In the loft where we write, Christine sits behind her desk, clear across the room, with her big computer screen set up so she cannot see me. Seems my antics — about 90 percent fussing over the dogs circled at my feet and 10 percent writing — are a distraction.
When our little Labrador, Cheyenne, started barking with delight, Christine looked around the computer and saw the electronic dog collar around my neck and the spastic twitch that accompanies the press of the stimulation button.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" she said, getting up to witness what Cheyenne was so happy to cheer on.
Turning up the power, I hit the button again and grinned as I replied, "I cannot imagine you would think I would put this on Winchester without knowing what it will do."
During a lifetime of having dogs as partners, some hunting, some not, getting them to respond to simple obedience was never a problem. If they were hunters, time in the field turned into a partnership.
But those dogs were flushers or retrievers, and except for the occasional distraction of a wandering big game animal, they worked close or sat in wait in a blind. When Winchester, our first English setter, came into our lives, I was ill-prepared for an animal whose drive for prey trumped any command given in the field.
In the confines of our fenced-in yard, Winchester learned to come by voice and whistle, and to stay when directed. But he was quickly bored with all of it and he refused the bribery of treats.
Turned loose to hunt, it was as if he couldn't hear. He wouldn't come when called and he covered ground like a race horse. He would course the mountain slopes and stop only when he found birds. As often as not, he was beyond a distant ridge, out of sight, and there was nothing to do but try to stay with him and hope he stopped for birds along the way.
It was a mixed blessing. I learned that my attempts to guide him in a direction I thought might contain birds was ridiculous. When we entered a mountain valley, if there were birds there, he would find them. If there weren't, he would just go over the top to the next valley and there was no stopping him. Christine and I followed filled with the terror of losing him.
My daughter has said on several occasions, "You love that dog more than you ever loved your kids." That might be a stretch, but it was the love of Winchester that drove the decision to get an electronic collar, most often called an e-collar.
There are misconceptions about e-collars. Some people believe you just strap one on the dog and start using the stimulation (low-level electric shock) to train your dog. The dog must first be trained to the verbal or hand signal commands you want them to know. Use of stimulation is only for a reminder when the dog isn't responding to commands it already knows and then to the least degree possible to get the dog's attention. Never is it used for punishment.
Conditioning to an e-collar comes before you ever turn it on. I would put the collar on Winchester every time we went hunting, but it wasn't activated. After a couple of months, whenever I would grab the collar he would start spinning around, his tail wagging with excitement. He associated the collar with what he loved.
Electronic stimulation is the least-used option the collar offers. Most hunting e-collars have a tone button that emits a high-pitched beep, like a whistle, except it is difficult for the human ear to detect. I can't hear it at all. But the dog can. This feature allows a "whistle" to your hunting partner from a half-mile to 7 miles, depending on the collar.
Some e-collars have a vibrate feature instead of a tone; the best ones have both. The vibrate feature works about as well as the tone and is introduced the same way as the tone.
Once Winchester fell in love with his e-collar, I started using the tone feature in conjunction with whistle and voice commands. In rather short order, he responded to the tones just as he did the whistle or voice, but in the confines of the fence. Knowing his personality in the field, I expected he would ignore the tone once he was let loose to hunt. He did.
Armed with the prior experience on myself, I had selected a setting I believed would break the prey-driven trance he gets in without hurting him.
Even though I knew it wouldn't hurt him, it was still with trepidation that I hit the stimulation button. He stopped. I had his attention, and the tone button sent him to me as his bird-addled brain made the connection.
Fast forward to six more setters. We assumed all would have Winchester's drive, which led us to getting the latest version of the e-collar, a device that tones, stimulates and tracks the dog's location on a map. When they go over the horizon there is priceless comfort in knowing exactly where they are and having the means to get their attention.
The bag that holds all nine e-collars, one for each of our hunting dogs and controlled by one controller, sits on a shelf in the pantry. With nine dogs in the house we can't go anywhere without at least one on our heels. When Christine or I grab the bag, it starts a crazed chain reaction of jumping, spinning and barking dogs. They love their collars, knowing that fun always comes with the wearing.
Gadgets and technology in the field leave me cold, but in this case, for the love of the dogs, I'm happy to have it.
Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.