Hard against the Mexican border in the pastel light of a Southwest daybreak, the old setter pointed. I saw her standing steady by an ancient juniper log on a hillside, even before the beeper rang out its hawk screech. At the flush, a 10-bird covey got up, and I knocked down two birds. By the time I reached the truck, the cool of the February morning had worn off. I shed my down jacket, watered and put up the dog, and loosed the pup in a new direction, following her in a t-shirt.
The desert is not flat but rather a series of rolling hills, many steeper than they look. The low grass is dotted with century plants and Gambel oaks. Steep draws and arroyos appear out of nowhere; thick stands of trees shade the sandy soil of the intermittent stream beds.
I kept my eyes on the dog, moving quickly to keep up, my finger on the tone button ready to turn her. And then, like a phantom, she was gone. I whistled. I beeped her. I cursed her under my breath, but under the annoyance, there was fear. This is not a place to lose a dog, I thought, checking my watch and knowing the temperature would climb quickly with the sun now high in the sky.
I whistled more urgently as I climbed to the top of the tallest hill I could find. At the top of the hill, I scanned the horizon, whistled and waited. And whistled. And waited. This was a half-grown pup, not exactly streetwise, and I knew it might be a long time before she stopped long enough for the beeper to sound. Eventually, I caught a glimpse of her—a flash of white moving across the horizon. I double-timed it in her direction, tooting my whistle the whole way.
This strip of quail country sees more Border Patrol officers than hunters. It’s not uncommon to get pulled over and checked, glassed by officers on horseback or hear surveillance aircraft overhead. I can only wonder what report may have been filed by some officer who saw me running in hunter orange, carrying a shotgun and tooting on my whistle like a madman.
Eventually, I caught the pup and got her back into my orbit, but after that I knew it was time to get religion on GPS collars. Most of my hunting buddies were way ahead of me—most of them early adopters of the Garmin Astro and Alpha systems. The Alpha and Astro are incredible tools able to deliver reams of data about speed and distance, maps and a whole host of other things. The newest Alpha even has inReach, which allows you to send messages or even an SOS in case of trouble. They also have touchscreens and easily track multiple dogs at once. But, to me, they seem too much like phones, and I find it too easy to get sucked into staring at the screens.
My older setter is a big runner in her own right, but cautious too. A beeper collar has suited us both. She will point out of sight but never out of earshot. As a guy who spends most of his days in front of a computer, I have been grateful for any chance to put down the phone, the computer and the screens and just move through the world following the dog and trusting in a good pair of boots.
But after the incident with the pup, I knew that I no longer could let her run like the older setter. I call the young dog Maggie, and to her “run as she pleases” means to the horizon and back. I needed GPS. Luckily, there are options for the technophobes, luddites and screen-opposed among us.
The Garmin PRO 550 Plus is first and foremost a training collar. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the Garmin PRO 550 (non-GPS) and to the Tri-Tronics Pro series from which it is descended. The three buttons on the front are easy to set up and default to exactly what you would expect: tone, momentary and continuous. What sets the 550 Plus apart from its ancestors is a 1.5″ x 2.1″ LCD screen. This is a basic black-and-white screen that displays critical information and nothing else. It shows the distance to the dog; the direction of the dog, indicated by a large compass arrow; whether the dog is stopped or moving; and the battery level. That’s it.
While hunting, you can use it like a training collar and rarely look at the GPS unless you lose sight of the dog. The 550 Plus also will connect to your Garmin smartwatch. This simple procedure allows you to use the transmitter only for corrections and to see the arrow and distance to the dog on the watch face.
The SportDOG TEK 1.5 offers more functionality and a larger screen while still keeping things pretty straightforward. The TEK 1.5 does not have a touchscreen but rather a more traditional four-way toggle for navigating a text-based list menu. Once I got the unit set up, I found myself using the three stimulation buttons on the side of the handheld like a regular training collar and only looking at the tracking screen when I lost sight of the dog.
The TEK 1.5 takes some work to set up, but once you have it to your liking, it is intuitive and works great as a training collar with GPS capabilities. The TEK is a little better for tracking multiple dogs with its simple tracking screen.
What I loved about the collar was the extremely compact size.
The Dogtra Pathfinder system takes a novel approach to dog GPS, as it does away with the controller entirely. Instead the Pathfinder uses a compact receiver device that connects the collar to your smartphone. Once you have the collar and receiver paired to your phone, you can drop the receiver in your vest pocket. The Pathfinder works with both Android and iPhones, and I can vouch for it working perfectly even with a fairly antiquated iPhone 6. The system does not require a cellphone signal to work, but if you have a signal or if you download maps ahead of time, it will display your location and the dog’s on top of Google satellite data.
The training buttons for the Pathfinder are located on the touchscreen of your phone inside the Pathfinder app. Because of my aversion to using my phone in the field, I did not enjoy using the Pathfinder as a training collar. What I did love about it was the extremely compact size. I tried the Pathfinder mini, which is compact enough that I was able to run a two-collar setup on a small 35-pound English setter. I used the Pathfinder mini paired to my iPhone in conjunction with my regular beeper collar. This allowed me to keep corrections simple and not have to worry about a screen. In the event that you lose track of the dog, you simply pull out your phone and get a location.
Over the years I’ve lost and recovered dogs and missed opportunities on pointed birds because I couldn’t find dogs in time. Fortunately, I’ve never lost a dog permanently in the field. Then the little setter—35 pounds of muscle and sinew and grit—dragged me into the world of GPS dog collars. I may be a technophobe and have come to GPS reluctantly, but now that I’m here, I’m never going back.