Tracking-and-Training Devices

Dog
Today’s track-and-train e-collars offer hunters options that would have sounded like science fiction 30 years ago.

The distance display on the Garmin Alpha 300 resembled one of those rapidly spinning cartoon odometers: 300 yards, 350 yards, 400 yards . . . . My big-running, fleet-footed pointer pup, Zuma, was headed in the wrong direction fast, straight toward a busy county road where oilfield traffic was rumbling nonstop.

I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was getting close to the road and whistles weren’t turning her back. A tone on her Garmin TT25 collar combined with a quick low-stim nick finally turned her away from the road and a potentially tragic outcome.

It was a vivid reminder of how far sporting-dog training devices have come in the past decades. My very first e-collar was a crude affair that looked like it had been manufactured in someone’s garage (and probably was), and it had basically two stimulation levels: not enough and too much.

In comparison, today’s handhelds and collars are some of the most sophisticated, safe and customizable training tools dog owners have at their disposal.

But no advancement in e-collar technology has been as transformative as the addition of GPS tracking capabilities. The marriage of knowing exactly where your dog is in relation to you combined with the ability to make corrections when needed has revolutionized sporting-dog training as we know it. 

But it took a little time to get there.

The first GPS tracking device for sporting dogs was the Garmin Astro 220. The Astro was introduced in 2007, and it is hard to overstate how transformative it was for gundog owners. Prior to the introduction of the Astro, about the only way to keep track of a dog in heavy cover or at long distance was either a bell or a beeper. I well remember the sound of beeper collars ringing across the Oklahoma prairie during quail season. They worked, but only within earshot, and they were annoyingly loud and distracting.

But the Astro allowed me to know exactly where my dogs were at all times and when they went on point. There was no more wondering, Where is Jenny? Maybe she’s on point somewhere? I would argue that the Astro did more to open up dogs’ natural ranges by allowing owners to feel comfortable letting them run than any development in bird dog training.

Of course, the downside was that the collar allowed tracking only, so you still had to run a separate e-collar as well as the dog’s normal collar. Often you’d see a dog sporting three collars—which, depending on how large the dog was, could get unwieldy, plus the owner had to juggle two transmitters.

That changed in 2011 with the introduction of the SportDOG TEK 1.0 and, a few months later, the Garmin Alpha 100. Combining GPS tracking capabilities with the training function of a traditional e-collar, these new “track-and-train” collars were the next big revolutionary step in sporting-dog technology. Now you could use one collar and one handheld to know exactly where your dog was and give corrections. 

That advancement fundamentally changed the nature of GPS-collar development, and today most e-collar companies offer track-and-train collars. Neither SportDOG nor Garmin has rested on its laurels, and both have continually updated and improved those early pioneering options.

Today Garmin offers several different track-and-train collars. Choosing the right one depends on what the hunter’s goals are, how many dogs are being run, how much technology the hunter is comfortable with, and how many features are desired.

Here is a quick overview of three of Garmin’s most popular models.

GARMIN ALPHA 300

The Alpha 300 is Garmin’s flagship model and the evolutionary successor to the original Alpha 100. Compared to the original Alpha 100, the 300 offers orders-of-magnitude-better battery life, improved performance, a better screen, more features and an easier, more modern interface. The 300 is ideally suited to those who want every available feature in the handheld. The 300’s many features include Garmin’s InReach messaging and emergency SOS capabilities (on the 300i), topo maps, the ability to download satellite imagery, the ability to track and train up to 20 dogs, and 18 levels of stimulation as well as tone and vibration.

Suffice to say that the 300 is the unit to get if a hunter wants every available feature and bit of functionality possible. (Price: $800 for the 300 handheld, $850 for the 300i.)

GARMIN ALPHA 10 

At the other end of the spectrum lies the Alpha 10. This stripped-down track-and-train model is relatively diminutive compared to the Alpha 300 but has a commensurate level of functionality. Like the 300, the 10 has the ability to track multiple dogs, but unlike the plethora of tracking options on the 300, the 10 is a directional tracker only. There is no mapping capability, just a simple arrow showing the dog’s direction and distance.

The training capabilities are similarly basic. It has the stim/tone/vibrate functions of the 300, but they are all controlled by a toggle switch, so it’s not quite as intuitive or as quick as the 300. 

Everything about the 10 is small and simple. There is no touch screen (it uses buttons and a toggle), and it has a simple interface and simple functions. It’s not what I’d consider “One Handheld to Rule Them All,” but for the hunter who needs just basic functionality and the ability to occasionally correct a dog, the Alpha 10 is a good option. (Price: $400 for the handheld.)

GARMIN PRO 550 PLUS

The Garmin Pro 550 Plus is a departure from both the form and functionality of the Alpha series. In fact, it is more of a training device with the ability to track than it is a tracker with the ability to correct. Hunters who have used a Tri-Tronics e-collar and handheld will be right at home with the 550 Plus. In fact, the first time I picked up my 550 Plus, I thought I was using my old Tri-Tronics handheld. 

The 550 Plus is—at least in my use—much more of a “turn it on and forget it” unit when it comes to the tracking side of things. Like the Alpha 10, it is a directional tracker only, with a small display that shows the dog’s direction and distance and whether the dog is moving or on point. 

This is much more of a training device than the Alpha series handhelds. In fact, I use the 550 Plus as my regular training device, which is something I don’t do with my Alpha. It has all of the standard training features, including 18 levels of momentary and continuous stimulation as well as tone and vibration, and all training functions are controlled by the familiar buttons, toggle switches and dial of the classic Tri-Tronics handhelds.

If you want basic GPS tracking functionality attached to a fully featured and intuitive handheld, the PRO 550 Plus is for you. (Price: $400 for the handheld only.)

OTHER MAKES

Although Garmin offers the widest variety of GPS track-and-train devices, as mentioned, it is not the only company that makes them. 

The SportDOG TEK 1.5 series works basically the same way as the Garmin models, with all the functionality of a GPS tracker combined with the ability to correct from the dedicated handheld with LCD screen. It has 99 levels of stimulation plus tone and vibration. (Price: $550 for both the handheld and collar.) The TEK 2.0 has the same features as the 1.5 but is Bluetooth compatible, comes with pre-loaded topo maps, has a longer range (10 miles versus seven) and is expandable to more dogs (21 versus 12). (Price: $800 for the handheld and collar.)

The Dogtra Pathfinder2 takes a slightly different approach, combining the traditional form of a standard e-collar but with all GPS tracking and training functions operated from an app on your smartphone. The handheld carried with this system is basically just a receiver that sends all information via Bluetooth to the phone. (Price: $430 for the handheld and collar.)

It is remarkable to ponder how far we’ve come with modern e-collars. Today’s sporting-dog owner has options that would have sounded like science fiction 30 years ago. These truly are the good old days for the modern dog owner, and no matter what your individual needs are, there’s a “just right” Goldilocks model for you.  

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