pace over a larger area, selecting its grand final winner award on the basis of the beagles performance in the field and its appearance.
Over the years, interest has grown in the sport of showing beagles at dog shows conducted by specialty and all breed clubs. At these shows, the beagle is judged in accordance with his conformation to the official standard of the beagle as adopted by the NBC and the AKC. Due to the interest in the conformation beagle, the NBC granted permission in 1980 to form a second classification of membership known as "supporting membership". It is this membership that has its own by-laws to govern the national specialty show activities which include a conformation show, obedience trial and agility trial. This annual event is held at various locations throughout the United States on a rotational basis. The Institute Farm of the National Beagle Club in Aldie, VA is one of the locations that is used for this event.
Known for its keen sense of smell, the beagle today is used by law enforcement to detect illegal drugs and agricultural products. Exterminating companies have found the beagle very useful to detect the existence of termites. It is quite popular as a pet due to its companionship and cheerful disposition. Because of its disposition, the beagle can be successfully used as a therapy dog in hospitals and nursing homes. It is a merry little hound.
American Kennel Club, The Complete Dog Book, 1986, Howell Book House, Inc.
Foy, Marcia and Anna Katherine Nicholas, The Beagle, 1985, TFH Publications Ins.
Musladin, J. and A.C. Musladin, and Ada Lueke, The New Beagle, 1990, Howell Book House, Inc.