An Inside Look at the Beagle

Though his roots go all the way back to ancient Greece with more recent ancestry recorded in Britain, the lovable beagle is now embraced as an all-American dog. The beagle was initially bred for rabbit hunting; now he’s a show champion, a popular family pet, and a valuable sniffing tool used at airports, customs checkpoints, arson investigations, and even home termite inspections. Pretty impressive for a little guy measuring only 13 to 15 inches tall!

What qualities make the beagle such a popular dog today? Is a beagle right for your family? What’s the best way to care for and train a beagle? Do they come with any special challenges or health concerns? Read on; we’ll answer these questions and more.

Not much is known about the little beagle’s Greek roots. Even the origin of the name beagle is disputed, perhaps having derived from Latin, Old French, Celtic, Old English, or Middle English. We do know that the breed gained popularity with British royals King Henry VII and Elizabeth I. Hunting parties during that time would often carry dogs to the fields in baskets slung over their horses’ backs, and beagles were small enough that they didn’t interfere with the horses’ gaits or with the riders’ balance. They were also able to track game efficiently, pursue it relentlessly, and alert hunters with their trademark baying calls. For those reasons, British royalty understandably considered beagles to be the perfect hunting dog.

In the United States, beagles have followed a slightly more winding road to popularity. The breed declined in quality after being brought over from England, losing a few of its most admirable characteristics and failing to win as many admirers as it had across the ocean. In general, American beagles became smaller (which they still are) and lacked some of the handsome physical traits common to the British beagle.

This decline lasted until the 1870s, when American beagle enthusiasts took action to preserve the breed and improve its reputation by importing a few high-quality British beagles and using them to “re-invent” the American version. By 1885, the American Kennel Club had its first registered beagle. In 1888, the National Beagle Club was established, along with breed standards for the new and improved American beagle.

Today’s beagle can be found in many happy homes, but he also has some pretty important jobs. The U.S.D.A. routinely uses beagles to detect prohibited plants, animals, and products in airports and other points of entry. At home inspections, a beagle can smell and hear termites eating away deep within the walls of a house; even the best technology and most trained human inspector aren’t as accurate. A trained beagle may also be brought to the scene of a recent fire to sniff for chemicals that would point to the likelihood of arson. Additionally, the beagle can be found in field trials, the show ring, and hunting events. He’s an all-around American hound.

Building the Perfect Beagle
Most beagles fortunate enough to be beloved family pets probably don’t worry too much about how they look. Owners of beagles in competitive circles are, however, keenly aware of detailed breed standards and strive to breed, obtain, and show beagles that match the standard closely if not exactly. There are actually two recognized varieties of American beagles: one group which is 13 inches or less in height at the shoulder; and another group which stands between 13 and 15 inches. These groups are called, respectively, 13-inch beagles and 15-inch beagles. British beagles continue to be slightly larger than their American cousins and have a maximum height of 16 inches. Most beagles will reach an adult weight between 18 and 30 pounds.

Briefly, the beagle’s domed head should sport low, long ears that reach almost to the end of the nose when drawn out to their full length. The brown or hazel eyes are large and soft with a gentle expression. The dog’s throat should be free of folds, and his shoulders, chest, and back are ideally described as clean and muscular but not heavy or loaded. Similarly, his hips and thighs are strong and well muscled, enabling him to run quickly and at length. The beagle’s tail should be carried high with only a slight curve; his coat is of medium length with a dense quality and is a combination of tan, black, and white. Overall, beagles should appear to be built for durability in the relentless pursuit of their prey, but their expression and general demeanor must portray a social, cheerful personality. Though the breed standards may seem unreasonable, each required characteristic has a historical basis and is important in maintaining the consistency and quality of the beagle breed.

Beagle Health
As far as feeding goes, your beagle will probably be happy with any standard or vet-recommended diet. Beagles are good eaters (think Snoopy presenting his empty food dish to Charlie Brown), so their generally content personalities may lead them to become overweight if they aren’t given regular, vigorous exercise. In addition to healthy food, then, your beagle needs a diet of consistent activity. Exercise is just as important to his health as what goes into his bowl every morning.

Because beagles have ears that are rather long in proportion to the rest of their compact bodies, the ears are an area that may need a few minutes of extra attention on a regular basis. A waxy build-up in your beagle’s ears isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, but you may need to keep some ear wash on hand; a quick check of the ears every two or three weeks should keep any big problems from getting out of hand. If you do notice a strong odor coming from your dog’s ears, it may be a sign of infection and you’ll need to schedule a visit with your veterinarian. Ear infections can also cause your dog to scratch or shake his ears excessively, so if you notice your beagle acting as if his ears are bothering him, he may be trying to tell you something.

As for their coats, beagles are fairly low maintenance. A quick brushing every three or four days should be all they need to stay clean and healthy (unless your beagle has followed his adventurous nose and decided to roll around in something completely disgusting). Though their hair is fairly short, beagles do have a double coat: a coarse layer on top with a soft undercoat. This means that they have two layers available to shed! Not a problem if your beagle spends much of his time outside, where he’s probably happiest anyway. If your lifestyle dictates that your dog must spend most of his time indoors, then you may find yourself spending more time with the vacuum cleaner than you’d like to. Let’s face it: most dogs do shed, and beagles are no exception. Regular brushing will certainly help, but your beagle will still shed year-round (and more heavily when warm weather begins).

Your beagle, if chosen sensibly and well cared for, is likely to be a healthy and happy pet with few or no serious medical problems. Most beagles will live between 13 and 15 years if they maintain good health and are lucky enough to have a responsible owner who keeps up with vaccinations and sees to any minor concerns before they become major issues. However, as with any breed, beagles do have some specific health concerns which occur at a higher rate within the beagle group than in other types of dogs. Conditions listed below include only those that are considered to be hereditary. Keep in mind that some of the following beagle health problems are considered hereditary although they may only have occurred in one or two individual dogs in an entire pedigree.

Beagle Dwarfism (Funny Puppies, Chinese Beagle Syndrome): Actually three different disorders, these conditions are grouped together due to their similar characteristics.�¯�¿�½

Dwarfism results in a dog that is simply smaller than typical for the breed and may or may not have any other physical abnormalities.�¯�¿�½

Funny Puppies can be described as the “runt” of a litter, often falling so far behind their siblings that they need extra feedings and/or antibiotics in order to thrive. After a few weeks, a Funny Puppy may display some soreness in the feet or legs and become unable to walk smoothly. This part of its condition will probably become permanent and may accompany other difficulties such as dental abnormalities, ear and eye problems, and a generally sickly nature. However, Funny Puppies can also grow to be very loving and responsive pets.

Chinese Beagle Syndrome, or CBS, causes a wide skull and somewhat slanted eyes but allows for normal growth patterns in the body. Heart defects are common in beagles with CBS, as are toe abnormalities.

Central Progressive Retinal Atrophy (CPRA): Though some dogs with this condition may not lose their sight, most will lose their central vision and many will lose their peripheral vision as well.

Cherry Eye: Tissue around the eye becomes red and swollen due to the gland protruding beyond its normal location. May require surgery to correct.
Cleft Lip or Palate: The lip or palate is not closed completely and the dog will have difficulty eating, drinking, and breathing.
Cryptorchidism: Failure of one or both testicles to descend from the abdomen.

Hypothyroidism: Deterioration of the thyroid gland. Characterized by loss of coat, scales on the skin, and weight gain.

Distichiasis: Eyelashes that irritate the eye due to their lower than normal placement.

Dry Eye (Keratoconjunctivitis): Tear production is limited or not present, causing eye irritation.

Ectopic Cilia: Eyelashes that irritate the eye due to their placement on the inside of the eyelid.

Epilepsy: Seizures, usually episodic.

Epiphyseal Dysplasia: Abnormally slow growth in the rear legs, sometimes accompanied by soreness.

Glaucoma: Higher than normal pressure in the eye; can cause pain and partial or complete loss of sight if left untreated.

Hermaphrodite: Presence of both male and female chromosomes and tissue.�¯�¿�½

Hip Dysplasia: Abnormal formation or rapid deterioration of the hip socket, causing pain and lameness.

Hypospadia: Abnormal development of the penis and sheath.

Imperforate Lacrimal Punctum: Tears run out of the eyes due to under-developed nasolacrimal system.

Invertebral Disc Disease (IDD): Ruptured discs in the spine cause pain and paralysis.

Lunation of the Patella: Under-developed knee; your beagle may seem fine most of the time but periodically go lame. May require surgery.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): Vision deteriorates and eventually surrenders to blindness.

Spinal Stances: Pain or tenderness in the lower back, perhaps accompanied by lameness or incontinence.

Umbilical Hernia: A visible pouch of skin on the belly that may correct itself.

Again, remember that many of the above conditions have been noted only sparingly in the breed but should be kept in mind while caring for your beagle over the course of his life. Your beagle will probably grow to be such an integral part of your family that you’ll know if he needs special medical attention just by noting changes in his usual behavior or demeanor.

They’ve Got Personality
Beagles are widely held to be intelligent, social, cheerful dogs that enjoy living around people and other canines. They’re lovable and gentle, making them a friendly and non-intimidating dog for children or for people who are uncomfortable with larger, more rambunctious breeds. Most owners will find their beagle to be a sweet, tolerant animal. Around cats and other house pets, though, beagles should be watched fairly closely; their hunting instincts can be difficult for them to ignore. Ideally, a beagle entering a home with existing non-canine pets should do so during puppy hood, when his young mind is still open to making peace with what he may later consider to be prey.

Independence and determination are two more traits common among beagles. That’s a nice way of saying that they often have their own ideas about where to go, what to do, and when to obey (or not). Their curious minds can be easily led astray in the direction of the most interesting smell, making a securely fenced yard the best place for a beagle to call home. Speaking of the great outdoors, beagles have been bred for centuries as hunters, so they’re naturally happiest when they have some room to run and explore and stalk a few birds and squirrels now and then. Apartment life is not ideal for beagles; they’ll quickly become bored and restless and may begin to exhibit destructive behavior in an effort to keep themselves entertained. If you’re an apartment-dweller with your heart set on a beagle, be prepared to take your dog on a few walks (or more) every day in order to maintain his mental and physical health as well as your own sanity.

The beagle’s sociable nature is in his blood; he was bred as a pack animal for hundreds of years. For today’s beagle owners, the pack mentality can be a blessing (when your loyal beagle prefers your company to any other diversion) or a curse (when your lonely beagle howls and cries at being left on his own for extended periods of time). A beagle who is without his owner for many hours a day may appreciate a companion animal to help him pass the time- and your neighbors will appreciate a break from the relentless, lonesome wailing coming from the vicinity of your back yard.

Bringing Home Beagle
To decide if a beagle is right for you, here are a few things to consider:

Will your beagle get adequate exercise?
Are you willing to provide steady companionship (either your own or that of
another dog)?
Can your beagle spend time outdoors every day?
Will you be able to perform simple grooming and ear checks on a regular basis?
Is your designated dog area secure (a fenced yard, for example)?
Is your home free of non-canine pets or are you willing to train a beagle puppy to
get along with your cats, birds, etc.?
Can you provide a loving environment for a pet that has been bred as a pack

If you can answer the above questions with confidence, then choose your beagle wisely and commit to making him a member of your family. His riches-to-rags history and his unavoidable instincts make him a pet worthy of your time and effort. You’ll likely be rewarded with years of devotion from this big dog in a little package.

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