Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Un-Chained Chain Gang

Like the rest of upland nation, I'm biding my time in the sweltering heat, counting down the days before the bird season starts. Please don't get me wrong -- I love the summer, and I'm now old enough to realize that wishing time away isn't in my long-term best interests.

So I've occupied myself with the summer garden and various chores around the house that have been delayed. But a guy like me needs a project that'll add to my enjoyment in the field. Last year, I built a custom dog box (which continues to be a very successful project, I might add).

This summer, I think I've built a better chain gang. For those of you unaware, the chain gang is a useful tool if you've got a bunch of bird dogs in your care. Trainers use it so an entire pack of dogs can observe others being trained. For me, they make a lot of sense when you're airing, watering, and feeding a string of dogs.

Last year in Montana, we had six dogs, and every night at feeding time, we hammered six stakes into the often-hard ground. After two weeks on the road, it got a bit old. This year, we'll have eight dogs.

The chain gang lets you hammer just two stakes -- one at each end -- and you hook up a dog every six feet on 18-inch drop chains. It gives the dogs plenty of room to stretch out, drink and eat, do their business, all while not tangling (literally or figuratively) with one another.

After a lot of internet reading, discussions with buddies, and scores of visits to various hardware stores, I came up with a pretty handy system that I think will suit my needs well.

Instead of using chain, Jack and I chose a vinyl-coated 3/16 inch stainless steel cable. Mine was rated at 3,700 pounds minimum breaking strength, so I don't think that'll be an issue. Having it coated keeps it cleaner and less likely to corrode or unravel.

There are some distinct advantages in using cable. First of all, it's significantly cheaper. I got mine for 49 cents a foot at a big-box store, and comparable chain came in at two to four times that much. Cable is also much lighter, and in my opinion, easier to manage and less likely to tangle. Finally, most chain links are just about the perfect size for a dog nail to get caught in... not fun.

Back to the chain (er, cable) gang. I made two four-dog sections that can be combined, something (but hardly the only thing) I learned from my buddy Steve Snell, who knows a thing or two about bird dogs. I made a loop at one end using a quarter-inch aluminum ferrule. I agonized over the best way to attach the ferrules and stops -- a good swaging tool will run you over a hundred dollars, and I couldn't justify that.

So as a lark, I just pounded the ferrule semi-flat on a concrete slab. It seems to work just fine... I looped it through a hook on my backyard deck, and I can support my 180-pound frame from it. I also dropped 50 pounds worth of cinderblock from a height of two feet, and neither ferrule nor stop budged.

Three feet from the terminating loop I hammered in two stops, about an inch apart. I connect my drop leads in between these stops. I added three more sets of stops six feet apart, and then added another terminating loop three feet from the last stop. You can make as many of these main lines as you have dogs, and only use what you need.

A word about cutting cable. It's not easy to make a clean cut. I tried a bolt cutter (just kinda smashed everything) and a hacksaw (did the job, but took a long time and was an uneven cut). This was my perfect excuse to buy a Dremel, a power tool I've always wanted. Outfitted with a cutting wheel, it made quick work of things.

Each drop line -- the line that connects the dog to the main line -- consists of roughly an 18-inch long piece of cable terminated in loops, and I looped a brass snap swivel into each loop. That way, it pivots and swivels on the main line, meaning no tangles.

Best of all, the whole 8-dog rig easily winds onto a standard extension cord spool. Jack and I can deploy or stow the whole setup in just a couple of minutes. The whole shebang cost me around $80, hardware included (minus the dremel).

The dogs -- Dottie, Vegas, and Ariel the visiting Boston Terrier seemed happy with the setup.  I'm looking forward to using it this fall.

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