Bird Dog Tracking with a Bell, Beeper, and GPS?

Bird Dog Tracking

Bird Dog Tracking with a Bell, Beeper and GPS may be more practical than you think.

Imagine yourself making your way through a favorite cover on a crisp October morning with a trusted hunting buddy. As you fight your way through the brush, you are compelled forward by the jingle-jangle tone of your favorite bird dog tracking bell strapped to your favorite dog. As the sound of the bell grows fainter, you duck under a fallen spruce tree.

When you emerge on the other side, the bell has stopped. You turn to your hunting partner for confirmation. He nods and shrugs his shoulders. Your thought process is interrupted by the vibration of your GPS receiver. You look down and read those precious words, “Copper On Point.” As you level the receiver in your hand, the needle gives you a proper heading and tells you there is 120 yards between you and the dog. You motion to your partner and you both head in that direction.

After what feels like minutes, the dog is still not in sight. You decide to pause and take another reading. The dog is 25 yards to your 2 o’clock. You were close, but slightly off course. At this point, you are in the critical range. The dog is still on point and the bird has held. Hopefully. Rather than speak out to your hunting partner and expose the bird to the sound of a human voice, you again motion a slight correction in your course.

Just as you begin making progress, you tap the “locate” button on the dog’s beeper collar. A clear, audible tone rings out briefly and then all is quiet again. However now, you and your partner have a specific location and a focused plan of attack without further communication or the continual beeping of the collar. The shape of the dog takes form. Rigid, head-high, and not 10-yards from a tangle of brush. Now it’s up to you to finish the job. Now the only sound is the flushing of wings and the echo of shotgun blasts.

I just described a near perfect situation in which all three of the most common bird dog tracking tools were utilized in locating the dog and approaching the point. Not every scenario will require the use of all three tools. Yet I can assure you that when you do need all three, you will be grateful you have them.

I could argue that having all three bird dog tracking tools on my dog’s neck completes the ideal bird dog tracking system for hunting grouse and woodcock in thick northern covers. Without getting into too much detail, I will explain what I like about each one and what makes it an essential component of my bird dog tracking set-up.

The Bell—The Classic Bird Dog Tracking Device

The bell has been used since the upland hunters of old for tracking our four-legged companions through briars and bramble, aspen and alders. Not only does the bell provide a classic and pleasant sound during the course of the hunt, it also gives the hunter valuable feedback with respect to the pace and cadence of the dog’s hunt. Not only are you getting a sense of your dog’s location, you’re learning how he is hunting. Or not hunting and making game. For those reasons, I consider the bell to be essential in bird dog tracking.

So what is lacking in the bell? When the dog stops moving, the bell stops ringing. This is fine when conditions are ideal and you are paying close attention. All the hunter has to do is start in that direction. With any luck, you’ll encounter the dog on point. But what if you don’t? What if you were distracted when the bell stopped ringing?What if the dog hunts out of bell range?

In the old days this was simply part of the game. Dogs were lost and found—or sometimes not. Fortunately, today’s upland hunters need not settle for only the sound of the bell to locate their dogs. This is where the beeper bird dog tracking system comes in.

Beeper Collars—When Thick Cover is Common Place

The next best thing for upland hunters turned out to be the electronic tone-emitting collar or “beeper.” I won’t provide a history lesson on the beeper, as I don’t have much experience with the older kinds. What I will say is that beeper technology has improved greatly since then. The technology today is far superior to early iterations of this device.

The beeper collar I use is a standalone unit with remote control. This enables me to select the mode of the beeper with the remote strapped to my vest. This is regardless of where the dog is, as long as he is in range. Beepers today often come with three main modes: hunt and point, point only, and locate.

Hunt and point will sound the beeper at a constant interval of 5-7 seconds while the dog is running. When the dog goes on point, the interval shortens to 2-3 seconds. Point-only mode keeps the beeper silent when the dog is running and switches to the 2-3 second interval when the dog goes on point. Locate mode keeps the beeper silent, unless I press the “locate” button from my remote. I typically use the “locate” mode and only when it’s necessary.

GPS—The New Age of Bird Dog Tracking

Finally, we arrive at the GPS tracking collar. Many upland hunters believed that the GPS collar would spell the end of the bell and beeper as we knew them. That hasn’t happened. The GPS tracking collars of today accurately track the location of your dog and report that location back to you every 2-3 seconds via the handheld receiver you carry. For many forms of upland hunting, the GPS is perfect. It allows hunters to keep track of their dog, get notified when it goes on point, and be directed to the dog on point. All of this without ever a sound emitting from the dog’s neck! You might be thinking, why does a hunter need anything more than a GPS?

There are times in the grouse woods that the GPS gets you close. But no matter how close you get, it still can’t show you exactly where the dog is. In that critical moment when the dog is near, you have to assume that the bird is in shooting range. Without a visual on the dog, I’m left with very little idea how to approach the situation safely and effectively. This is the exact moment where the locate feature on my dog’s beeper collar becomes the final and essential piece of the puzzle.

With the quick tap of a button, I have an eyes-free, near pin-point location on my dog. Often times when my eyes focus in on the origin of the sound, I will quickly spot the dog where I couldn’t before. If I’m lucky, I now have the exact location of my dog, possibly an idea of how he is oriented, and where I might be able to expect a flush.

I know this probably sounds like a lot of ifs, ands, or buts. And it is. However I have encountered this scenario more than enough times to give me the peace of mind that utilizing a GPS, bell, and beeper is simply the best setup for bird dog tracking.

Conclusion

There are a couple of considerations to running all three bird dog tracking tools on your dog. The first has to be the cost of the set-up. Training and hunting collars are not cheap. As a result, the thought of purchasing two of them plus a bell is probably enough to scare most people off. That being said, most of us are not afraid to spend money on our bird dogs. I have tried to show you the value of owning every piece of the puzzle.

I quantify my bird hunting experience by the enjoyment factor. Am I making the most out of every minute I have to spend in the woods? I won’t hesitate to spend money on something (within reason) that will increase the safety or overall experience of the hunt. Plus, it’s safe to say that most bird dog owners probably already own one or two pieces of this system. It might just be a matter of acquiring the last one.

In a perfect world, we would only need to purchase one collar and strap a bell on our dog to make this system work. Yet so far, the manufacturers have refused to design a GPS collar that works in combination with a beeper. I can’t really blame them, since grouse hunting is a small niche. But could there not be a beeper add-on option for the track-and-train collar? I’m sure that the first manufacturer to incorporate a beeper into their GPS collar would be met with a significant demand from upland hunters who realize the potential of such a collar-system.

Until then, I will continue to run my Frankenstein bird dog tracking set-up. And I will continue to enjoy the complete functionality and versatility of it all.

Last modified: January 14, 2020

15 Responses to :
Bird Dog Tracking with a Bell, Beeper, and GPS?

  1. Jason Bridge says:

    Absolutely enjoyed the read. Well written and provided a lot of info on why one should utilize the most current tech or past tech to enhance your hunt. It’s there so why not. Can’t hurt right?

    Been bird hunting for 25 years, taking old, young, in-experienced, novice and seasoned hunters out. Hunted over Brittany’s, labs, setters, ect. My questions now is where does the experience of the hunter, the dog and the outdoors go from here? To what extent does the hunt become more about listening to bells, beeps, and starring at a screen trying to figure out where the point is at?
    Is keeping your dog close watching him/her methodically working a field listening to all the beautiful sounds around you not hunting anymore? Does that magical moment when your dog slams on point (and you see it) take a back seat to a screen and I think the dogs is over there 100 yards away. In order to have a great experience in the field does it require all the latest tech?

    I understand it is all subjective, all interpreted and executed in all different ways. It’s like training a bird dog. Establish your process, execute your process and see what you get. Thank you for a great article! Excited for the next!

    1. Nick Larson says:

      Thanks Jason, glad you enjoyed and thanks for adding your perspective. I’m in total agreement with you regarding staying present in the moment and not letting the tech get in the way of your experience. I’m very careful about my attempts to implement and utilize new technology without dismissing something that has worked perfectly fine for many years.

      What I didn’t get into in the article is that, for exactly the reasons you are suggesting, this “all-in-one” system I’m using is used in a very very specific way. As a result, I’m effectively minimizing the use of technology and only using it when absolutely necessary. It’s truly a layered or leveled bird dog tracking system that allows me to only use what is necessary to find my dog. I’ll give an example to explain:

      I almost always run a bell (level 1) on my dog which I truly enjoy so at the base level, I’m going to be listening to a bell as I hunt through the woods behind my dog. In a perfect situation, my dog would be hunting within sight at the very moment he locks into a beautiful point. In that case, I simply walk straight to my dog and flush the bird without ever looking at my GPS (level 2) or pressing the locate button on my beeper (level 3).

      As we all know, sometimes our dogs need to stretch out a bit to find those birds and when that happens we can’t always see them. In that case, the bell (level 1) stops, and then, rather than make an estimated guess where the dog is, I glance down at the GPS (level 2) and find out exactly where he is so I can head directly there. IF, and only if, I cannot find the dog quickly and efficiently with my GPS, I will at that point move to level 3 of the system and use the beeper.

      The entire idea behind this set-up is that I want to use the “technology” less and rely on my eyes and ears more. I only look at the GPS if I have to, and I only use the beeper if the GPS doesn’t get me all the way there quickly enough.

      Again, thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. I think its important to remember to stay in the moment while you hunt and appreciate it for what it is. Minimize distractions and don’t let gadgets and gizmos distract you from what really matters as you have suggested. Also, a special thanks to you mentoring and taking others hunting, there’s no better way to ensure the future of our favorite hobby! Happy hunting Jason!

  2. Matthew Breuer says:

    Good stuff, Nick! I personally run an e-caller and a bell. Haven’t entered the GPS game yet…

    1. Nick Larson says:

      Thanks Matt! I think the beeper and bell is the most practical and economical solution. For me, I owned the GPS and bell first before I had the beeper. It took me a couple seasons of hunting before I realized that there was still enough of a performance gap left by the GPS/Bell combo that the beeper could still provide value. At that point is was an easy decision for me to add the beeper.

  3. Jim McCann says:

    I live and hunt in the vast interior region of Alaska and run up to three big running Brittanys at a time. My ruffed grouse coverts are the size of some states, as are the sharp-tail and ptarmigan areas I hunt. A bell is useless on my dogs, but I will hang a bell somewhere near the door to my tent when camping during a hunt to warn me of night time intruders. No, I’ve used an e-collar with a beeper on each of my dogs for decades now, but with my current hearing problems, it’s often hard to locate my dogs even with the beepers on point mode. I also used one of the early iterations of Garmin tracking collar, but quit using them because of their size, weight, and frequent inaccuracies. Recently purchased a new 3 dog Garmin 430 setup and I’m pleased with how it works for me now. It helps that I also purchased a pair of Ranger shooting glasses with bi-focal lenses! Now I can actually see the screen.

    All this is a lot to hang around a Brittany’s neck, but they don’t seem bothered by any of it, as long as they get to hunt. I’ve had dogs get lost in the wilderness more than once, and here in Alaska there are a plethora of critters out there waiting to make a meal of one of my best forever friends. I’ll continue to use the beeper and the GPS.

  4. Mark Gebhart says:

    Have been just a bell, beeper/training collar guy. Just bought a GPS system. Is there any body making a remote beeper that will attach to the GPS collar so I do t have to have 3 collars on my dog?

    Thanks

    Mark

    1. Nick Larson says:

      The best I’ve been able to do at this point in time is a two-collar system. I run the GPS all on it’s own on one collar. On the other collar, I have the beeper, bell and my dog’s nameplate with contact info. That has worked well for me and two collars are better than three. What that does mean for me though is that I am carrying two remotes on my vest, one for the beeper and one for the GPS. Not a big deal, but it would be nice to get that down to one. As I mentioned in the article, we’ll have to wait and see if the manufacturers decide it’s worth it to add a beeper option to the GPS for us grouse hunters!

      1. Jim McCann says:

        Garmin/Tri-tronics does sell the beeper as an accessory. Just not much, if any room for it on the GPS collar.

  5. Thomas Stephenson says:

    Good Article Nick. I started hunting over my first GSP (who’s name was Nick) when a bell was the only device available. I acquired a beeper when they became available and now use a Garmen Alpha in conjunction with a bell. The results of age and noise exposure has diminished my hearing ability to the point I can’t hear the bell most of the time anyway. I feel the bell is as much a signal to the dog, “we are serious now, this is not just training” as it is for my information. I find the GPS allows me to relax and enjoy other aspects of the hunt, the scenery, weather, the work of my hunting partner’s dog, mentoring young hunters in the party and still have the ability to instantly check on my dog’s location and activity. I use the training signals, vibrate (come in) and tone (positive reinforcement), to communicate commands to my dog. I set the tone function loud enough that I can hear it when I’m close to the dog.

  6. Donnie Bowling says:

    Hey Nick,
    I have just experienced a group training session with Rick Smith. I have been blessed with opportunity to spend a series of weeks with him training me to be a better dog handler. I was the only dog owner who did not have a training/tracking collar for my dog. I have a pair of griffs, they hunt real close, and I am able to train on a check cord. My plan is to grouse hunt at least once a year, the rest of the year will lost likely be on planted birds. Not ny choice, just the situation I am in. I live in tidewater Virginia, nuff said. I have become to look at you as kind of a long distance mentor in the sport and value you opinion. Do you feel it is worth it for me to invest in a GPS/eCollar when 90% my dogs hunt within eyesight because I am hunting in manicured fields on planted quail, chukar, and pheasant? Is it worth it for a possible once a year trip to get on son grouse? Even woodcock in VA are spotty and mostly during migration and in not really hard cover. I ask this because the investment is about 1/3 in a e collar only set up. I also use a bell for when my guys get into tall grass and go on point….I love the added texture the bell gives to a hunt!
    Thanks,
    Virginia Griffs

    1. Nick Larson says:

      Hi Donnie! Appreciate the kind words and happy to hear you find value in the stuff we do. Regarding the GPS, I can definitely understand where you’re coming from, they’re not cheap. It’s hard for me to answer whether or not it would be “worth it” for you as ultimately you need to make the decision. I appreciate the peace of mind and the safety that my GPS collar provides me when I let my dog out of the truck. Personally, I would never again hunt without one as long as I have a choice, but I hunt mainly grouse and woodcock in thick cover. I think of my GPS collar as an insurance policy. If anything strange ever happens where my dogs runs off or we get separated for whatever reason, my GPS collar will assist me in relocating him ASAP. I hope I never need it for that purpose, but better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it, right?

      In your case, if you feel the need is high enough (which it very well might not be) to justify the cost, there are options like the tracking only version of the Dogtra Pathfinder which really brings the price down as it utilizes your smartphone instead of a separate handheld. You could also look into a beeper unit that gives you a little more control over locating your dog. IF you have more questions let me know, happy to help in any way I can!

    2. Donnie Bowling says:

      Nick,
      As luck would have it I just heard you talk about the Dogtra Pathfinder before the podcast I just started. I know my question was rife with ambiguity because, as you said, it is a personal decision and a big investment. I think you hit it on the head when you talked about peace of mind. As I look into where I will hunt this fall, where my dogs typically hunt now, and how impossible it would be for me to even consider returning home without one (not only because of my love of them, but because the sheer loathing my wife would carry for me if I lost one of her “sons”) I can justify the expenditure. I will be hunting most likely on public land and definetly in an area I have never hunted. My desire is to “revel in the first” like our friend at Fetching Feathers, at least once every season until I hang the boots and my dogs are “just” pets. That leads me to the decision that the investment far outward the emotional loss of a pet and the monetary loss of a Gundog that exceeds even my outlandish imagination. Thank you for helping me think through the decision.

      1. Nick Larson says:

        Glad we could help Donnie!

  7. Nice article, as I hunt perdiz in Uruguay, I have my dogs on sight, because of the short in height pastures.I only use an e-collar, «just in case» and rarely press a button, but it came one time, where the height of old pastures doesn’t allow me to see them, and I started to worry about that matter. Still thinking about a bell or a beeper, anyway season ends on wednesday, so I have until may the 1st to think about it.

    Sorry about mi english

    1. Nick Larson says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting all the way from Uruguay Andres. Hope you had a great hunting season!

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