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What Were Beagles Bred For? – The Beagle’s History, Roles & Jobs

A guide to what beagles were originally bred to do.
Written by Richard Jeng

Beagles are an incredibly popular dog breed. They’ve been a top choice for many dog lovers in recent centuries, although these days, they don’t serve the same purpose they were bred for. 

So, what were beagles bred for? Beagles were and still are bred to be scent hounds, which means that they track smells from long distances, giving hunters a competitive edge over their prey. They can catch a scent at an incredible range and follow their noses until they reach their prey.

Along with more details about their hunting background, you’re going to learn the following information in this article:

  • The scent tracking and hunting capabilities of a beagle
  • The types of hunting beagles were bred for. 
  • The hunting traits that beagles retain to this day

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Beagle’s Scent Tracking & Hunting

Dogs have noses that allow them to smell from much further away than humans. In fact, it’s estimated that dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to the human’s 6 million. Dogs have incredible noses and Beagles are near the top

Along with their ability to retrieve and hunt game for themselves, Beagles can hear quite well, too. They can hear small noises such as crushed leaves and even grass being stepped on from far away. 

By pairing their top-notch sniffer with the undeniable hearing from their low-hanging ears, they’ve proven themselves to be one of the best hunting dog breeds in existence. And according to The Spruce Pets, they’re one of the 10 best hunters!

Ideal Hunting Companions

Beagles use their noses to smell a specific scent – usually one that’s given to them by the hunter. They then proceed to track that scent, even if it’s hundreds of feet away. The hunter will then follow the Beagle closely while they locate the prey. 

One of the main reasons that hunters love to use Beagles for tracking is because you can follow them on foot. Let me explain what I mean.

Most hunting dogs have long legs, which results in a long, fast stride. You will likely have some trouble keeping up with a Labrador Retriever, for example. This means you may need a vehicle, horse, or many hours of training to ensure the dog remains within earshot of you.

Beagles have short legs that give them a short, slow stride. As long as the hunter keeps his distance so as not to scare away the animals that they’re hunting, tracking game with a Beagle is a relatively easy experience.

Pocket Beagles

Many centuries ago, Beagles were even smaller than they are now. Hunters used to be able to hold their dogs inside their pouches!

Apparently, some Pocket Beagles could fit in the palms of a person’s hand. In fact, it’s estimated that they were just 7 to 12 inches tall, making them comparable to the modern-day Chihuahua.

Once these miniature hunting dogs arrived at the hunting grounds, they could let the tiny scent hound out to find the animals they were hunting.

However, the small size became an issue since those pocket-sized Beagles couldn’t carry prey after it was caught. Hunters needed help transporting the game back which led them to breed the much larger variation.

These days, Beagles have no problem carrying certain prey. They have been bred to be larger animals, which enables them to carry small to medium-sized game in their mouths. 

Aside from their superb tracking abilities, there’s another reason that Beagles have been bred as a hunting dog. Read on to learn more. 

Why Beagles Are Great Hunting Dogs

Beagles were originally bred to hunt small game, and they’re still used for the same purpose today. Because they’re relatively small dogs, they tend to be able to fit into small spaces. 

Rabbit holes and other small dens in the ground, as well as nests, are no problem for a well-trained beagle. They can smell and hear anything moving underground nearby, giving them a great advantage.

One of the main difficulties that large hunting breeds face is that they get stumped if a hare gets away into their home. Good luck trying to get your full-sized adult Labrador to go into a burrow!

They might be able to dig for a while, but many animals have numerous holes that give them quite a few routes to escape. By the time a large hunting breed can dig into the hole, their prey is gone. Of course, this is not ideal for hunting badgers, rabbits and such.

Beagles, on the other hand, aren’t limited by size. Their small stature allows them to crunch up into a small rabbit hole or a gopher hole to quickly grab the animal and pull them out for the hunter to secure.

Another area that Beagles excel in while hunting is also a result of their small body frame. Not only can beagles fit into small spaces, but they’re also much harder to see and hear

Big hunting dogs come out with a dominating, scary presence to their prey, which often scares the animals away. Beagles can slowly creep up without being seen or heard, making it easier for the hunter to get a clear shot.

Beagle’s Ideal Hunting Environment

These days, it’s still not uncommon to see Beagles being used as scent hounds. However, they’re much more likely to be found cuddled up on the couch, relaxing and begging for attention. 

The Beagle’s hunting capabilities are impressive, but there are many tools and other dog breeds that seem to tip the scales away from Beagles in the modern hunting game.

One disadvantage of using a Beagle to hunt is when you’re trying to hunt and track in dense bush regions. Their small legs get stuck, and they can’t take big steps over roots and plants.

The dense terrain makes it hard for them to track animals adequately, and animals that are better suited to the bush environment can typically escape the range of the beagle.

All in all, Beagles are great for hunting in open, low-cut grass where they can track and catch small game. Some hunters also suggest that their spotted coats colors add a bit of camouflage to their presence, but that aspect is still up for debate.

Which Hunting Traits Do Beagles Still Have?

Beagles are listed as one of the least smartest dogs, but there are reasons why.

Largely thanks to evolution, many species carry their traits well beyond the timeframe that they’ve used them in. In other words, most Beagles still retain the hunting instincts they were originally bred for despite being domesticated for companionship.

For example, Beagles still use three different sounds that extend from their hunting days. Barking, baying, and howling are all different calls that a Beagle will do to alert their master of an animal.

Baying

Baying is a call that Beagles can use to get the attention of their master and other dogs from the pack. However, it’s meant for a more specific purpose when it comes to hunting.

Most hunting dogs help their humans by tracking and locating the animals. Others will chase down the game and corner them in one place while waiting for the humans to get a good shot or arrive.

Typically, dogs like Beagles will bark intensely at the game and circle around the animal. This act is called “baying” and it’s where the loud barking associated with these dogs come from.

And if you’re curious, check out this YouTube video of a Beagle baying:

Howling

Have you ever noticed that hounds are prone to howling at the sound of ambulance sirens, musical instruments or other high-pitched sounds? Well, this type of dog vocalization also comes from hunting.

Hunting dogs will howl to indicate that the prey has been caught. For example, when the Beagle initially corners the game, the dog will let out a howl to alert the owner where he and the animal are.

The Beagle’s howl is often described as bigger than the dog itself. According to owners, they let out a deep and loud howl, which makes him seem much larger than he actually is.

Today, Beagles howl for many reasons that aren’t necessarily involved with hunting. For example, Beagles tend to howl when they’re bored. In addition, you can expect to hear a howl when they’re feeling pain or just happy.

Here’s what the Beagle’s howling sounds like:

Barking

Beagles are known for being heavy barkers – all thanks to their old hunting days. In fact, this is a main reason why we don’t suggest keeping Beagles around infants (loud sounds and babies just don’t mix).

Though very similar, barking is different from baying. A “bark” is more of a short and abrupt vocalization. It has a rougher sound that can sometimes be a little sharp.

On the other hand, baying is more like a bark extended into a short and abrupt howl. It’s a little bit difficult to explain with words. You just have to hear it for yourself. Check the YouTube video in the baying section and compare it to this video.

Barking usually indicates that the beagle is about to catch its prey. Many of these sounds still stick around, although they’re usually just used to argue with the neighbor’s dog or to beg for more food.

Sense of Smell & Hearing

Beagles also still hold onto their keen sense of smell. They’re able to catch onto the scent of food better than almost any dog. If you have treats or food, you’ll need to do a better job at keeping them far away!

Did you know that Beagles have one of the best noses in the dogdom? They have over 220 million scent receptors, which means they’re able to pick up over 50 distinct odors. That’s incredible, and why they popular dogs in law enforcement.

With their wet nose, Beagles are capable of holding and attracting scents better than most dogs. Plus, the floppy long ears serve the purpose of sweeping the scents to their nose.

But with such a powerful nose, Beagles are often “distracted” by all the amazing odors they smell on a daily basis. For this reason, they’re unfairly labeled as dumb dogs. Can you imagine trying to do obedience training with all these odors around you?

The last trait that beagles retain is their awesome sense of hearing. They make excellent watchdogs, as they can hear intruders coming from a long way away. 

However, in modern-day society, this extraordinary hearing is effectively used to help with aiding the hearing impaired. That’s right – Beagles are very popular hearing dogs for the deaf.

Summary of the Beagle’s Role

To recap, here are the key points you should take away from this article: 

  • Beagles were bred for hunting small game. In modern times, they’re not used as much for hunting, though they still retain their excellent tracking abilities.
  • Thanks to their breeding, beagles have some of the best noses and ears of any dog breed. These traits also make them excellent watchdogs, but you’ll need to be sure to keep any treats out of reach as your beagle will find them. 
  • The primary hunting and tracking disadvantage that beagles have is their short legs. They can’t keep up with prey in dense bush environments, which has caused them to fall out of favor with modern hunters. 
  • The three primary sounds beagles make – barking, baying, and howling – are remnants of their hunting days. A bark used to indicate that the beagle was in reach of the prey. A bay was a call to their master and the other beagles in the pack. A howl indicates the prey has been caught. 
  • Nowadays, most beagles are wonderful family dogs, and they love to be around people and play throughout the day. The energy of their hunting days still courses through them, though, so expect plenty of fun times and mischief!

Do you own a Beagle? If so, does your dog show any of the old hunting qualities and instincts that they were originally bred to do? Let us know in the comments section below.

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About the author

Richard Jeng

Richard has been raising dogs his whole life, including a Poodle, Pomeranian, Corgi and Australian Shepherd. He's always working with animal shelters and dog rescues because of his passion for all dogs. Fun fact: his all time favorite breed is the German Shepherd. Read More.

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