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Retractable leashes: friend or foe?

There are several brands of retractable leashes, including Flexi Leash, Eddie Bauer, Planet Dog (Zip-leash pictured here), and Guardian Gear. I can’t think of another leash with so many opinions about it! I’ll explore the pros and cons of using retractable leashes in this post.

I’m one of those rare dog trainers who actually likes retractable leashes, for certain uses. That said, I completely agree with the rest of my fellow trainers when they say these leashes can really be a hazard.

I’ve been wanting to write an article on retractable leashes for a while, but I was prompted to write by a client, who has a fearful dog. She’s granted me permission to quote her:

When I spot a dog on an extendable leash, I cross to the sidewalk on the other side of the block. On a recent walk I found myself on the same sidewalk, on a block with the other sidewalk closed due to construction. I opted to step into the empty street, putting a parked car between us and waiting for the others to pass by. I noticed the elderly owner watching our actions. As soon as we popped back onto the sidewalk, to my great astonishment, the woman allowed the leash to unreel and her dog to approach mine, thereby undoing the careful control I had over my dogs! My leash aggressive dog was not happy, nor was I and I made a point of telling her so.

I’d like to appeal to the neighbors and relatives of [people who use these leashes] to educate them on the many disadvantages of walking a dog on a retractable leash.

Let me start with the good side of retractable leashes. Clearly, there wouldn’t be 10 different brands of the same product if nobody liked them! Here are some of the benefits of using an extendable leash:

  • Dog gets room to run and sniff bushes..
  • Dog can escape from scary monsters – one reason that I used a Flexi leash with my own dog, Peanut, for a while. He actually got quite a bit more confident, knowing he could escape.
  • Dog gets more exercise than the owner does. All of that back and forth tires them out!
  • Dog pulls less strongly on a retractable leash.
  • Good for practicing coming when called on walks.
  • In a pinch, the leash can be used as a fetching toy. At least, Peanut enjoyed fetching his, until he bit down a bit too hard one time.

Now here are some drawbacks of retractable leashes. I’ll follow that up with another list of how one can responsibly walk with a retractable leash. I do believe that, in the right hands, in the right places, a retractable leash can be a good tool to have.

  • Teaches dogs to pull on leash. There has to be constant pressure on the leash, unless it’s locked, so dogs quickly learn that pressure on the leash means nothing, nada, and in order to get their attention, you have to pull harder. THE FIX: always attach the retractable leash to the back of a harness or some other outfit in which you don’t care if your dog constantly pulls.
  • No real control. Your dog is not truly ‘on leash’ with a retractable leash. It’s more like a 20-foot force-field that keeps them in. But the leash will do very little to direct them, one way or another, if you are that far back. THE FIX: Train, train, train using positive reinforcement! Your dog should listen to verbal cues to come back, slow down, etc. when on a retractable leash. Otherwise, you find yourself reeling them back in like a fish on a line.
  • Offends or scares other people and dogs. See the story above for details, but basically, if you allow your dog to run up to another dog or human without permission, you are being extremely rude. Dogs have a variety of issues, people have allergies, or can be scared of dogs, even your tiny Chihuahua. THE FIX: Before any blind corners or when you see people coming, immediately call your dog back and shorten/lock the leash when they get there.
  • Wicked rope burns. I can’t tell you how painful it is to have that little bitty rope run across your shin, but it’s happened to me plenty of times in dog training classes. I officially ban them from classes for this and other reasons. THE FIX: always be aware of where that leash is, and keep it from wrapping around people. Your thumb should always be ready to lock the leash, your voice ready to call the dog. Watch out for cyclists on trails, too…
  • Dogs have way too much momentum. Dogs can pull hard enough on a little short leash. With a retractable leash, they can build up quite a head of steam! THE FIX: Hold on tight! Work on training your dog to come when called, so you can stop her before she pulls you off your feet. Use a back-attachment harness, never a prong collar, head collar, flat collar, or front-attachment harness with retractable or other long leashes, because of the damage they can inflict.
  • Dropping the leash is extremely freaky. Many years ago, I had a dog on a Flexi leash and dropped it. She then thought this bouncy, noisy thing was chasing her and she ran completely around the block in a panic, with me running after her. THE FIX: Hold on tight, or get one of those wrist straps so you don’t drop it. Also associate the sound of the leash falling with good things, starting with just setting it lightly on the ground and working up (over several weeks) to dropping it while it’s attached to your dog.
  • Retractable leashes can break. THE FIX: Always check your gear for bites or rips, and practice calling your dog back a lot, so it works in an emergency. Get a stronger leash for stronger dogs. Run the other way to get your dog to chase you, if all else fails.

So there are a lot of drawbacks to retractable leashes! If you know them all and manage to not offend or scare others, keep your dog safe, and avoid the rope burns, go ahead and use a retractable leash! I did. (Though I did still manage to wrap it around myself a time or two).

If your dog is not 110% reliable off leash, you can definitely use a retractable leash to give him some more freedom on hikes in the woods, or on the sidewalk when you know you aren’t about to encounter another dog or person.

Note: You can also use a long training leash instead of a retractable leash. It has a bit more tendency to tangle, but it also avoids teaching your dog to pull and forces you to be more engaged in the process.

Whatever you do with your dog, please always be aware that others may not view your dog as you do, even if your dog is friendly. Don’t force others to cross the street or avoid you and your dog. That applies to retractable leashes, long leashes, walking your dog off-leash, how you fence your dog in your yard, letting your dog go say hi, and more.

Discussion: Do you use a retractable leash? Why? Do you hate them? Why?

Written by Grisha Stewart, Ahimsa Dog Training, Seattle [Slashdot] [Digg] [Reddit] [del.icio.us] [Facebook] [Technorati] [Google] [StumbleUpon] Tweet This Post!
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5 Responses to “Retractable leashes: friend or foe?”

  1. Rae Says:

    I also want to add that the retractable leash is good in the woods because it doesn’t get caught up on/in everything. I have had a lot of success with these leashes and I enjoy using them. I do like the tape style much more than the rope style. I also like the lighter colors so they can be seen. I find that with training, the leash is an excellent tool. I think the dog enjoys it because it reminds him a little that I’m attached, but he feels less threatened and is more responsive to cues than on a long line. Initially there was some pulling, but I also practice locking the leash at different lengths, and using release commands to allow for further-away walking. But I will say that not everyone knows how or has the coordination needed to use these leashes correctly. And as in the event of a rude owner/dog encounter.. nothing replaces good training :-P

  2. Sandi Says:

    Excellent post Grisha! It makes for a good discussion to present both sides of an issue. I’ve been anti-retractable leash, but now I see some positive aspects in both the leash design and situations where it can be beneficial. I agree with Rae about not everyone having the coordination to quickly react to encountering strange dogs, so I’ll continue to steer clear of people who use them!

  3. barrie Says:

    YAY! I always feel so alone in my argument that the leashes themselves are NOT evil! Stupid people can use them very thoughtlessly and carelessly. On my blog you’ll see photos of me walking a group of dogs all wearing retractable leads. The dogs are calm and well-behaved and I have strict rules so that they do not harass other dogs or people. I also never use the corded retractable leads, only the all belt models for me! If you do not have vocal control over your dogs to bring them back close to you to avoid incident then a retractable leash is inappropriate for you in any setting where you might come in close quarters to other dogs or people. This is a great post, thank you for writing it!

  4. Sarah Says:

    Great article! I know of very few dog owners that actually put the amount of work into training their dog to be reliable. And in NYC that unreliability makes retractable leashes super dangerous. However, when I go to the beach I’ll put my dog on a retractable just to give him freedom. But once we’re on a sidewalk again we are all business!

  5. Diane Says:

    My expensive flexileash just broke as we were getting out of the car to start a walk. Mo spotted another dog and ran over to say Hi. The cord snapped at the connection to the tape end, before I even had a chance to thumb the brake. We had only used it about a dozen times, generally on walks in the woods when there aren’t other dogs/people around. My miniature poodle puppy (9 lbs) really enjoyed being able to run off a bit and then run back to make sure I was still there. I enjoyed not having the #@$%$ leash get tangled up all the time. I will probably NOT buy another. The cost per use, when they break so soon just isn’t worth it. Looking it over after I bought it, I knew it wouldn’t last. Of course they are sealed in plastic packages so you can’t inspect them in advance, and there aren’t photos on the packages to check out. Ours actually was one of the more highly rated brands on the internet. First time those ratings let me down.

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