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Bells: with the advent of GPS collars, do you still need a bell?

I COULD BE the world's biggest fan of GPS collars for pointing dogs. I was introduced to them shortly after they came out, and I've used them ever since. Yes, I've heard the complaints, and I sympathize: They're too gadgety, just one more thing to go wrong. They run out of juice when you need them most. And sometimes they just don't work. I won't argue any of those points. But I'd still rather have them on my dogs than not.

When I got my first GPS collar, which was something like 10 or 12 years ago, I used it in conjunction with a beeper collar until one day when one of the more perceptive men among the misfits, legerdemain artists and outright charlatans I hunt with asked me why. When I couldn't come up with a good answer, I quit using beeper collars, as well.

But I haven't completely switched to electronic surveillance of my dogs; I still use bells. And I still believe there are good reasons for continuing to use them.

Let's run through a brief history of bells, from someone who hasn't studied that history to any large degree and whose recital of the historical record is therefore suspect and thoroughly adlibbed: me.

Time was, you owned a bird dog and now and then you took him hunting. (I'm pretty sure that's historically accurate.) But bird dogs being what they were, many couldn't be trusted to hunt within the limited range their owners preferred. Someone came up with the idea of attaching a big, noisy cowbell to the dog's collar, and presto! Problem solved.

Except when it wasn't. In open country, a big running dog could easily run out of earshot. If you were hunting on a windy day or in thick grass, forget it. But it was still better than nothing. And for cover birds--grouse, woodcock, quail, etc.,--bells worked pretty darn well.

Decades and untold generations of bird dogs later, that hasn't changed. However, if you're still a die-hard bell user, and by that I mean that your dog wears a bell or he doesn't hunt, (a practice still very much adhered to by several of my friends, who apparently don't read my columns and do not seek my advice on, like, anything), allow me to suggest three drawbacks to that approach.


First, although I can't prove it, I suspect that years of hunting with a bell slung beneath its neck can damage a dog's hearing. It's not like there aren't enough other things--gunfire prime among them--that will damage a dog's hearing, so why add to the equation if you don't have to?

Second, I know that bells can interfere with a dog's ability to hear spoken, and sometimes whistled, commands. What I suspect happens is that, although the dog may still be able to hear the command, the sound of the bell mostly drowns it out, and his urge to obey fades away faster than a vow of chastity in a college fraternity on beer Friday.

Finally, beeper collars and GPS collars have eliminated the need for bells in open country. You heard it here first.

But hunting in heavy cover is a horse of a different color. I can, and have, hunted grouse successfully using nothing but my GPS collar to locate my dogs. But after trying that for a while I went back to using a bell in combination with my GPS. It's worked beautifully.

The GPS shows me where my dog is vis a vis the lay of the land, then pinpoints exactly where she is when she's on point. The bell lets me track her from moment to moment, so I can start moving toward her the second it stops ringing, often before my GPS beeps that she's got a find.


My dog's bells have also shown me how difficult it is to judge range in wooded cover. I can't begin to estimate how many times the sound of my bell has seemed to be coming from well over a hundred yards away--about as far as I want my dogs to range in that dense stuff--only to check my GPS and discover that my dog was actually half that far or even less, but hidden behind a hill or down in a thick, overgrown creek bottom.

Another advantage of bells is that they allow you to read your dog, something I doubt GPS collars will ever be able to manage quite as efficiently. Grouse (and pheasants and some species of quail, for that matter) are runners. They'll stay a dozen yards ahead of your dog, not yet ready to fly, but unwilling to hold. Good grouse dogs learn to trail them until they're either flushed or pointed.

A dog that is pointing and creeping telegraphs that movement through the asymmetric tink...tink, tink of his bell, and most owners soon learn to recognize the distinctive-sounding cadence. Then it's game on: is the dog still trailing or has he finally stuck the bird? The dog's progress, told through the bell, let's you know. Likewise, if your dog has been trained to be steady to flush or shot, the wild cacophony of the bell after a flush or shot tells you that you've still got yard work to do.

I've found that low-toned bells, which are always larger than high-toned bells, are easier for my slightly compromised hearing to pick up. I buy old fashioned Swiss cowbells, size 6/0, the largest ones I can find. For my dogs, who typically range between 40 and 100 yards in the grouse woods, they're perfect.

Most of my friends use smaller bells, and if their dogs are close workers, they're fine and probably less potentially damaging to the dog's hearing. When I'm hunting with a buddy and we're running two dogs, bells of different sizes and tones make it fairly easy to determine which dog belongs to whom, and where both of them are.

A brief note about set-up: I attach my bells with a short loop of webbing that allows the bell to swing freely. Bells permanently attached to GPS collars can jut out from the dog's neck at weird angles and because the clapper isn't swinging freely, are less likely to telegraph a dog that is working a moving bird. I sew loops of about in inch in diameter to all my bells and then slip the dog's ID collar through them, as needed.

Full disclosure: I enjoy the sound of a bell, at least in the Northwoods grouse country I hunt each season, although I don't particularly care for the sound of them on the prairie. What's that mean? I dunno. But as a child of the sixties, I grew up reading Corey Ford, and I suspect that Swiss bells, English setters and New England ruffed grouse etched a permanent fissure in my young and impressionable brain.

Now I have English pointers, live in Montana and spend most of the year hunting Huns. You figure it out. But bells? I've still got 'em.

By Dave Carty
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Title Annotation:Point
Author:Carty, Dave
Publication:Gun Dog
Date:Aug 24, 2017
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