Livestock Guardian Dogs - Dangle sticks

by Paul White

There are a lot of myths out there about the use of 'dangle sticks' seen hanging from the collars of livestock guardian dogs (LGD) in Romania, some of which I would like to 'bust' or clarify in this short article.

So what is a dangle stick? This is one of the most commonly asked questions by visitors that come to Romania, but please be aware that there have been adaptions of use from 'old world' (Europe) to the 'new world' for example the Americas. This article is very much centred around the Romanian context. A dangle stick is a 30cm long wooden stick which is attached to a hanging chain connected to a livestock guardian dog's collar.

Is the dangle stick a method of training, torture or punishment? The answer to all three of these questions is no. Does it prevent the dog from running away or chasing livestock? Again the answer is no. If an LGD wants to run away it can do so with or without a dangle stick and it can easily outrun a sheep with one applied. If you have a dog (usually adolescents) that's chasing or harassing livestock then this is not the solution. It's the shepherds job to correct this behaviour and  there are no shortcut methods, only physical time spent in the field with your dog.

So what is the purpose of the dangle stick? The stick does not stop the dog running, it only controls their speed. Here in Romania where transhumance shepherds 'open graze' without the use of fences, it's a legal requirement for all LGD to wear a 'dangle' to protect wildlife, especially ungulates such as deer and wild boar from being run down and killed. The stick also identifies the dog as a working LGD, which can prevent the dog from being shot by rangers as a free roaming stray.

There's a commonly held myth that livestock guardian dogs have a low prey drive, but in my experience (like any other dogs) depends on how well fed the dogs are. I have personally seen LGD chasing both deer and wild boar, but they soon give up when that stick starts swinging hard.

Most working LGD that support transhumant shepherds high in the mountains tend to live on a non-meat staple of cooked grain based gruel, mixed with sheep's whey. Occasionally this is supplemented with meat if a sheep dies of natural causes, but that's not often. From my observations if food fuel does not support energy output some dogs take matters into their own hands. If they are wearing a dangle and can't chase fast running prey, they tend to dig up small mammals from burrows and tunnels. In my experience most shepherds feed their dogs adequately, which makes sense, as the alternative is a hungry distracted dog which will start looking elsewhere for nutrition and leaving livestock unattended.

Unfortunately, there's a small minority of shepherds that cut corners giving livestock guardian dogs a bad name. In particular there's one unpleasant practice that does cause tension between shepherds and forest rangers. Many shepherds live in poverty and what little money they make in fair weather months barely sees them through winter. They often struggle to feed their dogs which may number 10 or more individuals from November to April when they are not working. Some release their dogs without dangle sticks to run feral in the forest to hunt and feed themselves. This is not a good situation for shepherds, dogs or wildlife. If caught shepherds face heavy fines, dogs without a dangle stick can be legitimately shot, and wildlife faces even more danger outside of natural predation.

The Romanian government have been looking at ways to reduce the problem of  LGD feral hunting and one suggestion is to limit the number of dogs each shepherd can own, although this idea has been rejected as unworkable, especially by those shepherds with large flocks. At the moment there isn't a set ratio of dogs to sheep as a lot depends on the dynamics/quality of the LGD pack and local predator burden. Only the shepherd with local knowledge of predators can determine how many dogs are required to maintain an effective deterrent. In my opinion setting arbitrary numbers of dogs allowed (in law) will not reduce feral activity and will probably cause more problems by tipping the balance of power to predators, thus increasing the number of depredations. 

Updated March 18th 2023, relating to the last paragraph in this article. Since posting legislation has been introduced regulating the maximum allowed number of dogs that can be utilised to protect sheep. With 300 livestock you can have 3 dogs in the lower plains, 4 dogs in the hills and 6 dogs in the mountains. For each additional 100 livestock you can add +1 dog but the pack cannot exceed 5 on the plains, 7 in the hills and 10 in the mountains.