Ok, let's get right to it. I can't remember the last time I anticipated a new purchase to such adegree before and ended up so utterly disappointed. I've been needing to upgrade my nearly worn out Tri-Tronics Upland Special two dog rig for a while, and I've wanted to buy a new field GPS, as I own a first generation Garmin Vista GPS that only has a black and white screen. Both are products I like and enjoy using. Timing being what it was, I had to order new batteries for my Upland Special last season so I could wait to see what Garmin and Tri-Tronics would come up with together as an all in one unit.
My dad has advised me on many occasions throughout my upbringing, "You can't do everything." Those words kept thundering away in my brain as I was moving through the high country with my dogs on a grouse hunt the day after the Garmin Alpha 100 arrived on my doorstep from Cabela's.
I should probably temper my product disappointment with a few words on expectations. It was my hope that this unit would abundantly satisfy two needs, that of a dog training/communication collar and a field GPS. After all, two great companies like Garmin and Tri-Tronics would surely be able to introduce a terrific piece of equipment on their reputations and proven history alone. So, I'd have to say the bar was set pretty high to begin with.
If I had to guess, I think what evolved with the development of this product was a Ying and Yang pull between the two corporations. In setting priorities for a new Garmin and Tri-Tronics cooperative effort, the desire to build a great dog GPS with fun data collection anecdotes won out over that of keeping with the tradition of building the very best rock solid dog training devices on the market. It's my opinion that the result is a poorly conceived and functioning unit that does neither exceptionally well.
Bird hunting with my Tri-Tronics Upland Special is a joy. The simple ease of use, placement of toggle switches for different dogs, size and configuration of stimulation buttons makes it easy to use this unit without having to look at it, what I call "eyes free." I find this particularly valuable when I'm side-hilling steep grade in the high country, paying attention to my footing to avoid tumbling down a mountain-side instead of eye-balling my dog training handheld device. The Garmin Alpha 100 requires constant attention to be paid to the screen and small stimulation buttons when hunting in field conditions. I can't imagine using the handheld device effectively at all if I had large fingers. Also, the claim that this product is glove friendly is absolutely inaccurate. I shoot with thin Orvis Uplander Shooting Gloves all the time and can assure you that you'll be taking gloves on and off to use the handheld device or cutting the tips of your glove thumbs off to ease your frustration.
Switching between dogs for communication signals is very difficult as you have an incredibly small target area on a less than sensitive touch-screen to move between dogs. I found myself constantly having to sit down and focus my attention on trying to get a training or communication event to one or the other dog instead of being able to signal them on the fly. Often, the time it took to switch training modes between dogs resulted in a lost communication or training opportunity to turn or woe a dog. It's probably worth emphasizing that much of my frustrations with this product are centered around having more than one dog. I can see that this would be a fun product, adding a new dimension of enjoyment to your hunting if you are a one dog owner or you have friends that also have an Alpha.
Another of the most disappointing elements of the Garmin Alpha 100 had to be the return signals of dog activity, which is one of the primary reasons I bought the product. I really wish I had a video camera with me on my first hunt with the Alpha so you could witness several rock solid points that never registered at the handheld device as a point. But, when one of my dogs checked back for water, the unit would signal "Pepper on Point" while he was clearly moving his head to drink. I found this surprising since my Upland Special has always worked flawlessly to signal correct tones when a dog moves from hunt to point.
I'm not a field trial expert or sponsored trainer by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, I am an avid bird hunter who uses these tools in hard conditions with high expectations for performance. I demand a lot of these tools as well as an ability to communicate clearly and quickly with my dogs. When the cost of these products is taken into consideration, I think it's fair to expect a very high level of performance as well as functional design.
As it relates to training, anyone who's worth their salt in the dog world will tell you that you need instant correction or reward the moment a negative or positive opportunity occurs. When I want to turn a dog with a tone signal, I want him to turn immediately. On the rare occasion I need to correct performance following a verbal or hand signal command, the electronic reinforcement needs to take place instantly after an ignored command is given. In both of these areas, I found myself fumbling with the Garmin Alpha 100 and quickly lost confidence in my ability to issue commands to my dogs when needed.
As a GPS, The Alpha handheld is good. In fact, it's cool! The functions associated with tracking dogs, identifying terrain and quickly marking coveys of birds were really fun. If you hunt public land that's surrounded by a lot of private property, the e-fence function and perimeter alarms are really nice features. As a tool to limit dog range, I can definitely see where this product would be useful.
In the end, I think a bird hunter has to decide if they want a training/communication device or if they want a gadget to evaluate where their dogs are, how much ground they have covered, how many birds were in this or that covey, and at what elevation they located birds. As a recorder of information specific to dogs and bird hunting, I don't think the Garmin Alpha 100 has another equal. Unfortunately, my goals are to use these tools to enhance my training, reduce my verbal communication with my dogs in the field, and kill birds. To meet these objectives, I think it would have been wise to start with the Tri-Tronics Pro Series e-collars as the foundation, and then build a GPS around the "eyes free" functionality of those units.
There are some positives to the experience. I have a renewed sense of appreciation for my Tri-Tronics Upland Special. As a result, I'm exchanging the Alpha for an Upland Special G3 EXP unit and getting a second collar to make a two dog setup. Also, I got reacquainted with my internal need for fewer bells and whistles as well as the importance of limited yet specific good functionality. Lastly, I bought a Hunt WY PLAT MicroSD card for the GPS and fell in love with the level of detail that software provides concerning location and identification of property boundaries. Even though it's a little more expensive, for my goals and objectives, I think I'm going to be happier with the new Upland Special and a separate GPS handheld device, the Montana 600 GPS, which is a Garmin product.
I'm sure there are other opinions out there. It would be great if you would share your experiences with dog training collars, the Garmin Alpha 100 or any other products you've loved or hated here. Listed below are a list of pros and cons I found with the Garmin Alpha 100
- Good dog and bird hunting recording features
- Perimeter functions and electronic fence
- MicroSD card and Birds-eye Satellite Imagery Compatible
- Ease of computerized scouting both before and after the hunt
- Single dog compatible with excellent tracking feature
- Wide variety of individual dog stimulation settings
- Multiple dog use is confusing
- Small training buttons
- Switching training between dogs is difficult and slow
- Return of dog activity signals not accurate
- Overall function integrity reduced at lower battery levels
- Poor "eyes-free" functionality
- Very poor screen touch sensitivity