"What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare's Juliet. In the case of the English foxhound, the answer is, "Quite a bit." As you may have guessed, the breed hails from England and was bred to hunt foxes. But what may come as a surprise is that this classic-looking dog is so scarce. In fact, the English foxhound came in last place on the American Kennel Club's (AKC) breed popularity list in 2019. However, if high school has taught us anything, it's that popularity (or its opposite) isn't a perfect reflection of merit.
Just ask Toni Koerber, secretary of the English Foxhound Club of America, who is well acquainted with the breed on and off the hunting field. "They are beautiful, intelligent, large, powerful dogs," she says, "But they are also affectionate companions. They are your friend for life."
But because of their size, strength, stamina, and independent nature, English foxhounds aren't necessarily a natural choice for first-time dog owners, which may explain why they haven't risen to prominence in the United States. The breed does best with an experienced, patient pet parent, Koerber says, who calls the foxhound a "thinking dog." And once pet and parent are both trained enough to work together, a beautiful partnership can blossom.
English foxhounds are keen hunters, and they look the part. These deep-chested and stately hounds are about 24 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 60–75 pounds. They have flat skulls flanked by high-set, pendant ears that stay close to the head and hang below their long muzzles. Their bodies are muscular, their legs are straight, their feet are round and catlike, and their tapered tails are carried gaily, or high.
The double-coated, short, glossy fur of the English foxhound sheds a moderate amount and requires only a weekly brushing to keep it clean and under control. While coat color isn't considered to be highly important in foxhounds, their fur should be a combination of black, tan, and white and may contain spots that are a mix of white and hare, badger, yellow, and tan.
Koerber describes English foxhounds as powerful, athletic, and intelligent dogs—crucial qualities for fox-chasing hounds. They are also known for their stamina and endurance, which serves them well on the hunting field but can become a handful if not given proper outlets for exercising their bodies and minds. Bred to work in a pack, English foxhounds are social and get along well with other dogs—especially fellow foxhounds—and tend to benefit from their companionship. Their high prey drive means that interactions with cats, small dogs, and other small animals should be approached with caution and supervision.
But there's more to English foxhounds than their work. They are affectionate, gentle, friendly dogs, and with early socialization and positive reinforcement training, these noble hunters can be just as content playing fetch with a child in the backyard as they are tracking prey across the English countryside.
Like any other hound breed, English foxhounds like to communicate. Koerber says you can expect them to bark when they see someone or something unusual and to let you know they want something. Howling, on the other hand, is a less-common form of communication for foxhounds living as family pets, she explains. These hounds don't typically howl unless they're in a pack.
You can take the English foxhound out of the hunt, but you can't necessarily take the hunt out of the English foxhound. In other words, these hounds were bred to bound across wide-open spaces. To put them in a small apartment in the middle of a city would go against their nature. Foxhounds do best when they have lots of room to safely roam, so large, fenced-in yards and plenty of outdoor time are ideal.
Well-trained foxhounds can be great family dogs—especially in active families that enjoy running, hiking, and other outdoor play, like biking. And as noted before, these social pups tend to enjoy the companionship of other dogs. Though they are gentle pups, English foxhounds will need to be supervised around small children simply due to their size and energy. A happy hound can unwittingly knock over small kiddos!
While people may not like being defined by their job, it can be important to do so when caring for dogs bred for a specific task. English foxhounds were born to hunt foxes—to use their sensational scent abilities to track prey over miles and miles of countryside in partnership with dozens of other dogs—and to ignore this would be a detriment to both you and your dog. These athletic dogs need regular exercise that stimulates both their bodies and their brains.
"In general, the most satisfying exercise to dogs is the ability to have freedom of movement and to engage in species- and breed-specific behaviors," says Kim Krug, DVM, veterinary behavior resident at Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Ore. In the case of English foxhounds, this might look like going on a walk in which your dog is free to follow his nose or letting him play with another dog. "Think about what your dog would choose to do if a leash wasn't there," Krug continues. "If your dog would choose to run instead of walk, or walk with his nose to the ground, or roll in smells, we are likely best served if we can come up with outlets for him to engage in that type of exercise."
Unless your hound is in an enclosed space, it's important to keep him on a leash. While this is true of all dogs, it's especially necessary for pups with a high prey drive like English foxhounds. The sight of a squirrel, rabbit, or other small creature could commence a chase that puts your dog in danger.
According to Krug, signs your dog isn't getting enough exercise include (but are not limited to):
- Hyperactivity outside of exercise times
- Undesirable behaviors (chewing, scratching)
- Inability to settle down
- Attention-seeking behaviors (excessive pawing or barking)
- Little to no deep sleep (the kind of sleep in which your dog twitches and makes vocalizations)
Contrary to popular belief, these aren't telltale signs of a "bad" or "difficult" dog. They may just mean that the dog's needs for physical and mental enrichment aren't being met.
Speaking of labels, English foxhounds are often described as "stubborn" with regards to training. Krug sees so-called stubborn dogs differently. "Dog behavior, just like our own, is driven by outcomes or consequences," she explains. "A majority of the time when I evaluate dogs labeled as 'stubborn,' I find that the dog is actually avoiding something unpleasant or uncomfortable, or it is choosing the more enjoyable or favorable activity."
For example, Krug notes that a dog can learn quickly that their fun comes to an end when they respond to your call to come back inside after playing in the yard. If they start ignoring your requests to return to the house, they aren't being stubborn, she explains. Rather, they're simply choosing the most enjoyable outcome.
Another common scenario for "stubborn" dogs is that they simply don't understand what they're being asked to do. "Just because your dog knows to sit when given a particular cue in the living room does not mean that your dog can sit when out at the farmers market with hundreds of people, other dogs, noises, sights, and smells all around them," Krug says. "I can recite the 50 states in alphabetical order during a casual conversation, but I would struggle to do so while skydiving."
While it may not be fair to call English foxhounds "stubborn," Koerber does note that they are independent dogs who need patient, attentive owners who are willing and able to put in the time and effort needed to train them. "English foxhounds have an opinion," she explains, "But if you get it working for you, they are amazing."
Grooming, thankfully, is far more straightforward. English foxhounds' short, dense, glossy coats should be brushed once a week to keep them clean and to keep your home from filling up with fur. Their ears should be inspected regularly for signs of infection. If the skin is pink with a light coating of yellow wax, you can leave it alone. If the skin is red and you see brown or black discharge, you should call your veterinarian. English foxhounds also need regular trims to keep their nails healthy.
English foxhounds are relatively healthy dogs with a lifespan of 10–13 years. However, their size and build can make them susceptible to a couple of health conditions that are worth noting.
Gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV)—often referred to simply as "bloat" or "twisted stomach"—is more likely to affect large, deep-chested dogs. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS), the condition occurs when food and gas cause a dog's stomach to dilate, or expand, to the point that they get trapped in the stomach. The condition can progress quickly and needs immediate veterinary attention, so it's important to know and watch for the signs: restlessness, excessive drooling, and dry heaving. You may also notice that your dog's belly looks swollen.
Canine hip dysplasia (CHD) is a developmental condition in which the hip becomes deformed, resulting in a loose joint. It can lead to pain, mobility issues, and osteoarthritis. According to the ACVS, there are many causes, but genetics is the single biggest risk factor for developing CHD. Signs of CHD include limping, hesitancy to get up or jump, shifting of weight to the front limbs, loss of muscle in the rear limbs, and hip pain.
It's a good idea to visit with your veterinarian about these conditions to learn more about the signs and to discuss ways to potentially prevent them altogether.
While stag hunting with hounds had been a favorite pastime at the beginning of the Middle Ages, the AKC explains that receding forests, coupled with population growth, forced the British gentry to consider new quarry—the red fox—in the 1400s.
What we think of as the traditional British foxhunt, in which mounted hunters are led by a pack of scent hounds in tracking a fox across the countryside, didn't emerge until the 17th century. And with the sport came the breed. The English foxhound was created by crossing stag-hunting hounds known for stamina and scent abilities with fast, nimble greyhound-type hounds.
The sport grew in popularity, and not just in England. By the 18th century, English-style foxhunts were taking place in America, too. But it wasn't until 1909 that the AKC registered its first English foxhound, a dog named Auditor.
Foxhunting's popularity has waned since the World Wars. Scotland banned the sport in 2002, and in 2005 a law went into effect stating that prey must be shot by hunters rather than killed by hounds. Thus, in many places (including the U.S.), the goal of foxhunting has shifted to simply tracking the prey rather than killing. And in some cases, there isn't even live prey—only a previously laid scent.
- According to 19th-century novelist and poet Charles Kingsley, English foxhounds are a cultivated combination of brawn and beauty—like a cross between a lion and a fawn. He wrote, "Next to a Greek statue, I say, I know few such combinations of grace and strength as in a fine foxhound … The old savage ideal of beauty was the lion, type of mere massive force. That was succeeded by an over-civilized ideal, say the fawn, type of delicate grace. By cunning breeding and choosing, through long centuries, man has combined both, and has created the fox-hound—lion and fawn in one."
- The traditional English foxhunt involves 40–60 dogs led by mounted huntsmen. The huntsman uses calls (called cheers) or a small horn to communicate with the pack.
- While they're certainly similar (and related), the English foxhound and the American foxhound are two different breeds. A fellow by the name of George Washington (yes—that George Washington) was influential in creating the latter, which is a mix of English foxhound and imported French hounds. The result is a taller, slimmer dog.