Harrier

The Harrier is one of the oldest of the British scenthound breeds.  The breed is intermediate in size and appearance between the English Foxhound and the Beagle.  Although still greatly valued as a hunter of hare both in the United Kingdom and the United States, the Harrier is a rare breed across the world and may be at risk of further population declines.  In England, two distinct breeds of Harrier are recognized, the Stud Book Harrier and the West Country Harrier.

Breed Information

Breed Basics

Country of Origin: 
Size: 
Large 35-55 lb
X-Large 55-90 lb
LifeSpan: 
12 to 15 Years
Trainability: 
Difficult to Train
Energy Level: 
Medium Energy
Grooming: 
Brushing Once a Week or Less
Protective Ability: 
Good Watchdog
Hypoallergenic Breed: 
No
Space Requirements: 
House with Yard
Compatibility With Other Pets: 
Friendly With Other Dogs
May Have Problems With Non-Canine Pets
Not Recommended For Homes With Small Animals
Litter Size: 
6-10 puppies
Names: 
Stud Book Harrier, West Country Harrier

Height/Weight

Males: 
45-60 lbs, 19-21 inches
Females: 
Same

Kennel Clubs and Recognition

American Kennel Club: 
ANKC (Australian National Kennel Council): 
CKC(Canadian Kennel Club): 
FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale): 
NZKC (New Zealand Kennel Club): 
UKC (United Kennel Club): 
History: 

 

There are few breeds of dogs which have a history that is as unknown and disputed as that of the Harrier.  Much of what is said is pure speculation with almost no basis in fact.  Part of the confusion is that there may have been dog breeds in the past which were known as harriers which are not the modern day animals.  What is certain is that the Harrier was definitely created in England, and that the breed’s primary purpose was to hunt hare and occasionally fox.  In fact, the name Harrier was developed from the word hare.

 

The Harrier is most similar in appearance, temperament, and purpose to the beagle.  It is almost certain that the two dogs have a very similar history.  In fact, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB) registers hunting packs of both Beagles and Harriers.  Unfortunately, the history of the Beagle is just as mysterious and disputed as that of the Harrier.

 

Hounds which resemble the modern day Harrier have long been present in the British Isles.  There is some historical evidence to suggest that Beagle and Harrier type hounds were owned by the Celts of Pre-Roman Britain.  If so, this would place the breed’s origin at several centuries before the birth of Christ.  Unfortunately, this evidence is uncertain at best, and does not mean that the Harrier is a direct descendant of those dogs.  If these dogs were present, they were most assuredly not used for hunting rabbits or hares.  Neither rabbits nor hares were native to the British Isles, and were introduced either by the Roman Empire or fur traders in the Middle Ages.  There is also evidence suggesting that neither species was numerous until the 14th or 15th Centuries.

 

During the Middle Ages, hunting with hounds became the premier sport of the European nobility.  Hunting with hounds was important not only as a form of recreation, but as a means to foster personal, political, and familial relationships and bonds.  Many important decisions were discussed and decided while lords were on hunting excursions.  Although important across Europe, France developed into the epicenter for pack hound hunting and breeding.  Sometime between 750 A.D. and 900 A.D. monks at the Saint Hubert Monastery initiated an organized a breeding program to create the ideal scent hound.  Their work resulted in the creation of the Saint Hubert Hound and each year several pairs would be sent to the King of France as a gift.  The French King then distributed these dogs amongst his nobles, spreading them across France.  The success of these hounds led hunters across France to want to develop their own unique hound breeds.

 

In 1066, England was conquered by the Normans, who were the descendants of Vikings who had settled in France and become assimilated into French culture.  The Normans had a tremendous impact on the English language, culture, and politics.  They also impacted English hound hunting.  British hound hunting took on a greater cultural significance, as well as becoming more ritualized.  Perhaps most importantly, the breeding of British hounds became more formalized, particularly among the nobility.  It is known that the Normans brought several breeds of hounds with them to England, although exactly which ones is debated.  The Saint Hubert Hound, known in English as the Bloodhound, and the Grand Bleu de Gascogne certainly entered England at this time, and most believe the Talbot did as well.  However, some say that the Talbot was a native British breed, and others say that the dog was nothing more than a white Saint Hubert Hound.

 

These French dogs impacted all future hound breeding in England, although the extent to which they did is also debated.  Some say that dogs such as the Harrier and Foxhound are almost entirely descended from these French Hounds, while others believe that they are almost entirely descended from native British breeds with the addition of some French blood.  It is known that for many centuries after the Norman conquest there existed at least three hound breeds which did not become extinct until possibly the 1800’s:  the Southern Hound, Northern Hound or North County Beagle, and the Talbot.  As has been previously mentioned, the exact nature and origin of the Talbot are much disputed.  Similarly, the Southern Hound and Northern Hound have an uncertain ancestry.  Unfortunately, the best descriptions of all three breeds come from the 1700’s or later, when these dogs were very rare or possibly extinct.

 

John Henry Walsh, better known as Stonehenge, provided some of the best descriptions of these breeds.  It was his opinion that the Southern Hound and Northern Hound were almost entirely descended from the Talbot and the Bloodhound.  William Youatt, author of "The Dog", and several other writers contend that the Southern Hound, Northern Hound, and Talbot were all native British breeds, who were crossed with a very small number of French hounds.  Many dog experts believe that the Harrier is the descendent of some mixture of these three extinct breeds, with the Northern Hound, which was smaller than the Southern Hound, being the most likely progenitor.  However, some who have investigated have come to the conclusion that the Harrier and Beagle both predate the arrival of the Normans.  Due to a paucity of records, the exact truth will probably never be known.

 

The first written record of the Harrier comes almost two centuries after the Norman invasion.  At least one pack of Harriers was kept in England in 1260.  It would make sense that hare hunting dogs would have been developed in England around this time as many experts believe it was at this time that hare and rabbit populations first became well-established and began to increase in number.  Some experts believe that these dogs were not the modern Harrier breed, but instead were other hare hunting dogs which shared the name Harrier. 

 

Since Harriers have been periodically mentioned from that time until the 1700’s, and regularly mentioned thereafter, and no writers mention an older form of Harrier, this is unlikely.  If these dogs from 1260 were the ancestors of the modern Harrier, it would mean that the breed is around 800 years old.  As evidenced from the name Harrier, it seems as though even the very earliest members of the breed were tasked with pursuing hares and rabbits.  Interestingly, there are many early references which mention both Beagles and Harriers, implying that these two breeds have been distinct for many centuries despite their close similarities.  However, it is very likely that these dogs have frequently interbred throughout the years.

 

It is often claimed that the Harrier was developed from the English Foxhound.  Those that believe this think that small English Foxhounds were bred together and possibly mixed with Beagles to create the smaller Harrier.  To be sure, Harriers and English Foxhounds are very similar in appearance.  Also, Foxhounds and Harriers have been bred together for centuries, and continue to be in England.  However, Foxhounds were not developed until the 1500’s and 1600’s, more than two hundred years after the first records of Harriers.  Additionally, some who have studied the development of the Foxhound mention Harriers being used to develop Foxhounds.

 

Those that believe the Harrier is a descendant of the English Foxhound believe that these earlier references are not to the modern Harrier, but other hare hunting dogs.  Although the two breeds have similar temperaments, the Harrier is much closer in personality to a Beagle than an English Foxhound.  For these reasons, it is considerably more likely that the similarities between the English Foxhound and the Harrier are the result of the Harrier being used to develop the English Foxhound rather than vice-versa.  It is also possible that neither the Harrier nor the English Foxhound is the ancestor of the other and their similarities are the result of descending from a common ancestor or interbreeding after both had already been developed.

 

Harriers have long been unique among pack hunting hounds as they are both large and fast enough to accompany horses on a traditional style hunt and small and slow enough to be followed on foot; albeit with some effort.  They are also equally skilled at hunting either foxes or rabbits. This adaptability, particularly in terms of quarry, has long made them desirable.   However, these dogs are not as fast as Foxhounds, and thus provide what many hunters consider a less exciting chase.  Additionally, they are faster than Beagles, and will give anyone attempting to follow them on foot a good workout.  This lack of mastery of any one thing has long limited their popularity.

 

One major influence that the English Foxhound did have on the Harrier is in terms of breeding practices.  By the end of the 1700’s most breeders were keeping precise records of their dogs, and had created studbooks.  This helped to ensure the purebred status of their animals.  These are the first detailed records of dog breeding known from anywhere in the world and were the precursors of modern kennel clubs.   By that point, Harriers had been bred selectively for many centuries and possibly longer.  However, records were not kept.  Beginning in the 1800’s, individual breeders began to keep precise records.  In March of 1891, the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB) was formed.  Some of the first tasks completed by the association were to publish a studbook in 1891 and begin the Peterborough Harrier and Beagle Show in 1892.  Harriers were initially admitted to the studbook based either on pack history or by committee decision.  For several years after the club’s formation, additional Harriers were added to the studbook, also either by pack record or committee.  Harriers could be added to the studbook in an appendix if only one of their parents was a Harrier.  In fact many of the original registered Harriers were also registered Foxhounds or Foxhound-Harrier crosses.  The AMHB recognizes two distinct breeds of Harrier, the Stud Book Harrier and the similar but smaller West Country Harrier.  No other organization apparently recognizes this distinction.

 

Initially, Harriers were considerably more popular and numerous than the smaller Beagles.  In 1891, the AMHB registered 107 packs of Harriers.  However, this has greatly changed over time.  Although the Beagle is far less common in England than in the United States and other nations around the world, it is much more numerous in its homeland than the Harrier.  As of 2011, there were 67 packs of Beagles registered with the AMHB and only 22 packs of Harrier, divided among two distinct varieties. Interestingly, the Harrier is not recognized by the United Kingdom’s major kennel club, the Kennel Club, and none have been registered since 1971.

 

The Harrier has long been present in America.  Several sources mention Harriers being imported to America during colonial times, although the breed did not establish itself to the extent of the English Foxhound.  One of the first definitive mentions of Harriers in the United States can be found in the records of Craven Pack.  The records of the Craven Pack are present in the initial studbook of the AMHB and tell of pack members being exported to America in the 1700’s.  Unfortunately, the records do not indicate where the dogs made landfall. Other records indicate that several large packs of Harrier were brought to the United States in the second half of the 19th Century.  These dogs were used to hunt in large packs alongside horses in the traditional English fashion.  The height of Harrier popularity and population size in the United States likely came in the early 20th Century.  The Harrier was first recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1885.  The United Kennel Club (UKC) followed the AKC in 1949.  The Harrier Club of America (HCA) was not founded until 1992, and became the first official parent club of the breed in 1996.

 

The Harrier has influenced the development of several other breeds of dog.  As has been previously mentioned, the Harrier has been bred with, and possibly was the root stock of both the English Foxhound and the Beagle.  Additionally, the Harrier was the likely ancestor of the rare French breed known as the Beagle-Harrier, and possibly was used to create all eight of the Anglo-Francais breeds.  The Harrier may also have been used to develop the American Foxhound and all breeds of Coonhound except for the Plott Hound

 

The Harrier has never been common in the show ring or as a companion animal.  This is a hunting breed through and through.  Unlike the Foxhound and the Beagle, the Harrier has never really established itself outside of England.  Other than a brief period in the early 20th Century in America, the Harrier has rarely if ever been used in large packs outside of England and Ireland.  However, the breed remained a common hunting hound in its home country for many centuries.  Changes in culture and society have meant that the breed’s numbers there have been steadily declining since the early 1900’s and there are now only one-fifth as many packs of Harriers in England as there were a century earlier.

 

Potentially devastating news for the breed’s long term viability in its home land came in 2002 and 2005.  In those years, animal rights groups were finally successful in outlawing hunting with hounds in Scotland and England and Wales respectively.  Although, largely aimed at ending the practice of foxhunting, the ban also impacted all other game, such as rabbit or deer, as well.  Many English clubs have stated that they will attempt to keep their packs until the ban can be overturned, while others have said that they will have to euthanize their dogs.  While many foxhound packs are being used to chase human quarry as a substitute, there doesn’t seem to be the same sentiment for preserving the Harrier packs which are less of a cultural institution.  As the Harrier is very rarely kept as a companion in the United Kingdom, the hunting ban may mean that the Harrier is a dog without a purpose in England.  Although it is too soon to tell, the hunting ban may result in the eventual extinction of the Harrier in England, along with that of several other breeds such as the Otterhound.

 

Luckily for the Harrier, hunting with hounds remains legal in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Canada, Australia, France, and the vast majority of the United States.  In fact, the Harrier is the most commonly used hunting dog across Ireland.  More than 130 hunting clubs use the breed on the island.  These Irish dogs will probably be the largest Harrier population for the foreseeable future, and may already contain the majority of the world’s Harriers.  The Harrier is still used as a hunting dog in the United States as well, with small packs being used across the country to hunt a variety of game.  However, American hunters prefer other breeds and the dog remains uncommon.

 

Although it is impossible to get an exact determination, the majority of Harriers in America are most likely either companion or show dogs, making the United States one of the few nations where this is the case.  Even those dogs which are kept as companions or show dogs are mostly only one or two generations removed from pack hunting Harriers.  The Harrier remains a very rare dog in the United States.  In 2010, only the English Foxhound and American Foxhound had fewer dogs registered with the American Kennel Club.

 

Appearance: 

 

The Harrier appears to be intermediate in both size and form to the Beagle and the English Foxhound.  A Harrier is the epitome of a medium-sized dog with both males and females ranging from 19 to 21 inches tall at the shoulder and weighing between 45 and 60 pounds.  Harriers which are pack hunting dogs will tend to be lighter.  Harriers should be extremely well-muscled and give off the appearance of being strong and healthy, although hunting Harriers may appear slightly thin.

 

The Harrier has a face typical of an English Hound breed.  These dogs have a longer muzzle relative to body size than a beagle, but shorter than that of an English Foxhound.  These muzzles are not square, but taper slightly towards the end.  Most Harriers have dark eyes, but lighter dogs may have lighter eyes.  The ears of the Harrier droop down, and their length is similar in proportion to body size as those of the Beagle.  Overall, the Harrier has a lively, friendly, and slightly pleading expression.

 

The Harrier has short, smooth coat, nearly identical to that of the Beagle.  The hair on the ears tends to be finer and shorter than that over the rest of the dog’s body.  It is commonly said that a good hound can come in any color, and that is certainly what Harrier fanciers believed.  Color is not regarded as very important in breed standards, and these dogs may be found in any good hound color.  Most Harriers in dog guides are tricolor, often with a black saddle marking on their backs, although white dogs with brown, tan, or black spots are probably more common in the general population of Harriers.

 

The body of the Harrier is generally well-proportioned and sturdy.  This is a breed dedicated to hunting and should appear as such.  The dog has a tail which is similar in proportion to body length as that of the Beagle, and is typically carried in the same upright, saber-like position.

 

Temperament: 

 

Although much more rarely seen, the Harrier is very similar in temperament to the smaller and more popular Beagle.  These dogs are known for being extremely affectionate and loving with people.  They want to be in a pack at all times, and are more than willing to accept most people as pack members, and to do so quickly.  In particular, Harriers are known for being very tolerant of and gentle with children.  Like their Beagle relatives, Harriers have a reputation for being one of the best breeds with kids. 

 

Although the breed is very likely to alert its owners to the approach of a stranger, this would be an extremely poor choice as a guard dog as a Harrier is more likely to warmly approach and lick someone they do not know in an attempt to make friends than they are to attack.  Some Harriers may be somewhat nervous around new people, but they are rarely aggressive.  If you are looking for a family dog that when well-socialized will gladly accept guests and neighbors, a Harrier may be a good choice.  A word of caution, the Harrier is so pack oriented that the breed does very poorly if left alone.  If you will have to leave your dog alone for long periods of time, the Harrier is not the best breed for you.

 

The Harrier has been bred as a pack hunter for centuries, often closely working with 50 or more other dogs.  As a result, they tend to get along well with other dogs.  In fact, several breed standards state that any dog aggression will not be tolerated in Harrier lines.  Most Harriers actively seek out the companionship of other dogs, and are the happiest when they can share their lives with other canines.  Most fanciers advise Harrier owners to get at least one other canine companion.  If you are looking to introduce a dog into a home with existing canine companions, there are few breeds more well-suited than the Harrier.  However, it is always important to be careful when introducing two new dogs, and some amount of dominance and bullying is to be expected as the pecking order is arranged.  Also, intact dogs of the same sex, particularly males, will often have trouble getting along.

 

While known for being very affectionate with people and other dogs, the Harrier is not the best choice to have around other non-canine pets.  These dogs were bred to hunt and kill small animals (especially rabbits) for many hundreds of years.  Most Harriers existing today are at most two generations removed from hunting packs and still maintain this strong prey drive.  This does not mean that the Harrier cannot be socialized with other animals and get along fine.  The many centuries of close contact between Harriers and horses disproves this.  Just remember that training and socialization are key, and that a Harrier which is best friends with a cat that lives in its own home may chase the neighbor’s cat.  While by no means a large breed, the Harrier is certainly large and powerful enough to do serious injury to, and potentially kill, a cat.

 

Although the Harrier is devoted to humans and surprisingly intelligent, they can be extremely difficult dogs to train.  The Harrier was bred to track game for hours on end, without stopping or giving up.  This breed is extremely determined and stubborn as a result.  If you are used to training breeds such as a Labrador Retriever or German Shepherd Dog, a Harrier will probably cause you a great deal of frustration.  These dogs are trainable, but you will have to spend a great deal more time and effort training them than you would a non-scenthound.  Even the best trained Harriers have a tendency to do what they want and are notorious for exhibiting selective listening.  Owners often never get the training results that they really want with a Harrier.  If you want a highly obedient breed, you should look elsewhere.  One training tip is that there are few, if any, breeds that are as food motivated as the Harrier.  Any training regimen for these dogs should make heavy use of treats.

 

Like many other scenthounds, the Harrier tends to be relatively calm when indoors.  However, this does not mean that the breed is a couch potato.  Harriers are capable of running at high speeds for several hours.  These are athletic animals capable of surprising feats of strength and stamina.  You have to provide them with the necessary exercise.  While these dogs don’t have the exercise requirements of a breed such as an Australian Cattle Dog, two ten minute potty walks a day are not going to cut it.  Regular, long walks, and ideally runs off leash are necessary.  If a Harrier is not properly exercised, they can become bored, vocal, and destructive.

 

The Harrier is a noted escape artist.  These dogs were bred to get on the scent and follow it.  They will follow their noses almost anywhere, not letting anything get in their way.  These dogs can also run incredibly fast for great distances and may end up many miles away.  The Harrier is prone to ignoring calls to come back, and may choose to completely disregard them.  It is therefore imperative that these dogs be kept on a leash at all times when not in a secured fenced-in area.  It is important that any fence be very secure, as Harriers are intelligent and physically capable enough to go over, under, or through most fences.

 

Harriers are vocal dogs.  They were bred to bay when they were on a scent and when they had cornered their prey.  Many huntsmen think that the Harrier’s bay is one of the most beautiful dog sounds.  However, in the modern suburb this can cause problems.  Even the most well-trained and stimulated Harrier will make considerably more noises than almost any other breed.  Harriers that are not properly trained or cared for may bay endlessly for hours.  Harriers should most likely be kept indoors in urban or suburban environments; otherwise, they may lead to noise complaints.

 

There are a few other behavioral problems for which Harriers are well-known.  Many Harriers love to dig, and will destroy your garden or escape under a fence.  Supervision, stimulation, training, and sometimes providing a sandbox to dig in can help this problem.  Harriers are notorious food hounds.  They will find and eat any food that they can possibly get to, and owners are often surprised what is possible if these dogs smell something they want.  Owners have to take extra precautions to store their food as even Harriers which know not to scrounge when their owners are present will often just wait till they leave.

 

Grooming Requirements: 

 

Harriers have one of the lowest grooming requirements of any dog breed.  The breed should never require professional grooming, and most only need regular brushing.  This does not mean that the breed does not shed.  Most Harriers are average shedders, but some may shed heavily, particularly in warmer climates.  If you or a family member is an allergy sufferer or cannot stand the thought of cleaning up dog hair, this is probably not the best breed for you.

 

Harrier owners have to pay special attention to the breed’s ears.  As is the case with many droopy-eared breeds, Harriers have a propensity for getting dirt and grime stuck in their ears.  This can lead to ear infections and discomfort.  To prevent this, a Harrier must regularly have its ears cleaned.

 

Health Issues: 

 

In general, the Harrier is a very healthy breed.  These dogs have been bred almost exclusively as hunting animals for many centuries.  Any genetic disorders would have made a dog unable to perform its function and would have been eliminated from the breeding pool.  The average life expectancy of a Harrier is 12 to 15 years, a very advanced age for a dog of this size.  This does not mean that the Harrier is immune to health issues; it just means that the breed is at no greater risk of genetically inherited diseases than other dogs.

 

The most commonly reported genetically linked health disorder in Harriers is hip dysplasia, which is also very commonly seen in many other breeds.  Hip dysplasia is caused by a malformation in the hip joint.  This results in varying degrees of discomfort, from mild to very severe.  In the worst cases, hip dysplasia can lead to lameness.  The condition is genetic, but may be brought on or worsened by environmental factors.

 

It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed.  The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.

 

Other health problems which have been identified in Harriers include:

 

 

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