There are two schools of thought about hunting with bells on bird dogs: You either use them or you don’t. Those who use them are always looking for better ones. And those who don’t often will use the more modern electronic beepers instead.
I use bells, partly because I am more of a traditionalist. I feel less compelled to keep a close eye on the dog as long as my ears are tuned in to the dogs’ bells. It lets me hunt denser cover without worry of losing track of the dogs, so I am more easygoing and the hunt is more enjoyable for all of us.
I guess after my experience with my Brittany dog Sassy’s escapes into the woods, it’s reassuring to me to be able to hear my male Brittany dogs’ bells. The boys are less independent than Sassy is anyway, so I don’t worry about them not coming back to me like I do her.
There are different tones of bells. My 10-year-old male Bullet wears a Swiss-style bell, which is good in medium to close range, while my 4-year-old male Quincy, Bullet’s son, uses my long-range Northwoods — or what I affectionately call a cow bell.
Bullet is a close-working hunting dog and easily stays within my sight most of the time, though he will push it to the outside range of his bell if he gets on strong bird scent.
Quincy always pushes his range to his bell’s limits. I had started him out on a Swiss-style bell like his father’s, but it soon became evident in his first season that he needed something else. Now in his third season, his long-range Northwoods bell has a bigger, deeper sound that is easier to hear from a distance.
That bell belonged to his mother, Thistle, a feisty little Brittany who recently died at age 7 of liver complications compounded by tick-borne disease. Thistle moved fast in the woods and always had a wide hunting range. I needed the deeper sounding bell to know where she was. If I had thought she could have dealt with a bigger, deeper one, I would have put it on her.
When I hunt my two male dogs together, the two different bell tones help me keep track of where each is hunting and how they are working together or if they are hunting independently. When a bell stops for prolonged seconds, it is likely a dog is on point. When the second bell stops, it’s likely that dog is honoring the first dog’s point.
It is referred to as the “silence of the bells” in pointing dog circles.
This is where advocates for the electronic beeper would chime in and point out that when a bell stops, the hunter’s means for finding the dog is gone, whereas the electronic beeper is silent when the dog is running and activated when the dog goes on point.
I personally have enough electronics in my life and enjoy the more traditional bell as part of my bird hunting experience.
The bell collar also serves another purpose for me: It is a signal to the dogs that playtime is done and it’s time for serious work. My dogs recognize the case where I store my bell collars, and all I have to do is touch it to illicit happy songs and whining from them. They love wearing their bells and try to “help” me put their collars on them by shoving their heads into them.
Bells also are important in competitions. Usually, two people-dog pairs at a time compete in field trials and hunt tests — two types of competitions that mimic the hunting experience. The human halves of the competing pairs make sure their dogs’ bells are not the same tones. It helps the dogs’ handlers and the judges keep track of which dog is doing what and where.
Bell tones should be easy for the handler to discern, and be appropriate for the hunting range of the dog. The dogs get used to hunting with the bells, and use them to know where each other is, too.
One time when I was hunting with friends who generally do not use bells on their dogs, it drove poor Bullet nuts. He often could be found that day just standing, looking to see if my friends’ dog was on point, instead of hunting himself.
In pointing dog etiquette, if one dog goes on point, the other dogs are supposed to stop behind the first dog, or “honor” the first dog’s point. So Bullet, who naturally honored points at a young age and is a stickler for the rules, kept making sure the other dog wasn’t on point.
Ever the gentleman, my Bullet.
Beepers, bells or no bells, the important thing about hunting with a dog is the relationship you establish with the animal. If you are in tune with each other, the bell isn’t necessary, but can be a helpful tool just the same. That’s the way I feel about Bullet and his bell.
Quincy and I aren’t quite there yet, but we’re working on it.
Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys — Sassy, age 12; Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.