by Andy Duffy

“How fragile is the chariot that bears the human soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson.

How fragile, too, I suppose, is the chariot that bears public opinion. How else do we explain the pummeling the popularity of beagles has taken across the past 60 years or so? From 1954 through 1959, beagles were in the number one position on the American Kennel Club’s rankings of the most popular breeds. The beagle’s ascendancy to number one followed 14 years at the number two spot on the list. Then its popularity began to slip. It still comes in at number six. I suspect, though, that the ranking hardly means one out of every six dog-owning families has a beagle. It is probably because of the families (and bachelors and widows and widowers and spinsters) who own a pack of beagles. The AKC rankings are based on the number of new registrations each year. Those who own a beagle are likely to own a passel of them.

Beagles have a varied lot of characteristics – most good, but some that by themselves would drive a person crazy. They are loving, eager to please, stubborn as all get out, independent, rascally, sneaky and maddening. All those characteristics and some I’ve neglected to mention come wrapped up in one small package. Put them together, and they simply meld into something charming. They’re almost like Pandora’s Box; a person just needs to open a beagle’s heart to see what pops out next.

I’ve owned several beagles, and each one was an amalgam of those traits I’ve mentioned. Each one, though, was also an individual, its personality marked by the relative proportions of those characteristics.

Erin and Koleen Hildebrand play with a litter of beagle pups. Beagles are great family pets.

Beagles make wonderful pets. I wouldn’t recommend one for just anyone, though. Those who are going to confine a beagle to just a house and fenced yard (or worse yet, a chain) shouldn’t own one. How would those dog owners feel were they restrained to such narrow confines? Neither should a non-hunter own a beagle. And it isn’t enough to get a beagle out rabbit hunting once or twice a winter, either. A person who doesn’t get his dog out regularly is guilty of cruelty. I don’t know how to put that any more kindly. Don’t tell me, either, that the hunting urge has been bred out of your beagle. If it has, you don’t have a beagle; you have some strange shell of one – like an empty snakeskin or the exoskeletons stoneflies leave behind them on rocks along a stream. A beagle with no urge to hunt? I can more easily imagine a Tinkerbelle with no pixie dust and no urge to fly.

Beagles possess one overarching characteristic: They want to follow scent trails. They don’t really care what trails they follow. They will follow the trail of a skunk or a porcupine as wantonly as they will that of a rabbit – at least the first time. It is humans who feel compelled to impose limits on beagles. That means, at least in most parts of the country, that we absolutely cannot allow them to chase deer. We have to somehow let the dogs know that deer chasing is taboo. Some people claim that some lines of beagles just naturally don’t run deer. Perhaps. That certainly isn’t true of most beagles.

So, a person needs to be just mean enough to ensure his dog leaves deer alone. That commonly means a person must use a shock collar or be willing to let someone else do the dirty work for him. In the old days, people tried to solve the deer-chasing problem in other ways. Some would put their dog in a barrel with some rocks and a fresh deerskin and roll the barrel down a hill. Others would run their dog down (something not easily done) when it was on a deer trail and whale the tar out of it. I personally think that done right, the shock collar method is the most effective and most humane method of trash breaking.

I shocked my current beagle, Scout, when she was still young and on her first deer trail. I was fortunate that everything worked out so well. With fear and trepidation, I’d put her on some rabbit trails while desperately hoping she wouldn’t stray off on a deer. Nobody wants to shock a dog on its first trail and make it think nothing is safe to pursue. Then, when she knew that no harm accompanied trailing rabbits, I found where a herd of deer had crossed a road. The deer were still out in a nearby field munching on some alfalfa sprouts. I put Scout down on the tracks and nailed her as soon as she put her nose down on a track and started into the field. That was a lesson she never forgot. As far as I know, she has never run a deer since. Those not willing to break their dog from running deer, though, also shouldn’t get a beagle.

While I’m on the topic, I should mention this: I knew an old guy who kept a billy goat around. A billy goat will beat a beagle up; at least, that was his claim. He said that goats and deer are similar enough that once his billy beat up one of his beagles, the dog would no longer run deer. I don’t know how effective the method is, but the guy never had many issues with his dogs chasing deer. If I had 100 percent confidence in the method, I would heartily endorse it. A beagle should be able to evade a goat, and just the threat of violence should do the trick.

Erin Hildebrand snuggles with a beagle pup. Beagles make great pets and great rabbit dogs.

Before I leave the topic, I should mention this. Beagles will learn to leave deer alone. Given the right conditions, deer will also learn to trust beagles.

At one time, we had a couple of goats – not billies, but gentle nannies. We had a beagle named Rosie, too. When my wife and I or the kids would go out to milk them, Rosie would often tag along. Once the dog training season had begun, we would let her wander down the slope from our goat barn and run rabbits.

I was listening to Rosie run a rabbit one morning. I knew how she was progressing the track from her baying. While I was watching over the back of the goat I was milking, I saw a deer stood up within 30 feet of the dog. Probably a fawn was bedded nearby making the doe more reluctant to run. Whatever her motivation, though, she held her ground. Rosie ran right by the deer on the trail of the rabbit. When Rosie had passed her, she lay down again. She was no doubt very accustomed to my dog’s presence there and wasn’t very bothered by her.

Remember that I wrote that beagles are maddening? This is an example: They are particular about where they pee.

My wife and I have never found it very difficult to housebreak one of the diminutive hounds. Once one is trained to go outside, though, it will try a person’s patience. At least it will if the person has an unfenced yard and needs to stand at the door watching while his dog does its business. The dog will go into what my wife endearingly calls a pee walk. It will walk slowly across the yard with its nose not quite to the ground while it looks for the perfect place to relieve itself. The females, of course, don’t need any kind of post.

Sometimes the males want one; sometimes they don’t care. But every beagle we’ve owned might look as if it finally found its spot. It will pause and, if it’s a female, go into a slight squat. If it’s a male and not using a post, it will just hunch down a bit. Then it will take a dislike to that urinal and wander off looking for another place. They behave similarly when they take their poop walks.

Of course, nobody cares about a beagle’s bathroom habits except as a further delineation of the dog’s personality. We already know that dogs are excellent companions and pets. What we really want to know is how to train one to hunt.

All a person usually needs to do to get a beagle started on rabbits is put the dog down in good cover. The dog will figure out the rest. Then a world of opportunity is open for the dog and its owner. The dog will run rabbits or hares every chance it gets. When getting the dog started, though, make certain it is on rabbits and not deer. The two creatures like the same habitats. That’s why the owner of a pup might want to start in at the edges of his yard, in junkyards or in tiny pieces of cover where he knows no deer have been. I like to start dogs where snow has bent shrubbery over. Those areas are sometimes large enough to hold many rabbits, and deer won’t fit under the shrubs. A person knows his dog is on a rabbit when it’s running in that type of cover.

Duffy took former MUCC Executive Director and current DNR Director Dan Eichinger, center, Michigan Out-of-Doors Editor Nick Green, right, and Mike Leahy of the National Wildlife Federation on a rabbit hunt in March 2018. Pictured with the trio is Blaze, a beagle belonging to Duffy’s friend Rick Aube.

Let’s talk about a beagle’s single-minded purpose in life. Sure, they like people. They don’t live for people, though. They live to hunt. And they’re persistent in the endeavor. Beagles don’t give up easily when they’re on a rabbit trail. It’s good to know how persistent they are.

Across the road from my house is a farm pond. It covers, probably, two or three acres of what was once swampland. An earthen dam made it into a pond. One summer morning years ago, my daughter Erin was out watching Rosie run rabbits. She ran into the house with exciting news. The dog had just swum across the pond chasing a rabbit. Erin had watched Rosie trail the rabbit to the water’s edge. For some reason, the rabbit decided to swim across the pond rather than run along its edge. Rosie followed the rabbit. My daughter could see the rabbit swimming far out in front of Rosie. Once they were both across the pond Rosie picked the track back up, and the land chase resumed.

Are beagles intelligent?

Yeah, I think they are. Some genius, though, ranked them at number 72 on the doggie intelligence scale. That puts them behind such ignoble creatures as Pomeranians, Chihuahuas and Shih Tzus. Personally, I think the guy was nuts.

Beagles know a lot of things. They know the people who love them. They will sit and stay and speak on command. If they wander away from home, they can often find their way back. Plus, they know where to go for help.

I’d driven 80 miles from home once to hunt hares. It was getting dark, and I couldn’t call in my dog. Remember, I said they’re persistent. They hate to leave a track. I had no tracking collar on him, and I had no idea where he was. Reluctantly, I went home.

I went to church the next morning intending to go look for the dog in the afternoon. Before I hit the road, though, I received a phone call. My dog had wandered out of the state forest where I’d been hunting into someone’s garage. In the garage, he scratched on the house door, went inside when the homeowner opened it, and stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace. I’d like to see the Pomeranian that has the sense enough to do that.

Beagles start out great and just get better with age. They become more content to just lie around and relax. Scout is at that age now.

Scout is growing old. Her face has turned gray, her brown has faded, and she dawdles more than ever. She still loves to hunt rabbits. The day after a hunt, though, she takes it easy. When I’m at the computer, she will lie on the couch all day instead of badgering me to let her out. (Yes, she has couch privileges. She has earned them with her years of faithful service.)

And I like that her rabbit-chasing appetite gets sated now. That gives me great satisfaction; I know I’ve given her the opportunities she deserves. But to the point: I know her chasing appetite is sated because she doesn’t use every occasion to run a rabbit.

A couple of summers ago, I was busy putting shingles on my roof. From my perch on the roof one evening, I watched a cottontail hop into the edge of the yard. I could clearly see Scout lying on the back deck. I watched her to see how she would react to the rabbit. She just lay there and watched it. She had been running so many rabbits that summer that she didn’t need to chase that one. Even a glutton gets filled up occasionally, I guess.

I wrote all the foregoing just to make these points: Beagles are great dogs, and spring is a great time to buy a puppy. When a person gets a spring pup, he has all summer to give it some house and yard training. He can even get it started on rabbits. Then, when fall comes, he will have one of the greatest hunting partners God ever created.
In Michigan, hunters can’t buy just a deer license anymore. They buy a base license and add on from there. A person can hunt rabbits with just the base license.

Members of Michigan United Conservation Clubs are working on great habitat projects that will enhance rabbit hunting opportunities on public land, too. Mmm, let’s think about that for a minute. People will have a license in their wallet that is begging to get used. They can also have one of the greatest hunting companions, and it will do yeoman’s labor as an adorable pet. I can think of no reason a family of hunters wouldn’t buy a beagle.