If you own a beagle or are contemplating purchasing one in the future you should know that there are recreational opportunities available beyond the cottontail and snowshoe hare hunting seasons. The beagle field trial season runs the year around in Michigan and consists of several formats, sanctioned by the American Kennel Club (AKC). It is very important for one to know the background of a beagle puppy prior to purchasing it. There is such a varied make up of the gene pool in beagles that an uninformed buyer of a puppy may purchase one that will have no interest in hunting or field trialing at all.
The fact that all AKC registered beagles, including those stylish hounds that come from show or bench backgrounds can be crossed with each other, and can present a real problem for a person trying to purchase a hunting hound. When I started hunting with hounds, over 60 years ago, some beagles could earn a show championship on the bench, as well as becoming a champion in the field by pursuing both cottontail and snowshoe hare. However, time constraints and travel costs caused many contestants to specialize in just one area. This caused many show beagles to genetically lose their desire and ability to pursue rabbits and hare in a productive manner, as well as their enthusiasm to search for and find game also declining.
During and prior to the 1950s and 1960s, there were basically two AKC field trial formats in Michigan; Brace Beagling on cottontail and Large Pack on snowshoe hare. A few hounds could successfully compete in both formats. I personally bred a female beagle to Field Champion Laingsburg Mac, that had won a brace trial and large pack on the same weekend.
The 15 or so brace beagle clubs were located primarily in zone III and belonged to the Northern Association of Beagle Clubs. The snowshoe hare clubs ran their events primarily in the Upper Peninsula and were members of the Northern Michigan Hare Association. These associations still exist today and their locations can be found on the internet.
Unfortunately, the brace beaglers decided to require a more accurate trailing hound on cottontails and had to be slowed down to accomplish this sought after goal. After a couple of decades of this new movement, the brace beagle became more of a contest dog than a rabbit hound. As speed is the easiest trait in the hound to acquire, accuracy in trailing a cottontail is the hardest quality to obtain and retain. In the wild the fastest canine caught the prey while the slow ones often starved; therefore speed became a dominant gene and is essential in pursuing a snowshoe hare.
As many hunters became disappointed in the usefulness of the brace beagle as a hunting hound, they dropped out of the clubs altogether. However, many beagle owners across the country petitioned the AKC for a format that would return the competition to a style that credited the rabbit hound for its huntable qualities.
This new format was titled Small Pack Option and was usually run in packs of four to seven hounds in first series. Several small pack option clubs still operate in Michigan today. There are still several brace beagle clubs operating in Southern Michigan where beaglers that enjoy the challenge of developing a slower, more accurate hound has a place to compete.
The loss of a source where a hunter could purchase an accomplishing hound for hunting spawned the creation of several new formats and associations. The American Rabbit Hound Association (ARHA) offered a completely new registry and created trials in Little Pack, Progressive Pack and Gun Dog Pack, each with their separate trialing rules. My beagles were able to win many trials in the Gun Dog Pack trials both on a local and national level. The ARHA was initially founded by Everett Morgan and rapidly spread across the country and offered a format for every type of hunting hound.
Another opportunity exists for beaglers in Canada, where the Ontario Association of Beagle Clubs hold similar trials in both brace and small pack. All entries must be a rabbit hound in order to compete. By winning and becoming a Field Trial Champion in both Canada and the United States, a beagle earns the title of International Field Champion.
Now an AKC beagle field trial normally runs in four classes: 13 inch males, 13 inch females, 15 inch males and 15 inch females. All entered hounds are subject to be measured by the judges and if determined to exceed 15 inches, they are not allowed to compete.
The criteria for becoming an AKC Field Champion is to win three trials, licensed by AKC, as well as earning 120 points. A hound is awarded a point for each dog in the class that he wins, 1/2 point for a second, 1/3 point for third place and 1/4 point for placing fourth. In other words in a class of 60 entries, points are awarded as follows: the winner receives 60 points, the second place hound earns 30, the third place gets 20 and the fourth place receives 15. A hound with three wins for 90 points can earn the remaining 30 points with second, third or fourth place points.
The hare hounds are trialed on snowshoe hare in packs that can exceed 40 beagles at one time. Now the snowshoe hare, unlike the slower twisting, turning, back tracking cottontail, thinks he can outrun his pursuer so he depends on speed to outrun the hounds, rather than creating tricks in order to escape. Often a snowshoe will lead the pack on a chase that takes them out of hearing distance for a long period of time before returning to the area where the chase started.
It is unfortunate that individual hounds in all of the listed AKC formats can be interbred and registered. Therefore, if a purchaser of a beagle pup does not know anything about the parents’ abilities as a hunting hound, he could end up with a nice looking hound or one that has no desire to search for game, as well as no patience or enthusiasm for hunting. Good conformation is important in allowing a hound to drive a hare or pursue a cottontail on an all day hunt. Many beagles have loose shoulders and short crooked front legs that often wear the hound out in a short time, especially on deep or crusty snow. It would be great, as well as useful, if more of our beagles resembled the conformation displayed by the famous Uno, the beagle that recently won “Best of Show” at Madison Square Garden.
I personally know of a lot of hunters that purchased a pup that had no rabbit running qualities but still ended up being a family pet. Purchasing a beagle is a “short term” investment (dogs of any breed don’t live very long) and it doesn’t cost any more to feed and maintain a good hound than it does for a poor hunter. Owning a top quality hunting beagle, even though there is an overwhelming chance you will have to bury it down the road, is the “price you pay for a priceless experience.”
The AKC Beagle Field Trial Rule Book states in Procedure 5-B, “that an ‘ideal beagle’ should be useful for all purposes afield, capable of serving as a field trial hound, a gun dog or a member of a pack on either rabbit or hare.” I would add to this description by saying, an ‘ideal beagle’ should be able to pursue a cottontail or hare on both bare, and frozen ground, as well as on snow. Unfortunately a pedigree doesn’t furnish much information on the hunting abilities of the listed ancestors.
This is the type of hound I always strived to breed for and almost all were able to meet the “ideal beagle qualities.” My beagles were “adaptable” or had gears. They could turn on the speed to push a straight running snowshoe out of hearing and bring it back to the gun on one day, as well as shift gears the next day and push a cottontail without breakdowns either in the field or at a trial. It doesn’t get any better than that.
I have only scratched the surface in this writing referencing beagle field trials. It would require volumes to detail all of the formats available to beagle owners today. I apologize for leaving out any group that I am not familiar with or not recognizing recent changes in formats that may have occurred. Meanwhile get out and enjoy the many opportunities that still exist with beagles!
The author has raised, hunted and field trialed hunting beagles for over 60 years. He has judged field trials in many states, and Canada. He has bred, handled and finished many field champions in the gun dog formats. Watch for his next article; how an ‘Ideal Beagle’ should perform in the field.