I’m working with a new bird dog pup this year, and she’s just about ready for her first off-leash, real-life hunting excursion into the chukar hills of north central Idaho.
June, an 8-month old Drahthaar, is eager, and I’m excited to watch her start to figure things out and for the two of us to begin developing the trust and teamwork that will pay dividends over many years. But I’m also more nervous than I have been with my previous dogs. There always seems to be a point when the exuberance and inexperience of youth sends pups over a ridge and out of sight. It’s happened to me more than once, but the dogs have always reappeared after a tense 10-15 minutes.
Like a lot of bird hunters, I use e-collars, commonly known as shock collars, on my dogs. They allow long-range communication and correction between dog and handler. Most of the time when I push the button on the transceiver, it’s just to send a vibration to get the dog’s attention.
But with the new pup and my worry about her tendency to cover ground quickly, I became curious about GPS collars that track a dog’s movement. To learn more, I consulted Seth Bynum, a Moscow veterinarian specializing in breeding. Bynum is also an avid bird hunter with a big Instagram following under the handle @birddogvet and is a contributor to the MeatEater hunting and fishing news and entertainment platform.
He runs a Garmin Alpha that combines e-collar functions with tracking. Some years ago Garmin, a leader in GPS devices, acquired Tri-Tronics, one of the top makers of dog-training collars. The sophisticated Alpha comes with a hand-held, touch-screen transceiver/receiver that the hunter can use to follow his dogs and send corrections. Like many GPS devices, it has detailed, preloaded digital maps.
Bynum started using it for much the same reason that is drawing me toward a GPS collar for June — temporary loss of a dog.
“These animals are living in our homes, and they are family members. There was just pain in the pit of my stomach that was out of control. You are scared you are going to lose your animal.” he said. “That woke me up and (I thought) I would really like a means to track this dog.”
His system tracks the miles and elevation logged by his dogs River and Shine, which he said is interesting to look at after his hunts. But the core function of the collars is letting him know where his dogs are and what they are doing. The collars communicate, via satellite, every few seconds with the hand-held device. When the dogs stop moving, it shows them as being on point.
“They are really great in thick cover,” he said. “If it tells me 55 yards, and the dog has not moved in 15 seconds. That is probably a situation where I need to get a shell in the chamber and get moving.”
The communication satellite, hand-held device and collar work well in most places. In some of the more complex terrain, signals can be lost for a time.
“If I’m on one side of a draw, and the dog is over the ridge on the other side, I will lose signal. But it will tell me where the last signal was,” he said.
The Alpha has a range up to 9 miles. Garmin also has a less sophisticated model, the Pro 550 Plus. It has a range of about 2 miles and a hand-held controller device with a much smaller screen that just shows the direction of the dog or dogs and the distance. It’s billed as being slimmed down and much easier and quicker to operate.
Other e-collar companies like Dogtra also have combo GPS and training collars.
“It’s really just about peace of mind and that feeling I hope never to experience again of it getting dark, and the coyotes are starting to fire off and the dog having to stay out overnight,” Bynum said.
Barker is the outdoors editor of the Lewiston Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.