Early one morning as I was running trails with my Aussie Finn MacCool and my friend Suzanne, the three of us rounded a bend and were greeted by a woman who said the words I always dread hearing: “Have you seen a dog?” We were in the heart of Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park outside of Seattle, a 3,100-acre protected area with 36 miles of trails winding throughout its thickly wooded and hilly landscape. The dog could be anywhere.
As we gathered details from the woman — the dog’s name (Boone) and description, if he was tagged with current contact info, where he was last seen, where her car was parked — Finn sat patiently beside me. Around his neck was a bright neon-orange collar with an antenna extending from it. It made him look kind of like an enormous bug.
Finn was sporting a Garmin DC 40 dog-tracking collar, which uses GPS to transmit information to my Garmin Astro 320. This snappy bit of technology lets me know where Finn is, whether he’s moving or stationary and, if moving, which direction and how fast — all via an on-screen display. While I didn’t pile guilt on top of the poor woman’s distress, I thought to myself, If Boone had been wearing one of these, she’d know exactly where he was.
I got the Astro dog GPS because I had always been curious about just how far Finn travels when he and I are out in the woods trail-running. He covers more ground than I do, dashing ahead and back, or off to the side after squirrels. But just how much additional ground? I’d always assumed that he traveled at least twice my distance. Once I got the Astro, I could finally answer that question.
Initially, the Astro seemed like just a really cool, high-tech toy, similar to the gadgets many of my running friends wear on their wrists to track their own mileage. Faced with the lost-Boone scenario, though, I realized its broader and more critical value for those of us who take our unleashed dogs out into the big world: being able to find them quickly if they become separated from us. Whether you’ve had your dog for years and she normally stays close, or you’ve recently added a new dog to your household and aren’t sure how he’ll react off leash, this “toy” can prevent hours, even days, of misery.
GPS-enabled dog-tracking devices aren’t new; there are several types on the market, all designed to do one straightforward thing: help you find your lost dog. But with most of those products, you pay a monthly fee (roughly $15, depending on the product) to access the GPS signal, and the only information you’re given is where your dog is at that specific moment.
The Garmin Astro 320, on the other hand, will track both you and your dog (up to 10 dogs, actually), recording tons of fun data along the way. It logs distance, speed, stopping time, elevation change and map coordinates — as well as a number of other optional variables that you can program in — all while creating a track, or map, of your movements. You can toggle back and forth between your own information and your dog’s while the two of you are out walking, hiking, horseback riding or cycling (you, not the dog), or running. Then, after saving the tracks, you can upload them to your home computer and view them either in one of Garmin’s programs or in another, such as Google Earth (which is free). The Astro 320 retails for $599, but you never pay a monthly fee for GPS signal access. In three years of use, the unit will pay for itself over the other GPS tracking options.
The Astro is also more reliable and accurate than smartphone GPS apps, which rely on a combination of cell towers and satellites. Garmin Astro’s 12 parallel channel receivers quickly lock onto satellites, and they maintain those locks even in dense foliage or urban settings with tall buildings. Also, smartphone GPS apps have an accuracy of about 50 feet, while the Astro’s is generally accurate to within three feet. I tested this out while running with a friend; he used his smartphone app and I used the Astro. My distance data closely matched the Green Trails topographic map of our route; my friend’s data was off (short) by about 20 percent. (Besides, the smartphone app can’t track your dog.)
Back to the question I really wanted answered: How far does Finn actually travel? I was surprised to learn that he typically runs only 10 to 20 percent more than I do, which was much less than I expected. Apparently, training him to stay close has been successful. But I was even more surprised by the difference in our respective elevation gains. I’ve always joked that Finn is part gazelle, and it turns out I might be right. According to his GPS data, on a run during which I cover 6.7 miles with 1,399 feet of elevation gain, Finn covers 9.0 miles with 5,651 feet of elevation.
The Astro 320 is a hand-held receiver with two antennas; it looks like a walkie-talkie, is lightweight and fits easily in your hand. The screen displays a map, or whatever other data you choose, using the various navigation buttons. Because I use the unit while running, I tuck the receiver in a pocket with the antennas sticking out and just let it record as I run. The dog collar (DC 40) is bright orange with plenty of room for adjustment. I used a permanent marker to add Finn’s name and phone number, and attached a loop of material for quick grasping (although the collar does have a small metal D-ring).
The brain of the device — the GPS receiver — is housed in a small black box from which a long, thin VHF antenna extends and transmits signals to the Astro hand receiver. The antenna curves with the collar so that it’s positioned above the dog’s neck. Finn, a small Aussie, weighs about 45 pounds, but the collar and its antenna don’t bother him or slow him down as he crashes through thick undergrowth in enthusiastic pursuit of ever-elusive squirrels and chipmunks. He associates the collar with fun!
The Astro 320 is designed for use with hunting dogs, and it took me a little while to get used to the terminology. For example, when I start a run, I select “New Hunt” and mark the starting point as “Truck” (although I could change that if I wanted to take the time). The factory default settings include various alarms to let you know if, for example, your dog has stopped moving; the first time I used the Astro with Finn, the only settings change I made was to customize it with his name. Another bit of hunting terminology came up after a run with friends, as we returned to our cars. My well-trained friends always offer treats to the dogs in the group. Hearing a chirping alarm on my Astro, I looked at the screen. It said, “Finn MacCool has treed his quarry!” Indeed: His quarry was Tracy, who was holding out a treat!
Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door, has an Astro and uses it in an unusual way with Pukka, the dog he adopted after Merle died. “I’ve never used it on Pukka while we hike or ski together,” says Ted. “He is virtually always in sight, and when he departs, he returns within about five minutes. Instead, I’ve used the GPS on him when I’m home, writing. I put the GPS screen on my desk so I can see where Pukka goes during the day. This has been a fascinating look into how a dog who has his own dog door spends his time when not constrained by anything but his own curiosity.
“When the GPS has said ‘Pukka has treed quarry,’ I’ve been able to bike over to where he is and spy on him: lying on a friend’s deck waiting for them to come out and play fetch; over at Buck’s house, taking a snooze; or at the Kelly Café, hoping for a handout from the tourists.” (Ted’s new book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, is due out February 2013.)
While my passion is trail running, there are many uses for GPS with dogs — driving to and touring new places, geocaching, even kayaking, for example. Cecil Moore, who works for Garmin and cheerfully answered all my questions, said he once put the Astro GPS collar on his small dog Jack at the start of a 5K race and handed the receiver to his wife. Because his family knew exactly when Cecil and Jack were nearing the finish line, they were able to jump in and run the last several yards together. He also uses it on family vacations to the Lake of the Ozarks State Park, a large area where dogs are typically allowed off leash in campgrounds and on trails.
Finn wore the Astro during a recent session of my Maian Meadows Dog Camp, which offers a weekend’s worth of off-leash fun: hiking, swimming, lots of games, stick-chasing and playing. Campers were intrigued by the Astro, and impressed that the collar was waterproof (although the GPS antenna on the collar will lose satellite reception if it’s totally submerged). The final tally at the end of the weekend: I covered 10.9 miles; Finn covered … 54.3! Each morning, we did a hike of about 3.8 miles to a nearby lake. Romping with the other dogs and fetching sticks in the lake meant that Finn covered nearly four times my distance. No wonder he’s tired. Finn’s “route” on Google Earth from that weekend of dog camp looks like a child’s wobbly drawing of a lollypop (swimming and playing in camp) on a stick (the morning out-and-back hikes). Garmin, headquartered in Kansas, is known for its personal product support. Friends who use Garmin’s running and mountain-biking products rave about its customer service. I found that also true with the Astro, which has lots of bells and whistles. Availing yourself of their customer service will help you get the most out of it (plus, they love dogs at Garmin).
And Boone? Within half an hour, a hiker found him and called the phone number on his tag, and the woman’s husband drove to the park to pick him up. They were very lucky. With the Astro, I can relax while running through the forest with Finn, knowing that if one day he disappears after a deer, I can at least track him until we’re reunited, eliminating guesswork, worry and dependence on Boone’s sort of luck.
For more info on the Astro 320, go to sites.garmin.com/astro