Bird Dogs and Radio Tracking Q&A



Q: What is Radio Tracking?

A: It is method for sending data by employing one or two-way radio signals. Other terms for radio tracking common for some applications include radio-direction finding (RF), radiolocation and telemetry.


Q: How is radio tracking used with pointing dogs?

A: Radio tracking is used to locate bird dogs (primarily the pointing variety) in the field both as a means of recovering a dog that is lost as well as an aid in hunting. Until recently, radio tracking was primary used with field trial dogs that tend to range a significant distance from the handler. The use of radio tracking has dramatically reduced the incidence of lost dogs at these events. Recent advances in microelectronic design have allowed miniaturization of the equipment to allow it to be readily employed by foot hunters in the field.


Q: How does the technology work?

A: There are two components to a radio tracking system - a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter is attached to a collar worn by the dog. Most bird dog transmitters are relatively small (less than 6 ounces) and many utilize commercially available batteries. The transmitters emit a signal on a specific frequency that can be monitored by a receiver. The receiver, carried by the handler, is a small radio-like device fitted with a special directional antenna. The directional antenna is utilized to receive the radio waves emitted by the transmitter and input this into the receiver. The receiver then interprets the signal strength and displaying the data in the form of a needle, row of LEDs or LCD display often in conjunction with an audio speaker. By taking a reading (sweeping the antenna in a 360-degree arc) the direction of strongest signal can be determined thereby indicating the bearing to the dog.


Most transmitters used with dogs employ a short pulse (7 milliseconds) at a rate of 1 pulse per second. Many systems also feature a behavioral circuit (motion sensor) that indicated that the dog is stationary (on point). The “point” signal is generally indicated by doubling the frequency of the beeps (2 per second) after a short (3 to 10 second) delay. Some systems also feature a unique signal for low transmitter battery and a pulse code that differentiates collars operating on similar frequencies.


Q: What are other uses of this technology?

A: There have been many uses of radio tracking over the past century. Radio-direction finding was employed in WWII to pinpoint location of distress signals and track German U-boats in the Atlantic. Following WWII, radio tracking has been extensively employed to track animals in the wild throughout the world. From elephants to fish to various bird species, telemetry is still the preeminent method for locating animals. Moreover, radio tracking is very popular with falconers and hound hunters throughout the world. Other uses include location of downed aircraft (Emergency Location Transmitters), lost hikers (Personal Location Beacons) and boats/ships in distress. One reason for its popularity is that fact that the transmitter/receiver pair makes up a complete system not requiring any additional infrastructure.


Q: What have people used to locate a pointing dog before radio tracking?

A: For years, hunters have used various methods to locate their hunting companion. Most employed nothing until the dog became lost. At that point, they shot in the air, drove roadways in the vicinity of the last sighting, waited for an honest person to call if the dog’s collar had a name plate attached or put up “Lost Dog” signs. These procedures were generally ineffective and many a dog remained lost forever. The first devices attached to the dog were bells (attached to the collar) that would indicate position of the dog until it went on point. Bells were simple to employ and reliable but were of limited value as distance between the handler and the dog increased. Moreover, a bell is of no value for locating a dog on-point, as the bell is silent when dog is motionless.


In the last two-decades, beeper collars have effectively replaced bells as the most popular in-field pointing dog locator. Early beepers were switched on at the beginning of the hunt and switched off at the end of the hunt. Many models varied the tone or the frequency of tones depending whether the dog was running or stationary. In the 1990’s several manufacturers offered beepers in conjunction with an electronic training collar as well as beepers that would accept a remote command (turn on, turn off, reprogram features, call command, etc.). Beepers increased the effective distance for locating the dog and were useful in locating a dog on point. Key drawbacks include the effect of the sound on the dog’s hearing and the negative effect of the electronic noise to the hunting experience. While the effective distance increased over bells, locating a beeper collar on a windy day or in steep terrain was still a challenge. Many handlers reported poor results using beepers as they believed that the sound encouraged the dogs to break point in order to turn off or lessen the frequency of the noise.


Q: Who should own a radio tracking system?

A: Outside of avid field trailers who have employed tracking systems as essential gear for training and handling field trial dogs, many wait to purchase a tracking system following the loss of a dog. As receiver/antenna size and system price continue to decrease, many hunters have upgraded to the technology. Currently, high-quality tracking equipment costs about the same as a good 2 dog electric training collar and receivers can be easily carried in the field. Experienced users cite the value of knowing that they will be in constant contact with their dog while hunting and able to instantly tell whether the dog is on point or running.


Q: What if my dog does not range a great distance, do I still need a tracking system?

A: A tracking system is an item that you will use for many years spanning life of your dog. Many puppies run off and get lost (exploring, chasing deer and rabbits, etc.) as they learn the world around them. In addition, older dogs, particularly those that are deaf or have limited hearing, can become disoriented and unable to locate the handler. If you hunt in dense cover and/or in difficult terrain, a tracking system can be very helpful in finding a dog on point without having to employ noisy hard-to-locate beepers. In addition, some dogs can become entangled or trapped (fall into hole, cave) and are unable to return to the handler.


Q: In addition to locating your hunting dog, are there other benefits to owning a tracking system?

A: One key benefit is quickly determining whether the dog is on point. The receiver can be turned on and if the collar features a point mode, the handler can know within seconds if the dog is running or pointing. If the dog is running and the handler wants to call the dog back, he does so knowing that the dog is not on point. Some professionals suggest that a dog is more likely to hold point for an extended period of time after some experience with tracking systems. The tracking system allows the handler to quickly find the dog on point and after being rewarded with retrieves, dogs often will wait more patiently for the handler to show up. Additionally, dogs are not annoyed by loud beepers, handlers blowing a whistle or calling when oblivious to the fact that the dog is, in fact, on point.


A secondary benefit for systems capable or tracking several transmitters is leaving an active transmitter in the vehicle to aid in finding one’s way back. This is particularly useful when hunting in new territory, when inclement weather conditions (fog or heavy snow) prevail or if the handler does not own a GPS system.


Q: What is the range of a tracking system for pointing dogs?

A: The major factors determining range of radio tracking systems are the power of the transmitter and topography. Most transmitters employed on pointing dogs can be detected over a flat unobstructed plain (line-of-sight) for 12 miles or more. Range can be reduced based on steep, rugged terrain when the signal is not line-of-sight. In some cases the effective distance can be reduced to less than a mile based on a weak collar and difficult conditions (transmitter and receiver both in depressions separated by a high ridge). Minor factors include thick, wet vegetation and atmospheric (high humidity) conditions which tend to attenuate (weaken) the signal. Nevertheless, for the most part, few pointing dog trackers are ever out of contact with their dogs.


Q: If this technology has been utilized for many years, why have tracking systems for pointing dogs only becoming popular for the hunter in the last decade?

A: Primary reasons are receiver size (portability), ease of use and cost. A decade ago, there were few models that could be carried in the field. Most receivers of this vintage remained in the vehicle and were only utilized once the dog became lost. Recent advanced in microelectronic design have dramatically reduced the size of receivers and made them much easier to operate. These innovations have allowed these systems to dramatically add value to the hunter by allowing him to keep track of his pointing dog at greater distances than other technologies and quickly locate a dog on point.


Q: Won’t GPS/cellular systems eventually replace radio tracking?

A: It is true that the ability to send location coordinates from the dog to the handler can greatly aid in tracking and these systems are becoming more available throughout the world. Nevertheless, GPS systems require visibility to the sky and may not be able to receive location data from satellites under heavy tree cover or in deep ravines. The carrier for the GPS location data is most often digital cellular and coverage in remote areas (hunting areas) is often lacking. Satellite communications, while exhibiting excellent coverage, requires higher power (large transmitters) and are probably not applicable in tracking dogs. Another disadvantage to GPS/Cellular systems is latency. The traditional telemetry system instantly detects the signal from the transmitter once the receiver is switched on. A GPS system requires an initialization phase to acquire the satellites and the cellular communications sometimes takes several seconds to a minute to transfer the data. This can result in a location sequence taking a minute or more. Additionally, GPS units typically have high power requirements and battery life may be a limitation.


A chart comparing the various technologies used in locating dogs is presented below:


                                                Bell                   Beeper Tracking system GPS/Cellular

Effective distance

100-200 yards

100-400 yards

1 to 12 miles depending on topography

unlimited

Indicates point & run

No

Generally yes

Generally yes

An option

Portability of equipment

Excellent

Good

Some good some too large to carry in field

Good

Latency

Instantaneous

Instantaneous

Instantaneous

30 sec to 2 minutes

Cost

Less than $25

$70 to $700 (if combined with e-collar)

$600 to $1200

$1200+

Required infrastructure

None

Self-contained

Self-contained

Access to satellites and digital cell coverage required

Operating cost

none

Batteries for most beepers

Batteries for receiver and transmitters

Cellular account eventual replacement of rechargeable batteries

Ease of operation

Simple

Relatively simple

Requires some practice

Learning commands and configuration settings can be complex

Attached to dog

Collar

Collar

Collar

Special vest with pocket for GPS/Cellphone unit

 

Q: Are radio tracking systems difficult to operate?

A: For those with no experience with tracking systems, some practice is required to become proficient in operating the receiver and interpreting the signal. Experienced radio trackers should also practice with a new system as each model has its own set of unique operating parameters. The key objective of training is understanding the operation of the receiver before attempting to locate a dog in the field on a hunting trip. It is best to start by locating a stationary transmitter (collar hung from a tree limb by a family member) in a flat area with few obstructions. After several successful transmitter “finds,” set up a similar practice situation in an area similar to your hunting area. After you have successfully located several collars in different types of topography, you are ready to use the system in the field. It is important to note that those that spend a short time learning how to use the equipment quickly become proficient in using the system in the field. The system is very reliable and proficient users rarely, if ever, are unsuccessful in locating a transmitter.

 

Q: What problems are most often encountered by new users?

A: Many of us are impatient and take insufficient time to learn how to operate new equipment. New users sometimes become frustrated if they do not learn the operation of the receiver before going in the field with their dog.

 

There are three common challenges for new users: 1) appropriate setting of the gain level, 2) “listening” from a bad location and 3) understanding reflection commonly referred to as following the back signal. The gain setting on most receivers can be set by the user. Gain is the sensitivity of the receiver to the signal and should be set as low as possible where an audible beep can be heard. An inappropriate high gain setting will yield a strong signal in all directions. By reducing the gain, a strong signal should be reduced to only one direction.

 

It is important to learn what types of locations work best for “listening” for the transmitter. A transmitter that is situated in a line-of-sight position to the receiver will be much easier to track than one that is located behind obstructions. Therefore, listening from a ridge top is advisable to a topographical depression. An experienced radio tracker can identify the ideal locations to obtain a bearing and will take several readings from different locations if the signal is not easily interpreted.

 

Most higher quality antennas are designed to differentiate between the true signal and the signal 180 degrees from the true bearing (commonly called the back signal). Generally, with a little practice, a radio tracker can differentiate between the two by setting the gain at an appropriate level. Other tricks used by professional trackers include periodically checking the back signal to assure that they are tracking the true signal or using triangulation from separate points to determine the correct bearing.