For as long as I can remember, retractable leashes such as the Flexi leash have been constantly criticized by dog trainers. It wasn’t long before you heard statements such as: Retractable leashes are dangerous. People who use retractable leashes don’t know how to train their dogs. The owners are lazy. They let their dogs anywhere they want. Retractable leashes are as bad as [insert aversive tool of choice]. They teach dogs to pull. They should be banned! Supported by these powerful statements and the many dog trainers, the advocacy movement against retractable leashes were effective. However, today they are still not banned and continue to be used by a handful of dog owners. Are retractable dog leashes really as bad and terrible as some proponents claim?
I believe some aspects of the arguments against retractable dog leashes have merit, but I also disagree with some of the claims.
Can retractable leashes be dangerous? Sure. There is no denying that. However, knowing how to use the leash (which isn’t terribly hard) minimizes the potential danger of the leash.
Could dogs run up to other dogs or out into the road? Sure. These leashes usually extend anywhere from 12 to 26 feet. This provides a fair amount of leeway for the dog and if the owner is negligent or not paying attention to what’s going on, anything can happen. But this error comes down to the owner, not the dog. I’ve had people let their dogs run up on mine when it was on a 6-foot leash and I’ve seen plenty of owners let their dog wander out into the road on the same 6-foot leash. Even worse, there are people that just let their untrained dogs walk off leash in populated, public areas.
Do retractable leashes teach dogs to pull? Not in my experience. Are they as bad as choke chains or prong collars? No. That is a pretty ridiculous statement. Leashes are intended to be a means of containment not an aversive way to stop a dog from doing something.
I do, however, have a few rules on the type of dog that I will use a retractable leash with and when/where I use the leash.
Rules for using a Retractable Dog Leash for the Dog
1. The dog must not be able to pull me off my feet if it hits the end of the leash at a full run. Mileage may vary depending on your dog(s). However, for most, it’ll mean using the leash only with small and medium sized dogs.
2. The dog must not be a dedicated puller. Dogs will pull every now and then, that is fine. However, the retractable leash is pointless if the dog constantly pulls and is always at the end of the leash. In that case, I would only use a 6-foot leash until he/she has learned not to pull.
3. The dog must not have unpredictable bolting tendencies. Essentially, if the dog is a squirrel chaser but provides no warning signs that they’ve seen the squirrel before giving chase, then a retractable dog leash is not the right leash for this dog. Our dogs love to chase squirrels, (A) but all of them have given plenty of warning signs (e.g. freezes in place and stares at the squirrel first) and (B) have been trained to only chase when we give the commands to do so—this has interestingly caused the warning signs to become more pronounced over the time.
4. The dog must be trained to audible control. All you need is an audible command that the dog reliable obeys. I personally use “wait”, but “stop” and/or “come” are also good alternatives. If he/she breaks, you will want to be able to control the dog with your audible command.
Rules for using a Retractable Dog Leash for the Owner
1. I will pay attention to my dog. If he/she is wandering too close to the street or another dog is nearby, I will reel in the leash and/or utilize the locking mechanism. If the dog is known to chase certain objects (cars, squirrels, cats, etc.), I will make the decision to allow the dog to chase after it if it’s safe or I will reel the leash in and/or lock the leash.
2. I will pay attention to my surroundings. I will be aware of where cars, people, and other dogs are. The dog will not precede me around the corner where I cannot see what is coming first. I will not talk or text on the cell phone because it is important that I am aware of what is going on around us.
3. I will not use the cord type of retractable leashes. I have always only used the flat belt or tape types of retractable leashes because they are less dangerous and not as likely to break compared to the corded leashes. There are just too many dangers to the cord types including but not limited to amputation, rope burn, and laceration. In my 10+ years of using the tape type of retractable dog leashes, I have never experienced any injuries or mishaps. Besides, can you imagine a 80 pound dog held by a thin cord bolting off on a 6 foot leash, much less one that is even longer? A recipe for disaster!
3. I will not use a knock-off leash made by unknown companies. I only use Flexi brand leashes. Unlike most brands, Flexi leashes are assembled by hand and must pass about 100 different quality tests before they leave the factory in Germany. Many other retractable leads are manufactured in China being promoted by an American company and does not have nearly as much quality control.
4. I will make sure I know how to use the leash and ensure that it is kept in good operating conditions. I will keep my thumb hovering over the locking mechanism to be able to use it at a moment’s notice, if needed.
Rules for when to use a Retractable Dog Leash
1. I will not use the retractable leash in places where the dog must be kept close to my side. This includes walking in the city, public events, and other heavily populated areas.
2. I will not use the retractable leash in classes or at dog events. Again, he/she will need to be kept close to me during classes. At dog events, the dog will likely be excited at the ‘new’ dogs’ or prepared to “work” (at trials), and retractable leashes should not be used in this way.
Reasons to use a Retractable Dog Leash
Retractable leashes are not for everyone. However, they aren’t necessarily the devil of dog leashes either. If you use it wisely and responsibly, I believe it can be an outstanding and versatile leash to use for a variety of purposes. Your dog will also appreciate that extra freedom for sniffing that the leash will allow him/her to have! As a fun twist, I’ll conclude with a summary of a discussion where three professional animal behaviorists who were once against retractable leashes, but are now advocates for the use of them.
In a webinar held by the Animal Behavior Associates in their June 2015 CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists) Chat, Suzanne Hetts, PhD, Dan Estep, PhD and guest “chatter” Nancy Williams, MA, RVT, ACAAB discussed Pet Behavior Wellness that included the topic of retractable leashes. Interestingly, all three veteran trainers had started out as proponents against these retractable leashes because so few people seem to employ them properly; however, they now advocate the use of retractable leashes for their wise and limited use. The panel discussed how not all dogs were good candidates for dog parks and doggie day care, but the retractable leash offered an alternative for the dog to receive both mental stimulation and some control over their environment.
Dogs prefer to walk ahead of us. On a shorter six-foot leash, the resulting pulling can make a pleasant walk into an uncomfortable outing for both ends of the leash. The experts highlighted the characteristics of beneficial leash walks obtained by the use of retractable leashes: they “allow for ample sniffing, physical exercise, ability to control their own experience, and lack of restraint and pulling against something.” All three panelists agreed that the use of a retractable leash would not cause a dog to learn to pull harder on a standard leash, nor will it encourage the dog to believe he/she is in charge because it is walking ahead of you. According to the trainers, dogs tend to forge ahead of us because of a natural instinct to play “scout”. Therefore, the flexibility provided by a retractable leash allow the dogs to explore a bit ahead of us without venturing too far away or needing to pull to get even further ahead.
They cautioned that retractable leashes may not be appropriate for all cases and many dog owners lack the skill to use them properly. Retractable dog leashes should not be used on city streets, in confined areas, or on dogs who can be aggressive to other dogs or people, by kids, or people with physical disabilities.