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Retractable Leashes

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

First, let me say, I'm not a leash snob. At least, I didn't start out that way. In fact, I was a retractable leash user for all 15 years of my first dog's life and used one with my last dog before she went blind and needed a different set up. Knowing what I know (and have experienced) since then, I realize I was one lucky, lucky (and naïve) lady who must have been keeping a few canine guardian angels busy before I became more dog savvy. Now?

I flat out refuse to use retractable leashes and hope you will, too, for the safety of both you and your pet.

Here is why:

  1. Retractable leashes are not more convenient and not a solution to dealing with a dog that likes to pull. I fully admit, I was guilty of this kind of thinking when I was young and didn't know better. If your dog doesn't have good leash skills (which really means YOU don't have good leash skills), traditional leashes can feel like a real hassle. They can feel overly restrictive, I get that. Hey, who likes to be tied to a dog who always wants to pull your arm off? So, it seems like a good solution to give your dog several feet of slack so they can roam around and sniff without the hassle of you actually having to train them. I'm not going to bust your chops for being lazy about training (I was), but I do want you to know this is DANGEROUS. Period.

More on the dangers in a bit, but first, it's important that we realize one important, often overlooked, point...

  1. A leash is not a substitute for a relationship with your dog. Are you an 'attach it and forget it' dog walker? Have you become just that weight on the other end of the leash for your dog or are they actually aware that they are walking with you? If your dog tunes you out (and you tune your dog out by walking and texting or talking on your phone), it is time to get back to basics. If you want a dog that is well-behaved and a joy to be around, the key to developing that is relationship building. Read that again. DEVELOPING. Relationships take work, whether with dogs or people. Want a great read on this topic? Check out Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier.

  2. Even small dogs DO need to be on fixed length leashes, and leashes with handles you can actually hang on to because, face it, some small dogs can be batshit crazy (tell me I am wrong). To make things more complex, for a lot of folks little dogs sometimes seem too small and cute to need training so they often have terrible recall (i.e. coming when you call their name).

REAL LIFE SCENARIO: I was walking a 90 pound big black bully-breed type dog when a lady with a tiny dog on an retractable leash was trying to hold on to the leash handle while lifting her toddler out of the car seat. She lost her grip and the crazy little demon dog ran full speed, leash banging along behind, across the parking lot and leapt at the big dog's neck to bite him. Thankfully the dog I was walking did not do what I might have done if I had been bitten in the neck by a small crazy dog or this could have gone VERY badly.

  1. It hurts like bloody hell to grab a thin nylon cord when you need to pull a dog back to you fast. Some people have even lost fingers trying to do so.

REAL LIFE SCENARIO: Against my better judgment recently, while walking a very good larger-sized dog I was pet sitting on his retractable leash, we were rushed by a weimaraner who wanted a piece of my dog. The weim ran across the street at us, not the least a bit interested in returning to the owner who called his name and basically stood impotently by (don't get me started on how many loose dogs in front yards have contributed to my gray hair...if your dog does not have a bullet-proof recall, you need to have it on a leash).

So, my dog was ready to meet the weim on the weim's terms (i.e. not good ones) and as I grabbed the cord with my free hand I ripped the crap out of my finger instantly. And I do mean instantly. We escaped a fight, with my finger being the only casualty but that was the very last time I will ever use a retractable leash.

Pet sitters, take note: I basically travel with a range of my own leashes now because I'm never sure that my pet sitting clients will have safe walking systems for their dogs. I'm not just talking safe for the dogs. I'm talking safe for ME, too. I am under no obligation to walk anyone else's dog on an unsafe leash. Again, I was no more informed when I had my first pet as an adult but after working with over 50 strange dogs, in my home or theirs, in the last couple years, I'm a lot wiser now. And because I do know better now, I'm happy to share because I care about my clients and their dogs. We are all learning together!

  1. On-leash dog greetings are fraught with peril and retractable leashes can make things a whole lot worse. NOT ALL TAIL WAGGING IS FRIENDLY. And not every friendly dog likes every other dog in the whole world. And not every dog you encounter wants to meet you or your dog. A stiff, rapidly wagging tail does mean the dog is excited but that excitement can be very tense, potentially aggressive excitement. Misreading dog body language can mean that you find yourself in the middle of a scuffle. With dogs on retractable leashes, imagine the dogs circling each other, or lunging, as the leash holders try to avoid getting tangled up. It's a recipe for disaster. It can turn a scuffle into an all-out fight and it may not be too good for your ankles either if you get tripped up while trying to get out of the way.

For more on leash walking etiquette, read this. (There is a reason it has been my most popular post by miles.)

  1. Dogs can and have been fatally hit by cars on retractable leashes. Simply put, most dogs on retractable leashes are used to doing whatever they want on walks. That can include running right out into the street. Pulling them back in time has proven impossible in some tragic cases. REMINDER: Please do not text and walk.

  2. The retractable mechanisms can fail, and the locks that fix the length of the leashes can, too. And with those clunky handles, you really don't have two hands free to try to rein in feet and feets worth of thin nylon leash. You may not realize you have a failed leash until it is too late.

  3. Its hard to tie a poop bag one-handed. You do all use poop bags, right?

  4. Retractable leashes actually encourage bad behavior. Every time you are with your dog, including every walk, you are teaching your dog what is expected of them. Because retractable leashes (RL) offer almost no TRUE control to the leash holder, your dog can (and will) learn that walking is a free-for-all. If you switch from a RL to a fixed length leash (or should I say WHEN you switch), expect to go through a period of training because your dog has basically spent every walk being rewarded for pulling until now. You are going to need patience, treats and resolve to train your pet how to behave SAFELY on a leash. TIP: Go for the 6 foot, rather than the 4 foot leash. Dogs love to sniff trees and the trees along sidewalks can't easily be reached when your dog is on a 4 ft leash. That means either your dog gets no sniffs (and is denied one of the great pleasures of walking with you), or you will constantly get pulled off the sidewalk. Some leash pullers are simply frustrated sniffers!

It will not feel convenient for you early on but it is as simple as this:


And, okay, let's just say that you do have an awesome, mellow dog. Or an awesome, silly goofball that has never given you a concern on your leash. You have to prepare for those times when you might meet some dogs that might have issues that require you keep a safe distance. And every dog can get spooked by unexpected circumstances, just like any of us can. Without a good leash grip, surprises can lead to loose leashes in an instant. The bottom line is this:

It doesn't matter how good your dog is, it matters how good the safety net is for you and your dog when you encounter a potentially dangerous situation. Your job is to keep your pet safe. Your pet's leash is your safety net. Make sure it can protect you and your beloved pet when you need it.


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