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.)