I wanted an Astro for the longest time. How cool is this thing? Basically it’s a fully-featured GPS with an extra transmitter mounted on a dog collar. You put the collar on your dog and the Astro tracks where you go and where your dog goes. The Astro can also direct you to your dog’s location.
The Astro was originally developed for hunting dogs, especially for those who tree their quarry. It comes with a dataset that tells the user if the “dog has treed quarry” or is “on point”. If you are not a hunter, you can change the settings so that it will just tell you if your dog is moving or sitting or what have you. Basically it tells you what your dog is currently doing – moving or not moving. I don’t understand how the hunting settings can figure out if the dog is “on point” or “sitting” – surely this device can’t be that smart – but whatever. It’s useful information; the moving/not moving part, at least.
Lots of my fellow search and rescue dog handlers use the Astro. Many of them have dogs that range so far that they essentially disappear for a length of time. Having the Astro helps those handlers know what their dog is up to. I have a dog that checks in regularly and doesn’t disappear, but it’s still fun to look at the GPS tracks generated by our searches to determine exactly how he tracked down his subject. And if something happens to him, it’s nice to know that I can find him with the GPS. I worry about him in Alaska because there are so many traps and snares out there. It’s not that uncommon for pets to die in traps, a working dog is probably in even more danger because we are off trail so much where traps are more likely. So the Astro is just another layer of security. It’s also just another thing for your dog to carry so I only use it when I’m in heavy brush or it’s nighttime or I know I won’t be able to see my dog very well. I’m kind of over tracking him as he runs along next to my mountain bike, but occasionally I will still do it because it’s fun. I just am mindful that he’s wearing a big, not-exactly-light collar as he’s running. It doesn’t seem to bother him but it’s worth considering.
So there are many professional-type applications for this device, but let’s face it. There are tons of dog owners who need this because they keep letting their dogs run off. If you are the type of person who turns every hike or walk into an extended “looking for the dog” adventure, if you’ve posted more than one Facebook status about how your dog is lost AGAIN, and if none of your friends will meet up with you for a bike ride because they know they’ll end up helping you look for the dog for at least a half hour each time, you owe it to everyone you know to buy an Astro and use it. Actually you owe it to everyone you know and everyone you don’t know to use a leash or even, I don’t know, train your dog.
Anyway, operating the Astro is kind of a hit and miss experience. I don’t find the menus particularly intuitive and in fact they are so roundabout that it’s a bit annoying and frustrating. The Garmin software doesn’t work with my Mac so I had to find another way to get the tracks off the GPS unit to look at them on a map, but it wasn’t that hard. Gathering the information from all of our trips is really fun and valuable, but I wish I could figure out how to download the trip info (distance, time, elevation, time stopped, average speed, average moving speed, etc.) onto my computer instead of just having to read it off the GPS each time. It’s also important to remember to turn off the tracking before you leave the trailhead when done; if you leave it on you’ll turn on the GPS to pull the track off and end up tracking yourself from the trailhead back to your house and screwing up your data with a nice long as-the-crow-flies line between your house and the trailhead.
Now that I’ve had a few months with the Astro, I kind of have the hang of the menus but I still wish they were easier to navigate. My biggest complaint aside from the cumbersome menus is that there is no “lock buttons” feature so when you put it in your pack you just have to take your chances that you won’t jostle any critical buttons. Or maybe there IS a lock feature but I just can’t find it. Whatever. If there is one, it’s hard to find, how’s that?
Still, I really get a kick out of tracking my dog’s movements and I think it’s fun to know exactly what he is doing when he jumps off trail for a few seconds. Once I got the hang of things it’s not that hard to use. It seems to me that most GPS units are kind of annoying to navigate (pun intended!) so this is not just an Astro thing. Generally it can be a fun toy, a curiosity, a great tool for dog sports, or even a plain old GPS if you just need that. So it’s a worthwhile investment; it just doesn’t come cheap. Obedience class is cheaper. Just sayin’.