Notes on...

Playful, adorable – and with a real nose for trouble: In praise of the beagle

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

Harvey’s finest moment, he would tell you, was the chicken kiev. I’d just made the garlic butter and inserted it into the chicken breast when the phone rang. The call went on for a while, after which I returned. No chicken breast. ‘Must have put it in the fridge,’ I thought, and began to look. Only then did I glance across at the dog. His expression said: ‘You’re going to work it out in a moment, aren’t you?’

It’s the beagle’s defining characteristic: a yearning to become the widest animal known to man. ‘Taking candy from a child’ isn’t just a phrase for a beagle, it’s a way of life. Which can be a pity, as kids love them. For ages my partner and I struggled to work out why, until we twigged that Snoopy is a beagle. As is Gromit.

Adults also love them: a waiter once ran out of his Soho restaurant and chased us down the street to make a fuss of Harv. The adorability gets owners out of trouble when, for instance, your beagle pounces on a picnicking couple just as they’re taking a large quiche from its box. Not for nothing is Harvey known as ‘the Furry Dyson’.

Emphasis on ‘furry’, by the way — your average beagle sheds like a bastard. They also run off, and can tunnel out of even the most heavily fortified garden. They’re very good-natured, and don’t tend to bark much, but when they do everyone knows about it — the name comes from the Middle French bee gueule, meaning ‘wide throat’.

Actually it’s more of a howl than a bark, and we only hear it when Harv is afraid. He was a real lesson in male behaviour: the ones who make the most noise are the biggest cowards. Things that have frightened him range from an empty crisp packet to a cardboard cut-out of a jolly fat man outside a fish and chip shop in Whitby.

Celebrity beagle owners include Lyndon B. Johnson (called Him and Her – the President caused controversy by lifting the former up by his ears), Barry Manilow (Bagel — she appeared on the back cover of his 1975 album Tryin’ To Get the Feeling) and Elizabeth I. She kept pocket beagles, and would entertain dinner guests by letting the dogs run amok on the table.

This miniature variant got its name because it was small enough for riders on a hunt to carry in their pockets. Once larger hounds had run the prey to ground, the smaller dogs could chase it through underbrush. Beagles were originally bred to pursue hares and pheasants — this explains the white tip on the tail (known as the ‘flag’), introduced to ensure they stayed visible when their nose was to the ground.

And what a nose. It contains 220 million scent receptors (you’ve got five million), which is why in one experiment beagles found a single mouse in a one-acre field in under a minute: fox terriers took 15 minutes and Scottish terriers couldn’t find it at all. US Customs has its Beagle Brigade, employed to sniff out prohibited food stuffs. When the dog finds something it sits down next to the luggage and alerts its handler. Mind you, as soon as beagles master zips they’ll be able to cut out the middle man.

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