A popular tool that must be used with extreme caution
While I share a common bond with all dog owners, I have a few dog care (or rather, lack of dog care) pet peeves. One is seeing a dog with overgrown nails. Another is owners not picking up after their dogs. The third is the incorrect use of retractable leads.
Retractable leashes are incredibly common- you can buy them at every pet supply store, big box stores and online. It would be rare to meet a dog owner who hasn’t bought a retractable leash at some point in their life.
A retractable leash is different than a conventional leash in that is consists of many feet of cord that is usually 15-20 feet long, but some as many as 30 feet. The cord (which is sometimes “belt” or “tape”) is wrapped around a spring-loaded device in a round plastic case that is attached to a handle. On most models, a top facing button controls the amount of cord that extends out when pushed in and allows free range of the cord when unlocked.
In my opinion, there are many flaws to this contraption that can make them dangerous for both humans and dogs. Unfortunately, these leads tend to give many owners a false sense of security. Unlike the loop at the end of a conventional leash, the handle on a retractable lead doesn’t fit around a human wrist and thus makes it tough to hold onto and very easy to accidentally drop.
The most obvious danger in regard to a retractable leash is that the dog has more free range compared to a lead with a loop. This can easily result in a bad situation like running into traffic, towards an unfriendly dog, ingesting a dangerous substance or walking onto broken glass before the owner has time to react. I once saw a Beagle nearly cause an accident because the owner wasn’t fully paying attention and the dog walked in another direction directly into oncoming traffic. Thankfully, the driver of the car the Beagle darted in front of hit on the brakes in time. It only takes half a second for something tragic to happen when a dog is allowed the amount of freedom that a retractable lead provides.
Believe it or not, a retractable leash will actually encourage a dog to pull. If an untrained dog pulls on a retractable leash they get rewarded with more space and freedom. If a dog on one of these leads stops pulling, they feel the leash and collar pulling back on them, which can feel like a punishment – so guess what the dog will continue to do?
If your dog tends to run away, an extendable leash can actually encourage this behaviour as well. The cord on a retractable leash is log and very thin, and a pull from a powerful dog could result in the cord snapping. Because the handle drops so easily, a dog can dart off. To top it off, the handle is loud when it drops it could encourage running in a fearful dog as they try to get away from the sound of it banging against the ground.
Now that we’ve established why I believe retractable leashes can be dangerous for dogs, let’s also look into why they can be harmful to us humans as well. When compared to a traditional leash, a retractable leash can cause pain and injury as that thin cord can cause a great amount of friction quickly if wrapped around your finger, arm or leg. Imagine how painful that would be if your dog is pulling ten or more feet of thin cord!
While injury from wrapping cord is a big concern with retractable leashes, the majority of the injuries I have witnessed to owners using these leads are injuries that occur from their dog pulling them off their feet. With a traditional leash, your dog generally has no more than six feet to gain momentum while pulling. Some retractable leashes extend out 20 or 30 feet giving a dog up 5 times as much power to knock you over. I believe that is Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion. Any science whizzes reading this able to back me up on that?
When to use a retractable leash
While I don’t encourage dog owners to use a retractable leash on their daily walks, there are instances where I do use a retractable leash. When I have my dogs at shows and need to take them out to do their business. This type of leash offers easier sniffing in a safe area far from traffic and the parking lot. Many dogs that don’t normally like to urinate or defecate on a regular leash usually will go eventually when you’re using a retractable lead safely (and have lots of patience and time between ring times).
When I have to take my dogs out late at night, a retractable leash gives more freedom around the yard than a lead with a loop, but also keeps my dog close to avoid them getting sprayed by a skunk or into an altercation with a raccoon. I should also note here that I only take one dog out at a time on a retractable leash, as anyone who has tried to take multiple dogs out on multiple retractable leads knows – it isn’t easy!
For many of the same reasons above, I also use a retractable leash when I’m staying at a cottage or somewhere unfamiliar, so that I can assess the area before I decide whether or not my dogs who have great recall can be allowed off leash.
The retractable leash gives an illusion of both freedom and control, but in my opinion, it’s best to train your dog to walk politely with you on a regular leash, and avoid some potentially dangerous situations such as those listed above- you might even have a free hand to hold a coffee!. Trained dogs are way more welcomed in society and get to go more places with their human- which I think offers them more freedom than a retractable lead ever could.