Dog Wagons, Part 1
September 23, 2010
Newness And Looks Are Less Important Than Utility And Budget Considerations.
(Question) For hunters and dog trainers, what's the best kind of vehicle for traveling with dogs? On a big trip west this next season, I want something fairly comfortable to haul the five dogs my buddy and I are taking. I've never owned a pickup or an SUV. Can they double as second cars, not just a hunting wagon? Any ideas about the ideal dog transporter? (New Hampshire)
(Answer) Sure do. Lots of them. But, as an all-purpose shotgun or an all-round hunting dog, there just ain't no such vehicle. No single style or model is all things to all people. In hundreds of discussions about motor vehicles which accommodate gun dogs, each suggestion might closely match preferences and possibilities suitable to general purpose situations. But a good fit suggestion might not appeal to many and certainly won't apply to all.
A glance out back in the kennel yard confirms that. Even a lone hunting dog trainer has yet to discover the perfect multi-use rig. Parked there are three different "dog haulers" currently serving me: a 1995 GMC Vanagon, a 1997 Ford F150 pickup and a 1998 Chrysler Town & Country. It may surprise you that (for me) the least versatile is the pickup; the van hauls the most dogs and gear; the "mini-van" the most versatile. But you would have to buy a used one. That model is no longer available with all-wheel drive and load lifters. All three provide comfortable rides.
Still, I hope I can offer you and other readers a slant or two on vehicles that work for sportsmen; subject of course to your judgment calls on things you know about your lifestyle and preferences, which I do not.
I can assure you that on a long trip, it is going to be a pain-in-the-posterior-journey as far as memories go should you try to cram five dogs and all of your gear into an SUV. You might be able to get by taking a couple of dogs, but the popular, macho "sport utility vehicles" have less usable hauling space than most other choices, aren't as comfortable and will increase your gas bill.
Two men and two dogs being your maximum, if it happens that either of you owns one dog, or even two, the other has the majority to transport. Decide who's going to buy or rent a decently designed dog trailer which an SUV will do a good job pulling. Don't wait until the last minute to make that decision.
Question my wisdom about suitable vehicles if you will. When you see me examining the engine of an automobile, the only thing you can be sure of is that the hood's up. A mechanic designer or engineer, I ain't.
The first automobile I ever drove was a 1927 Model T — four pedals on the floor (clutch, reverse, brake and accelerator,) tractor-like spark and throttle levers on the steering wheel. Three or four years before my 16th birthday, occasionally I drove a Dodge pickup for a stock-buyer uncle to pick up chickens, calves and sheep from area farmers.
By 1943 when I applied for my driver's license, I'd successfully tried out what has amounted to a "hunting car" during the years of the great Depression until today, in many quarters. Owning two cars at the time was unheard of in all but the wealthiest circles. Avid sportsmen, among those of more moderate means, broke down and bought an "old beater" for getting to hunting places with their dogs — and that practice still continues.
The Model A my high school buddy Russ's parents inherited was hardly in good shape. No one in Russ's large family could drive. In return for my doing a bit of "chauffeuring," they gave their okay for Russ and me to use the Model A for hunting. Tar, my cocker spaniel bird dog, and Trixie, a diminutive rat terrier/spitz squirrel dog belonging to Russ's uncle, were proud riding where the back seat had been torn out.
My own very first car also had to double as a hunting dog vehicle because what started as hotly pursued recreational interests quickly converted into a way to make a living; being paid as both a professional hunting dog trainer and a professional writer. It was a brand new Ford Tudor sedan with an 85 horsepower V8 engine, if I recall. The total cost was $1,110, paid for with saved Army pay during that period immediately following World War II, when the occupation of Germany and Japan began in 1945.
The trunk was spacious enough to accommodate two dogs, a spaniel and a retriever. To avoid possible escape and/or asphyxiation from cracked trunk lid, I cut vents through the ledge inside the car between the back seat and rear window. This worked until 1953 when I bought a Ford station wagon for $2,100.
As "recently" as 1967, I bought my son his first car for $90, a 10- or 12-year-old Dodge sedan. It was his huntin' and courtin' car until he wound up a husband and father prior to enlisting in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
So, advising that there is no brand, model or style of motor vehicle ideally suited for hauling dogs is based upon the variety of vehicles I've used during the intervening 60 years. These include station wagons; cab-over engine, extended vans and pickup trucks of various makes; Travel-Alls and Scouts; Willys Jeeps, both army surplus and the boxy station wagon van style; a Toyota Landcruiser and "Texas Cadillacs" (GMC and Chevy Suburbans;) an army surplus Dodge Powerwagon; a Nissan pickup; Dodge mini-vans and wagons.
There may very well be some new model contenders for transporting sporting dogs and gear that you should look over, but, because of expense, I haven't considered buying.
Buying a used vehicle that's in good shape (or retaining a suitable machine and converting it to a dog hauler rather than trading it in) makes sense to me. You may have genuine use for a trendy new model. If your pocketbook can afford something "like new" there are real bargains in the "previously-owned" car mar
If the engine and driveline components are sound, you don't have to be ashamed of a real "cheapie." That's in the genuine "hunting car" tradition of going where you have to with the "old beater" and not having to wince at brush-inflicted scratches, gravel nicks, tree trunk dents, rubs, careful maintenance, protecting upholstery, etc., sparing the good car of family functions.
Everyone has personal, practical and geographical situations that differ. You couldn't give me the monster Dodge diesel pickup my son flew down to Texas to buy a few years back and gambled on a test drive home because he wanted to avoid rust that afflicts our used vehicles in Wisconsin.
At my age, I can barely ascend to the driver or passenger seat and can't climb into the pickup box without assistance. But it serves Mike; he has only two German wirehairs and a chocolate Lab to haul in kennel crates, and it's a high jump for his dogs too. But its primary purpose is towing equipment and machinery, including his homemade mobile camp he sets up at trails' end on his annual western hunting trips.
It wasn't always so. Back when we all were involved in North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association testing, I heard fellow Gun Dog contributor Bob West tell this paraphrased story half a dozen times:
"I knew Dave, but I hadn't met Mike. I heard Mike was going to be running in one of the same tests that I was so I looked forward to getting together with him and seeing what he had. As the son of a guy well known in the field dog world, besides good dogs I assumed he'd have a real fancy truck and trailer rig.
"After I got out to the grounds, I inquired about him and someone pointed and said, 'Oh, there's Mike pulling in now.' I couldn't believe it! A big guy managed to get out of a little Volkswagen Bug, towing a snowmobile trailer that had three or four airline kennel crates strapped on it."
Financial consideration, as well as the inability to find a multi-purpose, single vehicle answer when choosing a dog hauler, played the major role in my purchase of the "newest" but least versatile of my three current vehicles. All are useful for other purposes, but we bought almost exclusively with dog training and hunting in mind.
I added some figures in my head. The customized GMC 2500 Vanagon and the extended Chrysler T&C mini-van each had far fewer than the 120,000 miles on the Lariat Ford F150 pickup parked in the neighbor's field with a "For Sale" sign in its window.
Modern engines, properly maintained, can be trouble free for far longer than other car parts. This dingless, rustless, scratchless, scrupulously-maintained-by-one-owner pickup was better than excellent. It had been lubricated with synthetic oil, and at 100,000 miles new brakes and shocks had been installed. (The owner's manual, all maintenance papers and the original dealer list price and accessories sticker from1997 were offered.) It also had an extended cab and Eagle bed cap.
When we settled on the price the seller asked to hold onto it for a week until he could find a replacement. On delivery, he voluntarily had the dealer do the periodic maintenance check due at that time, filled the gas tank and paid for both.
I might have considered using either one of my vans in a trade, selling them outright or trading both on a new or nearly new multipurpose vehicle. But considering how little well-maintained equipment brings on the market when it's nine or 12 years old (despite relatively low mileage of 70,000 and 80,000 and not being a couple of battered brush busters) these could not be sold or traded for near what they are still worth to me. In addition to doing the job for which they were intended, they still are grand vehicles on highway trips.
The "loaded" Ford, which in 1997 had a MFL of over $38,000, may be the most valuable vehicle. I still utilize all three for my business despite the drastic reduction in mileage traveled ten, even five years ago, to train, hunt, cover sporting events and meet deadlines. (At 81, I'm still comparatively active and don't need glasses to read newsprint in a good light or to drive, shoot or make out birds and topography. That won't last forever.)
Also, I am very familiar with my old vehicles, have not mastered the most elemental technology in anything and would require a lot of driving time to try to be a safe, comfortable and responsible driver of a computerized puzzle. Nor do I like the hassle of trading cars or having to accept "packages" in order to get one accessory I really want when the other gadgets, like tachometers in automatic shift vehicles, make no sense and add to cost.
The weather where I have lived for most of my life is also a factor in my choice. On bitterly cold mornings, when I have to get someplace important I am still haunted by fears generated when the thermometer reads between zero and 40 below and nobody would "bet the farm" that even a garaged car, new or old, would "turn over," much less start.
These fears have been alleviated somewhat, because it's a better bet that the electrical and automatic choke systems in at least one of three modern vehicles will function and get me underway rather than depending on just one vehicle, no matter how new and refined.
Dave Duffey will offer some specific model recommendations in the next issue.