A look at Dogtra’s latest GPS collar and its practical use for bird hunting
We looked around the sea of sage, but didn’t see her tell-tale brown tail anywhere. She’s not a big-running dog; it was unlikely that she had run off. However, she was uncharacteristically out of view on the open landscape.
We paused to call for her—no response. We backtracked.
The whir of wings startled both of us as the covey of quail got up and escaped in all directions. We both fumbled for our guns but the opportunity was over as quickly as it had started. There, on the other side of the flush, I saw her standing steady on point. As honest as the day is long, Piper held those quail while we stumbled around and wondered where she was. Well, shoot.
Knowing that we owed her better than that, we decided to look at GPS dog collars for her. Not because we were afraid of losing her to the next county, but because we simply didn’t know when she was on point in tall cover. After all, what’s the point of having a well-trained pointing dog if you don’t know when she’s on birds?
The GPS Dog Tracking Market
In the United States, the main players in the dog tracking market are Garmin, Dogtra, and SportDog. Both Garmin and SportDog offer a “traditional” setup with a collar and a handheld transmitter that displays the dog’s location. Some models offer track-and-train functionality which can transmit corrections to the collar just like any other e-collar, while others are track-only and just have one-way communication from the collar to the handheld device.
Dogtra took a different approach, recognizing that we all have our own highly-capable, handheld electronic device in our pocket: a smartphone. By designing their GPS tracking system around an app rather than another device, they are able to keep the price well below the competition.
Of course, there are pros and cons to combining your dog electronics with your personal electronics including battery life, speed of access, and convenience. If you’re in the market for a GPS dog tracking system and are curious about the Pathfinder2, read on for an overview of the features and some practical notes from typical usage in the field.
Shop for the Dogtra Pathfiner2: Starting at $429.99
Overview of the Dogtra Pathfinder2
The Dogtra Pathfinder2 comes with a GPS receiver collar for the dog and a GPS connector for you, which connects to your phone via Bluetooth. A notable difference from the original Pathfinder is that the GPS connector now has a “function” button, which can be programmed to deliver training feedback to the dog via the app. More on that later.
The first order of business is to download the free app which will make the whole system functional. The app uses Mapbox maps which should feel familiar to anyone who is used to navigating with their phone. The display can be set to use street, topographic, or satellite maps.
Poking around in the app will reveal a variety of tools and setup options to suit your personal preferences. You can choose a bare-bones display of distance and direction to the dog, or you can have a highly-annotated map display with all kinds of real-time information… or anything in between.
One interesting feature is the ability to create a virtual “fence,” either set as a fixed radius from your position or a custom-drawn boundary on the map. This can either alert you or issue a correction to the dog if they violate the boundaries of the virtual fence. Although it is not as precise as an actual in-ground electric fence, it could be a useful tool if your dog tends to wander off from camp or run too big while on the hunt.
As for range, all GPS manufacturers tend to overstate the maximum range by using theoretical measurements based on a flat, bare earth rather than realistic hunting scenarios with topography and vegetation. Dogtra advertises the range of the Pathfinder2 collar/connector combo as nine miles, although they do caveat that the range depends on the terrain. I did not test the outer limits of the range, but based on my forested, mountainous home terrain, I would not expect to see all nine miles in practical use.
Using the Dogtra Pathfinder2 in the Field
My initial impression of the Pathfinder2 while in my living room was very positive. I was impressed with the app and all of the available features. I created a geo-fence around our yard and admired the high-quality graphics on my iPhone. “How cool,” I thought, “to finally have a tracking device with an interface from the 21st century.” While the options for customizing the settings were nearly overwhelming, I appreciated the fact that Dogtra really embraced the philosophy of an app-based system. “About time,” was my conclusion.
If my intention was to issue a correction for something my dog did wrong, forget it—the moment had passed long before iOS had time to recognize my face.
Five minutes into the field, however, my opinion changed. All that app-based functionality that was fun to explore from the couch was no longer a source of amusement. In practical use, anything related to tracking or training my dog was now hidden behind a lock screen, a couple swipes to find the app, the loading screen of the app, and then the system of menus within the app. If my intention was to issue a correction for something my dog did wrong, forget it—the moment had passed long before iOS had time to recognize my face.
The handheld GPS connector unit does have a physical function button which can be preset to deliver a stimulation, tone, or vibrate signal to the collar without having to unlock your phone and go through the app. However, there is a major flaw with the current design of this button: it cannot be locked to a particular function. Instead, it repeats the last training function that was delivered (or set) via the app. For example, you can preset the button to deliver a tone when pressed. But if you deliver a stimulation via the app, the function button is now set to deliver that same stimulation the next time you press the button. From my point of view, the inability to lock the button to a specific function makes the button entirely unusable. I will not press a training button if I’m not 100% certain of what it will deliver to my dog, and the pause required while I think back to remember which function I last used means that the timing is moot.
Finally, a word on battery life. Dogtra doesn’t say much about battery usage since it is entirely dependent upon your phone, what other apps you are running, what settings you are using for tracking, and how often you are interacting with the app. I watched in horror as my iPhone battery drained in front of my eyes while I had all the bells and whistles going with the Pathfinder2 app. I was able to stop the bleeding by dialing back on the update rate and by putting my phone away—after all, I should’ve been paying attention to the hunt and watching my dogs anyway. But there’s the very real concern that you’re adding one more drain on your phone battery which may affect your ability to navigate home or reach help in case of emergency. There’s a lot to be said for redundancy when it comes to safety items.
Recommended Usage of the Pathfinder2
After I recovered from the emotional rollercoaster of being awed by the app interface and then disappointed with the practical application in the field, I reflected a bit on the ideal use case for the Dogtra Pathfinder2. There are a lot of cool features that simply don’t translate well to actual hunting or training scenarios. On the other hand, this is the only way to track your dog with a real GPS system for under $500. So, with that in mind, here’s what I would recommend.
- Don’t try to use this system as a training device. Even the competitor collars struggle to really be effective in this area. If you want a training collar, buy a training collar; this isn’t it. In fact, I’d recommend you forget the function button altogether unless you only ever tone or vibrate your dog and never switch between the two.
- Consider using an old phone as a dedicated handheld device for the Pathfinder2. You don’t need to have service in the field and you can make updates via WiFi whenever you are connected. This eliminates the concern about draining the battery of your primary contact and/or navigation device.
- Consider using this as a “set it and forget it” setup. Put the collar on your dog, set it to sleep mode, toss the GPS connector in your pack, and don’t think about it again unless your dog gets lost. From that point of view, it’s a cheap insurance policy against a lost dog and one you may really appreciate in an otherwise dire situation.
To Dogtra’s great credit, they are very open to feedback on the app and have made some significant improvements in the time that I have owned this collar. The beauty of an app-based system is that it can continually evolve and improve over time.
What can’t be updated via software is the basic philosophy of a phone-based GPS tracking system. In exchange for the lower price and modern interface, you have to share the functionality—and battery power—with the rest of your phone. Whether this is the right collar system for you really comes down to the overall philosophy and whether or not you’re willing to put your dog tracking system behind your lock screen and next to your other apps.
Jennifer Wapenski is the Director of Operations for Project Upland Media Group, LLC and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.