September 29, 2010
By utilizing a beeper collar's feedback, human hunters can become better dog handlers and in turn enjoy more success afield.
Question: Most of my buddies now put beeper collars on their dogs when we go hunting, but I've held off buying one for my setter, as she's a fairly close-worker and seldom out of sight. I don't need the constant beeping to keep track of her, and I also can't help wondering if the sound disturbs birds--it has to let them know that something unusual is approaching, doesn't it?
I mostly hunt pheasants, and they're already spooky enough without a beeper giving them something else to get nervous about. Or am I just imagining things? (Kansas)
Answer: Upland gamebird reaction to a dog on point either assists or fouls up proper performance by a trained hunting dog trying to do a job the way it ought to be done.
This is a given among experienced hunters. Some gamebird species, like quail and woodcock, have reputations for holding under a point, thereby gaining preferred status among those who gun over the pointing breeds.
On the other hand, as you noted, pheasants can be expected to misbehave. Hunters who gun for any species that will creep or run away or flush wild expect and have to shrug off some foul-ups and fowl disappointments.
But in various instances and situations, all species can be spooky. With the advent of "beepers" (ingenious electronic devices whose sound signals permit keeping track of and locating out-of-sight dogs, whether in motion or locked up on point) it was inevitable that sportsmen like yourself would speculate about possible adverse effects the intrusive noise might have on gamebird behavior and dog work.
Aid or hindrance? Does the sound spook birds or make them sit tighter? Will a beeper-clad dog produce more shots or more disappointing, non-productive points? Will beepers interfere with a dog's quest for game? If beepers do spook birds, do they contribute to "untraining" a dog? If the sound tends to keep birds pinned, will this make training easier?
These and other doubts and assurances about what a beeper collar does (besides making it possible to confidently keep in touch with a dog that distance or cover has screened from view) are debated by hunters who swear by their dog locators.
Whatever the pros and cons, beepers have caught on big. Their use has increased, and sportsmen need information on how to get the best out of them. So let's dip into the relationship between bird, beeper and dog in an effort to help users get their money's worth.
Regarding negative or positive effects on bird behavior, the jury is still out, as far as I'm concerned. I suspect there are times when beepers are the cause of premature gamebird departure. But I also speculate that the sound of the beepers often keeps birds pinned.
Veteran quail hunters often imitate a hawk call as they move in on a pointing dog, making an effort to pin scattered birds. It also acts as a cautionary signal for the dog. In fact, if any company ever comes out with an "on point" beeper signal that simulates a hawk's screech, I'd bet a hunter could count on birds being hunkered down in front of his dog almost every time he moves in.
One way or the other, birds will react to a beeper. This can adversely affect the performance of individual dogs. If the noise, or the temporary cessation when some beepers switch from running to pointing mode, causes birds to move, there are gun dogs that will break point and roust birds before a hunter reaches them.
That unmannerly behavior is not, however, the fault of the beeper. That particular dog will rush in to flush regardless of what caused the game to move. The fault lies with the trainer and the dog. Once point is established, a proper dog holds it until flush and shot, or attempts relocation only when told to.
But that presumes that beepers cause bird movement, tempting unbroken or unruly dogs that might have held had birds sat tight. There is another assumption that I lean toward, however, which is that the beeper sound has the opposite effect!
Beeper collars can reinforce a dog's staunchness and may cause birds to lie
tighter under a point.
Whether or not it pins birds, I think once a dog associates the "on point" sound with the presence of game, that beeping acts as a reminder, a reinforcing command. That "mind your manners" warning results in holding point stanchly until the hunter's approach causes the flush. It is the same as verbal cautioning with a hiss or a soft "whoauup" as the hunter moves in. It definitely helps keep dogs pinned so the hunter's flush provides the shot.
Associating the "on point" sound of another dog's beeper will also condition a dog to honor the sound, even though he fails to see his bracemate standing on point. This goes a long way in getting a dog to back voluntarily and makes on-the-job, in-season training possible.
Even a dog trained to back on sight will sometimes blunder into another dog he cannot see in heavy cover. With enough practice, the "sound" of a dog pointing will alert and stop him just as the sight of a stationary dog should.
The key is bird movement. Whatever causes it is going to prompt some dogs to break. As long as birds sit tight, there's seldom a problem. Most dogs that lock up will hold until there is movement, no matter how meager their training. But those who chase after sneak-off birds and knock them will do it sans beeper collar or when carrying one.
Not only do some bird dogs move with their birds, they and others may be encouraged in this vice by hunters who want them to trail running birds or actually assist in the flushing effort, or do the flushing after they've pointed. The long and the short of it is that dogs accustomed to doing this simply are untrustworthy when out of sight.
If anything, a beeper will benefit hunters relying on such dogs because the sound will permit them to keep track of a questing dog and get them to the dog's pointing location quickly and accurately, perhaps in time to get in a shot or two when the dog takes the birds out.
Is Silence Golden?
There seems to be a distinct possibility that the interim silent period when some beepers switch from their "running" to "pointing" modes (all beepers operating in dual mode change signals in one way or another when a dog halts) causes birds to scamper or wing off. Silen
ce following a steady, accustomed sound makes birds antsy. Resumption of a sound after silence spooks birds, too.
Supporting evidence for the above: Dogless hunters find it most effective when bird hunting to break their walking patter with frequent stops and starts. The oft-told stories of birds getting up when a hunter is astraddle a fence or has stopped to relieve bladder pressure aren't a tribute to gamebird canniness. It's the change-up in the sound patter or introduction of a different sound.
The only certainty is that some birds will be flushed unseen or unshot at by dogs not reliably staunch. Others will fade off to foil relocation attempts by dogs that hold their ground once they've locked up. Bird movement and individual dog response are responsible, not whether or not the dog is beeper-clad.
"Getting your money's worth" out of a beeper also depends on hunter response and savvy as well as the hoped for predictability of a good dog's behavior and the unpredictability of the birds he seeks and points. Longtime users of beepers should have figured thing out for themselves. But a capsule commentary should be instructive for sportsmen strapping a beeper collar on "Ol' True" for the first time.
Some beepers have optional settings: point only, run only or both. Others are permanently set in dual. Using the dual mode, the "in motion" signal keeps the hunter in touch with his dog even when he can't see him. If he's out there patterning right and doing his job, as long as you can hear him clearly, leave him alone. If it starts getting faint, he's out too far. Call him in.
If you want to change direction, call or whistle him across your front and head him where you want him to go--as long as he is moving, which you can tell from the beeper signal. If he's slowed up (some practice watching your dog in the open will permit you to read a change of pace built in on some beepers), give him a little time. He may be making game. When the running beep resumes, collect him or change his direction.
When the "in motion" signal stops, the hunter either stops to listen or immediately starts hiking in the direction he last heard the sound, giving him a head-start if the dog is on point. Then, one of two things will occur.
If the movement beep resumes, the hunting hike continues. Savvy and cooperative dogs will stop occasionally to listen and locate the hunter, moving on when they know his whereabouts. That's an additional good reason for heading toward the dog rather than standing still when the running mode shuts down; the noise you make moving through cover gives the dog your location.
Cessation of sound or even the change-up to the "on point" mode doesn't necessarily mean your dog has found birds or is checking on your location. He may have stopped to lift a leg or dump out. Resumption of the "in motion" mode could indicate that he's corrected after a temporary false point or even sinned and taken out some birds he should have held. But until you ascertain the answer, your response to any cessation or resumption should be to start toward it.
If a dog has located game and is mannerly, then within 20-30 seconds after he halts, the beeper will sound off in its "on point" mode. Hunters can then home in on the sound, find their dogs and shoot some birds.
While the purpose is identical, and operation and utilization similar, a number of different kinds of beepers are available. Each has features that may be more suitable to individual preferences or rate better for one of another style of hunting. If you hunt with a brace of dogs, a different brand of beeper on each will better permit you to sort out which dog is where. Some models are better suited for close-working, laid-back dogs, and others for wide-ranging, intense performers.
Beepers have made it possible for even grouse and woodcock hunters to make good use of bird dogs possessed of desire and range. Wearing a beeper, they can do their thing, unhampered and unconfused from bad-guess, blind "handling" by an apprehensive hunter who is afraid they've run off when they might be standing on point just a few yards from him.
A gun dog should be introduced to a beeper collar prior to opening day so he will accept and become accustomed to this attachment. Don't expect a dog to do well and not be bothered by the beeper on his first outing. Have him wear it around the yard, in the kennel or on pre-season jaunts afield, just as you'd have him drag a check cord or tote a dummy e-collar. Pre-hunt beeper conditioning is particularly important with any dog that has been extensively exposed to e-collar training by having him learn that the beeper doesn't punish him.
Once accepted, as noted, the beeper can be an automatic training aid for intelligent dogs. Seemingly, it encourages some dogs to hunt harder, building confidence when they are doing right and aren't being "hacked" while they are out of view; it helps to staunch others, leading them to honor friends by backing voluntarily; it provides a cautionary reminder and an audible clue to attend the sound and sight of another dog on point.
General expectations that prove out with most dogs are going to have exceptions. Dogs are different, even within the breed. It is possible for a beeper collar to adversely affect a certain dog. A pointer I had when carrying the beeper collar consistently went birdless and wound up backing her bracemate in an area she'd already been through.
I first blamed it on an inferior nose. But when turned loose minus the sound box, she found her share. Because she handled like a glove, kept track and constantly checked my whereabouts without letting up on her hunting pace, she really needed no beeper. But in grouse and woodcock thickets, she carried one plugged into the "on point" mode so I could quickly find her when she found birds.
Glitches as they apply to individual dogs are not rare, but very few dogs are going to be discombobulated by beepers. If, for whatever reasons, you believe beepers cause bird and dog misbehavior, you can set a beeper to sound off only when the dog is moving. If your close-working setter is easy to keep track of but can be hard to find when standing still in dense cover, you can set the beeper to sound off only when the dog is stopped. For most hunters, however, the dual setting of these practical and versatile locators seems to be the answer.
Beepers improve the performance of the hunter/handler controlling the dog. That, in turn, permits a gun dog to operate at optimum efficiency. They also make for more comfortable, relaxed hunting when there is good rapport between an experienced handler and a well-trained dog, or allay the doubts and apprehensions that assail hunters when they don't know where their partially trained charges are, nor what they are doing.
On the whole, beepers serve their human and canine masters well, regardless of positive or negative, imagined or real, gamebird reaction to the sound.