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The Retractable Leash: Yay or Nay?

I remember the first time I saw a retractable leash. What a great idea I thought, pets can have the freedom of being off leash while still safe on leash! We used this with our second family dog and it seemed like a perfectly fine product – of course she was older when we got it and she didn’t really go for many walks – but still, a great product…right?

A pretty good number of my clients use the retractable leash and despite the warnings on the packaging it’s actually a quite widely used product and I find, a very popular one particularly with owners of small dogs. As my experience with animals has grown over the years and as I become a more experienced pet care professional and dog trainer I have come to form my own opinions on this “walking” tool for a variety of reasons that had to do with training and more importantly – safety.


Training

When working with owners and their dogs to mold their canine companions into civilized members of the family and society, one of the facets of obedience training is learning to walk politely on leash. A dog who darts out, changes sides while on a walk, inadvertently tripping you and can’t focus or utilize impulse control when distractions such as other animals or people are present seems to become more of a problem when they’re being walked on a retractable leash. It’s quite difficult to teach a “heel” command when you have no control over the leash and a retractable leash not only doesn’t work when the dog is given too much slack but it makes it difficult for the handler to control much with the design of the handle as well.


Retractable leashes may encourage poor walking skills, impulsive behavior and distractibility when used with a dog who hasn’t yet mastered their leash skills. Add the safety hazards into the mix with an untrained dog and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.


Safety

The most popular brand of retractable leashes amongst a lot of dog owners is the Flexi Lead whose packaging states:


“To avoid the risk of eye or face injury and cuts, burns, and amputations to your body or the body of another person from the leash cord/tape or all belt and hook, (sic) read and follow these Warnings and Directions for Use before using your Flexi leash.”


Ok so they’re being overly cautious…right? Wrong. Upon visiting the consumer reports website for this product I found a story about a dog owner who’d used the Flexi and lost a finger from it (See Retractable Leashes Pose Problems for People And Their Pets) and some statistics that report 16,564 hospital-treated leash-related injuries in 2007 including but not limited to finger amputations which I can only guess happened in a similar way to the  to the incident in the story above. In this case the danger was to the owner but in many cases it’s a danger to the pets.


While walking dogs on retractable leads, the longer the slack, the less control the person has on reeling their dog in. What happens when a dog sees a squirrel or cat across the street and runs out into the street at the same time a car is approaching? I don’t need to convince you of this – just try the retractable leash out on your pet in the yard while they run the length of the lead and see how long it takes to get your dog back to you when they’re distracted.


Those of us who have experience walking our dogs know that sometimes our dogs don’t want to go where we want them to. They have to sniff behind that tree instead of going around it on our side they go behind it tangling themselves around it. Put the same scenario in place as the owner who lost her finger – ie: dog wraps the leash around themselves and panics – we could have some minor injuries or worse. Change the scenario to another dog – your dog comes in contact with another dog and their owner. What if you allow the dogs to sniff and they get tangled and one of the dogs panic? Suppose one of the dogs isn’t friendly or simply wants their personal space and your dog doesn’t pick up on that? What if you’ve got to quick reel in your dog to avoid interaction or conflict? Not happening on a retractable lead. Every dog deserves their personal space and some dogs need it more than others. Retractable leashes can facilitate behavior that can sometimes result in chaos.


The retractable lead makes untangling and gaining control of your dog in a pinch practically impossible and the number of potentially dangerous situations you can be put into is too great a risk in my opinion. But don’t take my word for it because I’m not the first to write about it. In an article by Sharon Peters by USA Today’s Pet Talk column she points out that these incidents aren’t even about product failure but rather how the product is used stating:


“All were human/user failures, the result of their being used in settings (mostly urban) and in a way (extended to the full length) that was inappropriate for the amount of chaos or possible calamity inherent in the situation.” She goes on to give examples of specific situations in which such chaos ensued:


•A deaf dog that didn’t notice a car backing out of a shrub-obscured driveway (as the oblivious owner, 20 feet behind, yapped on a cellphone).

•Dogs darting into the street, owners unable to jerk them back from afar.

•A young dog mangled by another dog when the two met at a blind corner and the pup, far from its owner and unable to be kept restrained, leapt goofily atop the old dog and suffered the consequences.

•A well-mannered dog that, at a blind corner, was slammed into by a kid on a speeding bicycle.

For me these examples are enough to avoid the use of retractable leashes. I’d venture to guess the same would go for many other pet owners.


Final Word

Obviously retractable leashes have been used without incident in many cases and in some cases have been used successfully to work with dogs to train them on leash at a distance. Part of using any product properly is carefully reading the instructions, risks and hazards associated with improper use. I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t think they have to read instructions for a leash since the idea of a leash is fairly simple – attach one end to collar, hold other end in hand, walk! But where the retractable leash is concerned it’s important to be aware of the safety hazards to both human and dog and the possible training issues it can lead to.


While the retractable leash may offer some benefits they don’t negate or outweigh the negatives and so I remain anti-retractable leash. I feel the negatives outweigh the positives and where my dogs and those I care for are concerned I’m overly cautious for safety’s sake. I never walk my own dogs on retractable leads, bring my own leads to walk other dogs when necessary and if I must use a retractable I avoid using more than the normal 4-ft length I would have on a nylon leash. If you’d like to read more on a subject many have written about check out the articles about the retractable leash below:



Dangers of Retractable Leashes

Dog Leash Dangers: Blindness, Amputations Blamed on Retractable Dog Leads

Beware The Potential Dangers of Retractable Leashes

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