September 23, 2010
The pros and cons of various transportation options.
John Wright had been crossing the Mohave Desert on a regular basis when it finally struck him that he needed to improve the accommodations for his dogs. Wright campaigns his springers across the Midwest and West, trains them year around, and when he's not training, trialing or hunting his dogs, hauls them down to his parents' house in California, where he spends the off-season surfing. The hauling-his-dogs-to-California part is where the Mohave Desert comes in.
The author's rig, showing the combination dog box-storage compartment unit he built to fit under the pickup's topper. Note side windows open for ventilation.
The Mohave, like most deserts, is hot. And like most handlers with a passion for bird dogs, Wright wanted his pups to remain safe and cool in the back of his truck during the hours-long crossing.
But his pickup topper wasn't cutting it. It worked, but he thought he could do better. So he made the financial leap and invested in a custom made eight-compartment slide-in dog box for the back of his truck. He hasn't regretted the move.
"I close all the louvers on the doors of that thing, and I fill up the empty compartments with block ice," he says. "When you've got three inches of insulation all around with that block ice, it makes the thing act like a big ice chest.
"I've also got a wireless thermometer in the truck, and the recording unit is in the back in one of the dog boxes, so I always know how warm it is in that dog box," he says. "So when I go through the Mohave Desert and it's hot as Hades? I notice that that particular method of having the block ice keeps the inside temperature about 20 degrees cooler than the outside temperature."
Jack Weiss uses a trailer, small enough to tow behind a Subaru, to transport his springer spaniels on pheasant hunting excursions.
This kind of safety and convenience doesn't come cheap: Wright had his rig custom built several years ago, and even then the cost was $8000. It would be considerably more today.
Still, there's a certain school of thought that, if you've already invested thousands of dollars in a kennel full of highly bred and highly trained bird dogs, a few thousand (quite a few thousand) more for a state-of-the-art, pickup-mounted dog cargo box is worth the money. I have a lot of sympathy for that reasoning, if not the finances to act on it. You can get almost anything you want on one of these rigs, including fans for cooling, insulated chambers, more storage above and below than you can shake a stick at, plus excellent security.
"They lock all the way around," Wright says. "It's not that somebody couldn't break in, but it would take a committed effort requiring the use of bolt cutters, as opposed to someone just wandering by and prying up the back of your pickup truck."
Security is an issue that's close to home for me. I spend a good chunk of the season hunting in southern Arizona, where Mexican drug runners rule the night and hungry illegal aliens commonly break into trucks and vacation homes looking for food. Still, I haven't gone the route John Wright has taken, choosing instead to opt for more economical transportation. But more on that in a moment.
Following shoulder surgery, John Wright found it difficult to lift his springers into the compartments of his custom-built dog box.
Cost considerations Actually, the cost of slide-in cargo boxes is considerably cheaper than rigs built and attached permanently to the chassis of a truck, or the huge, 12- to 16-compartment trailers some professional handlers use. But rigs of that size are beyond the means of the average hunter. And, like any configuration, Wright's rig has disadvantages.
"Assuming that somebody doesn't mind spending the money for one of those things, you're stuck with that particular box on the make of truck you have," he says. "And then there is getting the dogs in and out of them. If the boxes are up at chest level, that seems all
well and good until, like me, you have shoulder surgery." Wright solved that problem with a jump rack he bought that allows his dogs to scamper into their boxes on their own. It wouldn't be hard to build one yourself.
Of course, another solution to that particular problem is using a rig that's already built close to the ground. That's an approach another one of my friends, Jack Weiss, has taken for hauling his springer spaniels across Montana on his weekly pheasant-hunting excursions. Like Wright, Weiss had his rig built years ago for an unbeatable price: just $1000. Today, I doubt if you could find anything anywhere near that price even in the used market, assuming you could find a trailer at all. In the years he's owned it, he told me, he's had only one malfunction: a worn hinge that he was replacing as I was writing this story.
Weiss' rig is small, with only two compartments, but that's a bit misleading, he says, because both compartments are plenty big enough to fit two of his average-sized spaniels. That means that each compartment would handle a pair of most average-sized pointing dogs, as well. The extremely light towing weight is an advantage, too.
Adding a jump ramp took care of the problem.
"I don't have that many dogs," he says, "nor do I need that many dogs. I also don't have a big truck--I've never owned a big truck--so I didn't want something that would sit on a truck. I'm not a professional [dog trainer], so I wanted something that could be towed by anything, from a big truck to a little Subaru."
A little Subaru, in fact, is exactly what Weiss uses to tow his trailer. That might seem confining to some, but having hunted with him, I can vouch for its comfort. And his Subaru sips gas at an economical 20- to 24-miles per gallon. With gas currently at $2.79 at my local station, that adds up.
Despite the small size, Weiss' rig, and others I've seen, has plenty of storage. Flow-through air ventilation bolstered by electric fans keeps his dogs cool, although not as cool as Wright's rig when it's packed with ice. Weiss has towed his dogs through hot areas too, and says his trailer is never warmer than the outside air temperature and is often cooler.
Disadvantages? Perhaps the biggest is the discomfort many people feel having their dogs stuck in an exposed trailer behind their car or truck. That's not a huge issue in rural areas, but in urban areas, your dog's safety is only as good as the driver behind you. Something to consider.
Traditional approach I personally chose to take a far more common route: the ubiquitous pickup cum topper configuration. I'd owned a similar rig for years on a smaller Ford Ranger, and had lots of time to think about its shortcomings. When I bought a used Chevy Silverado last spring, I already had a plan cooking in my head.
My first purchase, and the most expensive, was the topper. I've owned aluminum toppers in the past, which eventually shook apart. I decided to spring for a fiberglass topper this time around, which was sturdier, quieter, warmer, and better looking. It was also more expensive: my topper, with side-opening wing widows and a ceiling-mounted solar ventilation fan, came in at around $2500.
Step two was to build indoor compartments. Doing so may have saved me over a thousand dollars compared to what a similar store-bought rig would have cost. My compartments are equally sturdy, and, compared to at least some of the commercial models I've seen, easier to open.
On the other hand, my one-piece unit took me several weekends to build, lacks some of the compartments available on commercial units, and required a level of cabinetry skills not everyone possesses. The tab for my home-built box came in at around $400.
But I must say, it's worked beautifully for the year I've owned it. I have three dog boxes mounted crossways in the back, with the open doors facing one wing window, which makes it a simple matter to load my dogs in and out. In fact, I'd recommend side-opening wing windows no matter what kind of topper you use; they're extremely handy. And the solar mounted fan, combined with portable fans I clip to the doors of each crate, has so far kept my mutts cool and comfortable.
The side-by-side drawers of the home-built compartment hold almost everything I need for a day of hunting, and a recessed compartment for a five-gallon jug of water keeps it from spilling all over my gear. The main disadvantage, again, is security. Anyone with a crowbar could jimmy open the back or side windows in a couple minutes. But that hasn't happened, and I pray it never does.
These, then, are three common configurations among many. Costs vary widely but none are cheap; although you might get lucky and find something on the used market. In the long run, the money you spend to keep your dogs comfortable and safe is worth the cost in convenience alone, and more important still, in your own peace of mind.