The combination of talents and physical traits has given the Beagle a singular spot in American culture. On one hand, there’s the serious scenthounds, their noses always on the ready to track whatever you seek, whether it’s a rabbit in a field, a bed bug in a theater, or someone trying to smuggle a tomato across the border.
On the other hand, their cute appearance and irrepressible joy make them cheerful sidekicks for any adventure, always ready with a merry expression and a wagging tail, the quintessential family dog.
No wonder they have been at the top of the popularity charts for decades. The most famous of all cartoon canines, Snoopy, is a Beagle. Of all the breeds in the AKC registry, it’s the breed that was tapped to be the organization’s mascot, Bailey. If you want to put forth a friendly face, nothing beats a Beagle.
Gift of Gods
Dogs who may have been Snoopy’s ancestors appear in the work of fifth-century b.c. Greek historian Xenophon. “Hunting and hounds were first an invention of the gods,” he wrote in his treatise on hunting, in which he described small dogs used for chasing hares.
There are reports of small pack-hounds employed to hunt rabbit and hare in England long before the Roman legions arrived in 55 B.C. An English authority called the Beagle the “foothound of our country, indigenous to the soil.” By the 1500s, most English gentlemen had packs of large hounds that tracked deer, and smaller hounds that tracked hares.
Modern-day Beagles are thought to have descended from Talbot Hounds, large white scenthounds that accompanied William the Conqueror into Britain during the 11th century. Another now-extinct breed that may have contributed some DNA is the Irish Kerry beagle, small black-and-tan dogs similar to Bloodhounds.
The name Beagle first appeared in English literature in 1475 (see sidebar), and it was mentioned in the works of no lesser literary lights than Chaucer and Shakespeare. “She’s a beagle, true-bred, and one that adores me,” says Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.
Queen Elizabeth I was among the many Beagle enthusiasts who owned one of the variations on the basic design. Her “pocket beagles” stood about nine inches tall. These tiny hounds were also known as “singing beagles” or “glove beagles,” said to be able easily stand on an outstretched hand.
Beagle-like dogs appeared in America sometime before the Civil War, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that the breed was firmly established. In 1885, a Beagle named Blunder became the first to be registered by the AKC. In the 1890s, the recently formed National Beagle Club held its first field trials.
By the middle of the 20th century, their cute looks and merry personalities had placed Beagles in homes all over the country. When Norman Rockwell wanted a dog for his hearth-and-home scenes of American life, he often picked a Beagle.
In Rockwell’s paintings, you see the breed everywhere, whether it’s a young boy bringing his dog to the vet or a pair of pals on a fishing trip. In Rockwell’s iconic May 26, 1943, Saturday Evening Post cover “The Homecoming G.I.,” the first kisses the soldier is likely to receive will come from the little tricolor hound darting out to greet him.
Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz gave the breed a huge boost when he introduced a canine character named Snoopy on October 4, 1950, two days after the debut of the comic strip that would become known to the world as Peanuts. Pretty soon, Snoopy had leapt from the strip, read by 355 million people around the world, to books, television, the Broadway stage, greeting cards, pajamas, pop music charts, and parades, particularly the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, where his balloon dominates the festivities more than four decades after his first appearance.
For Snoopy, and only Snoopy, the AKC made an exception to its rule that dogs must be real to be registered, giving him the honorary number of Beagle-1.
Snoopy no doubt played a large role in bringing the Beagle to the top of the AKC charts in 1953, after trailing behind the Cocker Spaniel for six years.
Flap Heard Round the World
No pair of White House hounds stirred up as big a fuss as Beagle littermates, Him and Her, born on June 27, 1963, pets of President Lyndon B. Johnson. In April 1964, the president was meeting with a task force on increasing foreign investment in the U.S. when the dogs came running over. Johnson gave them some treats, played with them a bit, and then, for no particular reason, lifted them up by their ears until they yelped.
“You see what a dog will do when he gets in a crowd of bankers?” he said. It was a joke that fell very flat.
The “great earlift,” as it soon became known, outraged dog lovers worldwide. “I’ve never heard it said that this is good for beagles,” an official with the AKC told the Associated Press. Howls of protest sounded for months. “If somebody picked you up by the ears, you’d yelp, too,” snarled the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In January 1965, despite objections, the Pasadena Rose parade featured a float, named “Ouch,” that consisted of a 20-foot Beagle with long floppy ears, wearing a 10-gallon hat.
Smells Like Victory
Cute as it is, that sniffer is nothing to sneeze at, packed with more than 225 million scent receptors. Humans, despite their much larger size, have a mere five million.
“A nose on paws,” is how the breed is often described; they are practically unbeatable in certain sports, like hunting and tracking, and indispensable for some kinds of work. Beagles are ideal sniffer dogs, packing enormous scenting powers into a compact body.
Roscoe the Bed Bug Sniffing Dog for Bell Environmental Services, for example, has been a celebrity in New York City for years, but he is by no means the only member of his breed performing this important job. The Beagle Brigade, a program started by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1984, has aided in about 75,000 seizures of illegal foods at airports, seaports, and border crossings.
Today, the Beagle has remained in the top 10 dog breeds, and they are never far from the public’s heart, mind, and headlines.