Thursday, January 2, 2020

Leash Free Exercise and Garmin Astro 900 Review

I am an enormous advocate of legal off leash exercise for dogs. I am very fortunate to have quite a few places within an hour drive from my home to be able to do so. Perri is a hunter and enjoys spending her time sniffing after chipmunks, chasing squirrels and bunnies. She's never fast enough or clever enough but she certainly enjoys the thrill of the hunt! Occasionally...there are deer. I can often recognize the signs of a deer chase about to begin and Perri will recall to me then. But once she gets started with a chase, there is no recalling her. Usually we are in the rather deep woods, alone, when this happens and she always returns to me in less than five minutes. With tongue dragging. One time with her entire toenail split and quick badly damaged.

Most of the time there is no wildlife chasing. There is running for the sheer joy of it, sniffing, exploring and strengthening mind and body. Perri and Zorro play with each other, chase each other and swim together. Their recalls are strong, and I always have delicious food rewards to give them for recalls. I always feed them for "checking in" with me (returning from their explorations to connect with me.), and they do so often. I have treasured off leash exercise with my dogs ever since Ein was a baby dog nearly 15 years ago.

And so! And so. One day, like any other of the hundreds of hikes I have enjoyed, one moment Perri and Zorro were in front of me. The next they were gone. Gone! There was none of Perri's normal increase in frenzied sniffing and hunting behavior that predicts that she is scenting a deer, there was no barking and screaming. They were just. Gone. I'm not going to go into the details other than for 45-60 minutes I could not find my dogs. For Zorro especially, who has shown not interest in hunting or wildlife chasing, this was highly unusual. I searched and ran and called and ran and whistled and cried for them and cried in misery at my own foolishness in trusting them. In the end, both dogs separately tracked their way back to where my vehicle was parked. And they waited for me there. Perri first, the first time I came back to the car and Zorro second.

I will not compromise on off leash exercise for my dogs. This was a major exception to our normal order of operations. I do not understand, still, what happened. Did Perri go on a very long chase and lose her way back? Did Zorro turn back from his run with Perri to answer my call and then get lost entirely? There was a very heavy wind that day and it certainly could have carried my voice and scent in confusing ways. I still do not believe either dog willfully tried to run away from me for that length of time. Why would they? I do not deny them freedom. This was not their one big chance at having a good run through the forest. And Zorro would literally live inside of my body if he was allowed to do so, "connected at the hip" doesn't begin to cover it.

I had been curious about GPS tracking collars for quite a while, but the cost deterred me every time I researched them. But after that experience I decided I will never feel that way again. And clipping the leashes on for good is not the answer for me. I quickly realized that Garmin was the only company producing anything worth buying for this purpose.

I found a refurbished Garmin Astro 900 unit with one collar. I purchased a second collar separately. I preferred the Astro line of Garmin's GPS Tracking offerings because it is Tracking-only. Garmin also offers an Alpha unit option which is both a tracking and training unit.

The collars are bulky, you definitely can't miss them. I have already gotten questions about them! I was disappointed that the "mini" collar that Garmin makes was not compatible with the Astro 900 unit. (Only with the slightly older and couldnt-find-refurbished-and-cheaper Astro 430 unit.) There is no mini collar at this time compatible with the Astro 900 unit. A bummer since Zorro is a rather petite guy and a slightly smaller collar would have been nice for him. Still, the dogs do not seem bothered by them. I expected Perri to act strange about it but other than worrying when it is first put on, she acts like it is not even there.

Perri finally has her very own antennae!

Two weekends ago I finally got a chance to test drive our new toys! If that would ever happen again, I would now know exactly where my dogs were. No guessing, no running aimlessly and feeling terrified and helpless. The unit is impressively accurate. If one dog is even a foot ahead of the other on the trail, the screen reflects that. The Garmin interface was simple to use and understand. It also helps that the GPS unit that I use for geocaching is also made by Garmin. I was able to add both collars to the unit easily and custom name each collar "Perri" and "Zorro". (You can track up to twenty collars on one unit so, I could have 18 more dogs!) The collars and unit are water resistant. This is good since the dogs do often get wet or run through mud. They will not be swimming in the collars, though! The collars are rugged so they can handle dogs blasting through the woods.

We have done two hikes since getting the collars and I could not be happier with the unit and collars. I have not had much of any cause to actually rely on the collars though. Having GPS tracking is no substitute for proper recalls, leashing around other hikers and preventing deer chasing whenever possible. We did have one rodent excursion from Perri and when I lost sight of her I could watch her path...and breathe a sigh of relief when I saw her arrow turning back to where I was. It was a very cool feeling. The collars themselves are rechargeable and both came with their own chargers. The GPS unit takes AA batteries and after only two hikes (each hike was about 5-6 hours time powered on for the unit), those batteries are nearly dead. This is comparable to the amount of time my geocaching GPS will last with two AA batteries. (a Garmin eTrex20.) When I was reviewing the specs for this review, I see that the Astro 900 is able to be used for Geocaching as well. That is something I will look forwards to trying and a definitely plus in my book.

The collars also track average speed and distance traveled. It is fascinating to see how much more ground the dogs cover versus what I cover. They run back and forth to me so much and it adds up! It is also interesting that while Zorro is given much less time off leash, he still covered more ground than Perri. (These stats were from our first hike with the collars.) I am happy with the battery life on the collars, we had been out in the woods for quite a few hours with only "one bar" lost of battery life. I plan to recharge the collars after every hike.

I may have more thoughts as I continue using the Astro 900 but so far I am thrilled and the peace of mind is worth every penny. Happy trails!

1 comment:

  1. I miss letting my dogs run free in the wild. Herbie is still off leash 99% of the time, but doesn't do much running these days because of her knees. Julio lost his off leash privileges not because of recall issues, but because he's not good with other dogs. I have such high anxiety though that I would freak out if they disappeared for more than ten minutes. It's good to know products like this exist for future dogs in my life.