The safety of my dogs is my primary concern when hunting. My goals on any hunt, in order of importance, are as follows: Everyone (people and dogs) safe and healthy at the end of the day, the beagles get a good chase, and rabbits get put in the game vest. If you are on this website, then you are a dog guy like me. There are plenty of people in the field, however, who are not. Let me relate a scary narrative for you.
A decade ago I was hunting rabbits in the early season and covered a lot of ground. I was hunting with just one beagle, and was scouting the rabbit population in order to see if I would bring back the whole pack later. I had a few chases and shot a couple rabbits. I started seeing a lot of people, some with labs or setters, but most were walking through the brush without dogs. It didn't take long to realize that I had walked, the long way, into an area that the game commission had stocked with pheasants. Then it happened: a guy shot at movement in the goldenrod, and a pheasant burst into high gear, sprinting through the yellow-topped cover. My beagle erupted in hound song and started chasing the bird. The clod hunter's scatter gun had sent its deadly load of pellets closer to my dog than the bird, but thankfully he had missed both.
A shouting match ensued, and I used words that everyone presumes we pastors don't have in our vocabulary. It takes a lot to get me that angry, but endangering my dogs is one way to do it. My beagle, Rebel, circled the stocked ring neck, it never flew, and I leashed the hound and began walking back to the truck. I now use bells on my beagles. Whereas a bird hunter might get excited when the bell goes silent, indicating that the dog is on point, my heart races when the clanging of the bell speeds up as the beagles get closer to the rabbit that they are finding. The pace gets real quick just before the hound tongues on the scent-line and the chase is on! The primary value of the bells, for me as a houndsman however, is the safety that they provide for the dog even the most unethical hunter should hear that bell and realize that it is not quarry, but rather canine hunting companion.
Naturally the bells are invaluable for keeping track of the invisible dogs as they scurry and scamper through the underbrush to force a rabbit to flee its form. The bells I like best are small but low tone, made in Canada by hand, and sold at Lion Country Supply. The sound carries hundreds of yards in calm winds (as determined by GPS collar). If I hear the bells moving too far away while they are looking for the bunny, I give a whistle, and they return. I can whistle very loudly with my fingers, and I train my dogs from the time that they are pups that running to my whistle is a guaranteed treat. I slice a hotdog into tiny pieces to use as training tools to illicit this response to my whistle. Beagles are very food driven. I carry tiny dog biscuits in the field and will treat them for returning to the whistle.
Lest you think I am totally stuck in the olden days of bells and whistles, I am also a fan of GPS technology. The great thing about the bells, however, is that I can often go for an entire hunt and never look at the handheld! I can hear the bells where the dogs are beating the brush, and as they move out beyond the effective rage of the bells I can still hear their voices echoing through the hills. Experience has taught me that when the bells become audible again the rabbit will be coming soon, as it is in front of the pack and trying to outwit or outrun its pursuers.
With that disclaimer, the reality is that the GPS is invaluable when you need it. When I was a kid it was commonplace to hear of people leaving their hunting vests in the woods with the hope that the beagle would be sleeping on it in the morning after the owner abandoned the search at dark. I can look at my GPS handheld and see where the dogs are now. The technology has helped me understand what happens when dogs go out of hearing and do not return. While training my beagles I have noticed that there are times when they go 400-700 yards away from me and then become relatively stationary. This can last for a few minutes and then they are on the move going out the same distance in the same direction. Now they are nearly a mile away, and this is too far for a cottontail! I run in, ready to be upset at them for chasing a deer, and as I consult the GPS I realize that they are circling, but the center of the circles is nearly a mile away. I get there to discover that they are running a rabbit!
After experiencing this a few times it quickly became clear that the dogs had run the original rabbit to a loss or a groundhog hole, and then jumped a new rabbit that moved out even further. Buck rabbits will travel long distances to breed, and when the beagles bounce him out of the thickets he leaves his doe lovers and runs home, out of hearing, where the dogs either lose him or change rabbits and remain far away from where I am awaiting the original rabbit to return. The GPS collars are fantastic technology. I almost always use the vector settings on my collars (it simply tells you the direction to get to the dog and the distance), and rarely use the topographic map function. This is because I tend to hunt locations that I know and have explored already. I do use the handheld and its maps for one very important function scouting new places. Roads are one of my biggest concerns. When driving, we often see dead rabbits on the roads. My first thought is always the same my dogs would follow a rabbit across the road, what if the timing was different and they were slowly tracking across the pavement when the car passed?
So whenever I see a place that looks likely to hold rabbits, or hear about a new location from a grouse hunter or archer, I investigate with the GPS collar and one dog. I then see where the rabbits run, follow the dog, and determine what hazards are present by utilizing the maps function of the GPS handheld. As I mentioned, roads are a major worry, and these are evident on the map. I also look for two other major dangers quarries and high walls. Quarries often have steep banks and there is no way to get down to the dog, if it survived the plummet into the water. The strip mining legacy of Appalachia has left some vertical cliffs after the extraction of the coal. Both are concerns for a pack of beagles trying to stay on the scent of a bunny that skirts the edge of these hazards. If an area is too dangerous for hounds, I simply do not hunt there. Hound safety, as I said earlier, is part of my first goal for any successful hunt. There are times when I look at the handheld GPS while hunting, but very often it is unnecessary as the bells and whistles are all I need. Of course this is because I have used the GPS in the preseason while scouting for game and hazards.
To read more from Bob Ford check up his Beagle Tales Series.