A look into the GPS hunting dog collar Garmin has come to be known for, the Alpha
In the midst of parting what felt like an endless sea of 8-year-old aspen, trying to keep my hat on straight, my eyewear in place and make sure all of the gear strapped to my body was still there, I regained conscious thought. I could no longer hear the ringing of the bell strapped to the neck of my English setter. For a moment, I replayed the last 30 seconds in my head attempting to replicate the sound of the bell in the time and space that surrounded me. Honestly, it’s scary how good you can become at this, but this time I was unsure.
Then came a welcome tone and the accompanying vibration from my handheld Garmin Alpha 100 unit. I glanced at the receiver and read, “Hartley on Point.” I leveled the unit and the compass oriented—82 yards to my 11 o’clock, which happened to be Northeast. And away I went.
The above scenario has become commonplace in my bird hunting, specifically in Minnesota and Wisconsin where I hunt grouse and woodcock in the thick northern forests. I’ve only known hunting bird dogs with a GPS unit. My first bird dog is 5 years old, and I purchased the Garmin Alpha 100 with TT15 collar prior to the day he came home with me. While I cannot speak much about the days of bird hunting before GPS, I can tell you that I never intend to know what it’s like, but I do have the utmost respect for the dog men and women that blazed the trail for all of us, no matter the risks.
More than anything, my Garmin Alpha unit has become the ultimate peace of mind for me in the woods. Bird dogs are exposed to risk every time they enter the woods or field. Despite the creature comforts at home many are adorned with, the woods can be a very dangerous place. The risk of becoming separated with my dog is one that I choose not to accept and as such my dog wears a GPS tracking collar every time we hunt.
Okay, let’s rewind. What is the Garmin Alpha 100, you ask? The Garmin website reads something like this:
“An invaluable tool in the field, the Alpha 100 helps you achieve optimum performance from your sporting dogs. It combines proven Garmin GPS dog tracking with Tri-Tronics® electronic dog training technology. This easy-to-use integrated handheld system allows you to track and train your dogs in the field at a range of up to 9 miles (TT 15) or 4 miles (TT 15 mini) away, delivering their exact position as often as every 2.5 seconds.”
Retailing at $799, the Garmin Alpha is a significant purchase in most budgets. However, when you compare that to the price of a stand-alone e-collar unit and a high-end GPS handheld separately it adds up and in many cases you’ll save money going with the Garmin Alpha bundle. Often times Garmin offers rebates on the unit (including at the time of this writing – Save $100 Until 9/10/2019) which can help you score an even better deal. Personally, this purchase was a big decision for me but the sense of security and peace I’ve been able to take into the woods with me over the last 5 years has erased any of the pain I felt at the initial purchase.
Essentially, the Garmin Alpha handheld is a fully functional GPS unit with all the bells and whistles you might expect, plus the ability to track your bird dog. The associated TT 15 or TT 15 mini collar is also enabled with GPS technology along with a beefy aircraft cable antenna that can communicate with the handheld unit from literally miles away.
For hound hunters, the range piece is a bit more important as those dogs cover some ground. For most bird hunters the range of the Garmin Alpha should be an afterthought; your bird dog will be well within the range of the unit’s potential. That said, if the worst does happen and you do become separated from your dog, it’s nice knowing that your search radius can be miles wide (depending on the terrain and cover).
Aside from telling you exactly where your dog is, the Garmin Alpha can also tell you when your dog is on point. When the TT 15 collar has been stationary for a specific number of seconds, the collar sends an alert to the handheld which you’ll receive in the form of a notification of your choosing including, tone, vibrate and on-screen display. With the handheld leveled in your hand and the unit on the compass screen, the needle will orient itself and point you in the direction of your dog. All you have left to do is head in that direction until you find your dog or you need to take another reading.
This feature just flat out works and takes a lot of pressure off the handler in locating the dog. You know where the dog is, how close the dog is and you can see what you need to go through to get to him. This removes much of the guesswork in locating the dog and allows for a real time strategy planning on your way to the dog. At longer distances you know you have to plow through cover and just make progress in the general direction. When you close the gap and hit the 30 yard mark you know you need to fine tune your approach and proceed with caution. It’s go time.
I speak about the Garmin Alpha mostly from a ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting perspective, which is where a GPS really shines. That said, the popularity of these units has established itself far beyond the grouse woods. From hound hunters, to bird hunters, to your everyday dog owner that just doesn’t want to lose their dog, it’s a technology that most of us understand and appreciate.
Beyond the tracking capability of the Garmin Alpha, there exists a fully functional “training” or e-collar system. As such, the Alpha is what you would call a “track and train system.” The Garmin training technology is sound as its roots were developed within the trusted Tri-Tronics company which was acquired by Garmin. In fact, the Tri-Tronics name still holds a place on a number of Garmin products, including the Alpha 100 handheld which speaks to the reputation built by Tri-Tronics. With the training system, however, comes one of few gripes with the Alpha 100.
Essentially the Garmin training system on the Alpha is fully functional and has almost everything you need to deliver timely and appropriate corrections via the e-collar buttons, yet it is lacking in a couple areas.
One example: adjusting between stimulation levels is not as quick as it could be had they included some additional buttons and or dials. Instead, we are left to use the touchscreen, which works well, but when timing is everything, any slowdown of the process is significant.
Also the number of training buttons (three) can be a limiting factor, again without the addition of a dial. However, the user is able to customize these buttons to tailor the system as close to his or her needs as possible, which is what makes the system totally usable. At the end of the day there are not enough dials and/or buttons on the unit for Garmin to have delivered the perfect training system. Perhaps this could be improved in a future iteration.
I will state one additional missed opportunity with the Garmin Alpha and ultimately towards most of the GPS collars on the market today. They are not compatible with a beeper. I know for some this may seem counter-intuitive. If I have GPS, why do I need a beeper? I won’t get into it here, as I have already written about why, in the grouse woods cover that I hunt, I prefer using a bell, a beeper and a GPS. I do understand that beeper compatibility would not be anywhere near the top of the priority list when designing a GPS dog tracking system. That said, I will say it here and I will keep saying it on the Project Upland Podcast. I hope that future iterations of GPS collars are designed with add-on beeper capability. I’ll pay more for it, I don’t care, but I want it and I know I’m not the only one.
It would not be fair for me to mention the lacking features above without mentioning that the Garmin GPS system performs at the highest level. There are more features, bells and whistles surrounding navigation than I’ll ever come close to using. Geo-fences, way points, odometers, dog tracks, topo-mapping, imagery and customization, you name it, they’re all here.
Personally, Garmin has become synonymous with navigation in almost everything I do. Whether it’s my Garmin Fenix 5 watch, or my Garmin Alpha 100, they are almost always with me—tracking, recording and guiding. While I always carry one or more backup navigation systems (compass, iPhone, etc.) for redundancy, I trust Garmin with my own personal safety as well as that of my dog. And did I mention, the Garmin Alpha is compatible with the dog tracking widget on multiple Garmin smart watches? Check out my review and explanation of the Fenix 5 here.
While I have heard some complain about the touch screen on the Alpha, I find it to be totally acceptable. Sure, it’s not going to look and feel like your brand new smartphone, but it just simply works. Oh, and not to mention—the Alpha is rugged and durable. This thing was dustproof, waterproof and shockproof long before most smartphones were.
One thing I don’t do is baby my Garmin Alpha. I’ve had it strapped to the outside of my bird vest via a handy carabiner setup, also from Garmin, for five seasons now. Hunting thick and heavy cover, the Alpha has taken a relative beating compared to most high-tech items. It’s never lost a step and it functions as well or better (thanks to Garmin continually updating the software) today than it ever has. Again, when it comes to tech, that is a worthy achievement, in my opinion.
Despite a few nitpicks here and there, the Garmin Alpha truly is a remarkable piece of hunting gear. At times, I must remind myself that I never owned a bird dog prior to GPS dog tracking collars. It’s hard not to take the technology for granted when it’s so tangible I can wield its mystic powers with my bare hands. I can see the world around me without truly seeing it. On a map and in relative time and space I know where my truck is, I know where I am and most importantly I know where my dog is at all times. This technology is something I choose not to hunt without and when my bird dog and I hit the woods, we both take Garmin with us.
Nick Larson is brand communications director at Northwoods Collective. He is also the host and creator of the Project Upland Podcast. He and his family, which includes a pair of English setters, reside in Duluth, Minnesota. Naturally, his favorite pursuit is upland bird hunting. From the northern forests of the upper great lakes to the prairies of the west, he chases adventure across the uplands wherever his bird dogs and the people he meets inspire him to go.