Pitfalls of Retractable Leashes

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I know it’s low-hanging fruit to criticize people for misuse of retractable leashes – but there are an awful lot of first-time dog owners out there who may have been tempted by the highly convenient devices and who don’t know their pitfalls. And because I’m traveling at the moment and just saw a near-disaster out my hotel window involving one of these products, allow me to explain. And then, for those of you who have been around a while, why don’t you tell us your favorite “Never use a retractable leash!” story in the comments?

I heard some hubbub and glanced out the window to see what was up. There was a moving van towing a trailer with a car on it, and an SUV towing a trailer with a small  car on that, and a group of people all getting ready to hit the road for another fun day of (apparently) moving their household in the summer heat. A number of adults were milling around, putting their bags in the various vehicles. The fact that they had dogs held my eye: A pretty Golden Retriever and a tall and young-looking Great Dane who was wearing a harness, both attached to young women who were holding retractable leashes. As I watched, another person came out of the hotel with two metal bowls full of water and offered them to the dogs: drink up, dogs, it’s your last chance for a bit!

I was just about to leave the window when the action of one of the young women held my eye: She put the handle of the leash that was attached to the Great Dane on the fender of the trailer, and walked around the moving van to do something else. Oh no! I said helplessly from my third-floor window, and sure enough, it happened. The dog turned her head, which pulled the handle of the leash off the fender so that it fell toward the dog’s head, spooking her and making her bolt.

HOW MANY TIMES have I seen a dog running in a panic, being “chased” by a rattling plastic retractable leash handle that was bouncing along the ground and bumping the dog’s heels? (Answer: Too many to count.)

Thank dog, the Dane only ran backward a few feet before the other young woman yelled and the dog stopped, shaking with fright. Thank dog again, because this hotel is within a few hundred yards of a busy intersection and a highway.

I get that these devices are great for what we like to call “sniff walks,” where you allow the dog to stop and start and wander at will. But most trainers hate them because they also condition a dog to pull against the pressure of the spring-loaded leash to reach what they want to smell or see. When the holy grail for most dog walkers is walking with a dog who doesn’t pull and drag you around, this is counter-productive.

Also, if the dog suddenly pulls toward something, unless the owner is paying absolute attention, is ready with the button that operates the brake, and the brake actually works (the “bargain” models tend to break down), the dog can bolt into the street (we’ve heard stories of dogs getting hit and killed by a car while on  one of these leashes), bolt toward a frightened person or a person with a fearful dog (starting a dog fight, making a person fall, etc.), or “clothesline” a person who might be jogging, skateboarding, or riding a bike.

The biggest problem is that there is not a good way to reel the dog back in, if he’s already out at the end of the leash. The models that have a cord inside can get wrapped around dog or people legs and can cut deeply; if you grab one, trying to control the dog, the cord can slice your hand open. The ones with a “tape” or flat line inside are safer, but there is still no good way to shorten the leash quickly if the dog is pulling away, only if he comes back toward you or if you can catch quickly up to him.

And, of course, if someone lets go of the handle, an inexperienced dog tends to panic and run blindly with the leash handle chasing it.

Some of you may defend them. I must say I find them to be very helpful for walking smallish dogs out in the areas where my dogs can safely walk off-leash (no other people, no roads nearby, they have great recall). But, in my opinion, they should never be used with a big dog (they don’t give you enough control), and never never never around other dog walkers, pedestrians, cyclists, etc. They are just an accident waiting to happen in crowded environments.

What’s your favorite cautionary tale about these leashes? What circumstances do you think they are perfect for?

93 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t let my dog off a lead so I use the retractable lead when we are playing with a ball. Unfortunately I have to run with him after the ball when I have thrown it, but he’s still on the lead. It’s a great workout.

  2. Unfortunately there have been incidents where people have lost their finger or two ! I find them unsafe for the previously expressed reasons as well

    In a safe environment using them with a small dog can work however caution must be exercised

  3. There is, unfortunately, a drama playing out right now with a galgo who was rescued and then adopted. The rescue sent him with a three point harness and prohbitions to keep that harness on him as well as not to use a flexi-lead. Of course, they immediately changed his harness and used a flexi-lead. He got loose, the noise scared the heck out of him and now he’s gone. They found the harness and lead wrapped tightly around a tree (he chewed his way out of the harness but it could have ended much worse with the galgo strangled to death). A huge contingent of people are out searching for him but there have been no sightings in 5 days. It isn’t looking good for this poor boy. These adopters chose not to believe the rescue and now the poor galgo is paying for it.

  4. any piece of equipment, tool, aid, etc. if not properly used by a trained/experienced operator has the potential to cause harm… if not worse.
    as my old ‘Cow Vet’ told me … ” If it ain’t done right, it’s wrong.”

    • Thank you Kathryn and DITTO! Cheap and inexpensive ‘”knock-offs” of this product are probably responsible for many sad stories, like everything else in life, sometimes you do get what you pay for. I’ve used mine for 11 years with nary a problem. BTW its made in Germany, which is known for its quality craftsmanship. Happy Trails!

    • I have had retractable leashes break as well. I still use one when its a “exploring walk”, but if using them you must have the proper size and quality. A dog with great recall and training makes it less worrysome, but giving a dog a little roaming room is ok with the right equipment and training.

  5. I 100% love my retractable leads and you can pry them out of my cold, dead hands. I am, quite honestly, tired of beating this dead horse. We get it, some people are STUPID. Some people don’t pay attention. I’ve seen dogs jerk a 6 foot leash out of their owner’s hand and come running. I’ve seen dogs get out of their harness so it didn’t even matter WHAT leash was on it. And worse, I’ve seen plenty of “my dog is friendly why bother with a leash” types. I’d rather they be on a retractable.

    I used one for years with my 50 lb mutt. She didn’t learn to pull (in fact, all of my dogs have pulled HARDER on the 6 foot leash than the retractable). It was awesome because I easily reeled it in by locking it down, stepping forward faster than she was moving and retracting it.

    My biggest cautionary tale? Be careful of long lines, which people always suggest in place of retractables. I fell into that. I got a long line. My dog bolted when she saw another dog, and it caused a serious rope burn on my hand and damaged some tendons because I was not paying attention to my dog..I was trying to untangle and wind up the stupid long line. I switched back to a retractable and never had that problem. I could watch HER and keep it locked down when near traffic, people or other dogs.

    • Spot on Michelle! The most important “fact” in the article was “unless the owner is paying absolute attention”,
      s…tuff can happen! Cellphones are apparently more important during a dogs walks than whatever the dog is
      getting into. Have used one for 11 years with nary a problem. TEACHING your dogs proper behaviour
      while on a lease is the key. People forget….it’s his/her WALK!

    • Very well said! I use my retractable leash while out on the trail in wildlife areas and it works great! No dragging lines and tangling. One still needs to teach a dog to have some manners and as with any tool you use, the user still has to be aware of hazards! Don’t blame the tool, just learn to use it properly!

    • Michelle, you said you had an accident with a long line because you weren’t paying attention. The same thing could happen with a retractable, right?

      The retractable ones give the illusion of greater control, whereas you need to pay at least as much attention while using them.

      A lot of people are just unaware of this problem, so getting the message out is indeed important. Not everyone is on dog-centric websites. If retractable leashes were not available in chain pet stores but instead only online, that could save dogs’ lives (and humans’ fingers).

      • I wasn’t paying attention because I had to spend way too much time untangling a leash. A retractable saves me from having to untangle a mess every single time, which allows me to pay attention to something other than the leash. Long lines are a hazard no one talks about oddly enough. Just retractable ones. And they’re available in every pet store too.

    • Great post! I use a regular leash most of the time, but on hikes where there’s water my dogs love to swim in, I’ll take the retractables. I have three dogs, so a standard leash wouldn’t work for 3 big dogs swimming in opposite directions.
      I get that some people don’t use them properly, and they can be a hazard, yeah, yeah, yeah…but tell me one tool that is exempt from that?

    • I can understand that you are tired of reading this if you have read it already and decided that it was advised it didn’t work for you. However the whole dog journal is a periodical and it would be a disservice to new readers to not warn them about these dangers. I hope you’ll be generous and patient with articles like this as Whole Dog Journal helps other people come up to your level of experience.

  6. My husband was riding his bike on a shared path and saw a dog on one side of the path and its person on the other. He couldn’t see the line until it was too late and it had lodged between the front and rear tires. Fortunately, nobody was inured but it was a dangerous situation.

  7. iA retractable leash caused me to have a bloody head injury. I was I walking a little seemingly calm dog who was right by my side. Suddenly he ran out into the street in front of an speeding truck. The leash became totally extended in the blink of an eye. To save the dog’s life, I had to pull the leash so hard that I fell backwards onto my head., lying stunned on the sidewalk. I had to go to the emergency room and get a CT scan of my brain. I will never again use a retractable leash.

    • Unfortunately, some people don’t stop using a retractable leash until a horrible accident happens and only then they learn never to use one again, sometimes it can happen in the first couple days of using a retractable leash and sometimes years but you never want it to happen period and having a regular leash in your own hands indeed gives you more control. You’d rather the horrible accident happen to you than to your beloved soul mate that relies on you for protecting them, controlling them and keeping them safe. Hopefully when you have a horrible accident it happens to you and not your beloved soul mate that depends on you and hopefully you make it out alive and without permanent damage.

  8. I use a retractable leash as described in the article. There are a couple of places we walk, where there is no traffic, etc. and it allows him a bit more freedom. But I did have a scare with a cheap one, which was a gift, where the brake did not work. when trying to cross the street. I threw it out.

    • I made the mistake of using one of these with my first puppy. We didn’t have a fenced yard at the time so I would use it in our backyard to let her roam more freely. One day the handle slipped out of my hand and went flying into her and caused her to panic. It was extremely fortunate that we had just worked heavily on a recall in her training class that morning and it was fresh enough in her mind that I got her back. Never again. I cringe when I see others using them; especially with large dogs.

  9. I agree. I hate those retractables. I used to use them but for all of these reasons stated I stopped. I’ve wrapped those lines around my fingers and legs and nearly lost fingers. I was lucky. So many people can’t control their dogs with them. I’ve seen many more dogs yank the handle out of their owner’s hands than I have a leash.

  10. I Think these retractable leashes should be banned ! I had one with a 27 lb. rescue before I knew any better. There were several times that I became tangled in it, the dog and another dog became tangled up and yes, the dog pulled it out of my hand when I wasn’t paying attention. There was no directional control of the dog at all.
    Now I use the Gentle Leader with a standard 6 foot leash. Much better !

    • We love Gentle Leaders. I’m not sure what we’d do without them. We get in 200 pound adult male Danes into rescue and Wolfhounds that have never even been on a leash, much less taught to walk calmly on a leash. We teach them to LOVE the Gentle Leaders and use those to take them for walks, take them in public, etc. Without the Gentler Leader, we’d be going where the DOG wants, not where WE want. A large adult Dane or Wolfhound can outweigh many humans and are much stronger than most humans. In the meantime, we teach the dog to walk nicely on a leash and then transfer to a harness. We use Gentle Leaders all the time. They will not harm the dog, they won’t harm people, and they won’t cause “near misses” like retractable leashes can.

      • Any tool can cause injuries. We use Gentle leaders a lot with great success and no problems. One trick is to use two leashes at once, a gentle leader and a regular leash on a collar or harness. You never deliver too much force with the GL, if the dog jerks or bolts the regular leash stops them. You can get great results and wean them off the GL as appropriate. Remember, the GL is a training tool, and the goal is to get to the point where you don’t need it.

  11. We have always loved our Flexis in the National Forest or now in open areas and the Conservation nature park where we like to walk them occasionally. Our dogs are less than 30 lbs. No idea how a really large dog would do. The ordinary 6 ft. lead just doesn’t give enough freedom to move around without us having to follow close by. I have seen Flexis used inappropriately inside vets’ waiting rooms and other tight spaces. The problem mainly is that people don’t seem to know HOW TO LOCK IT. There is no reason it couldn’t be made short and still used indoors. That’s no reason for all the negative press this handy device is getting. You can’t fix stupid but that’s no reason to ban an item like I see mentioned on other sites. A lot of people are misusing devices of many kinds and if we started banning them all we would deprive ourselves of useful or fun items. Personally, I never saw a reason for a Flexi in tight areas where you can’t get the plus of the 20+ ft. extension ours have.

    • One problem is that many are of such low quality that you cannot lock it.

      I organized a charity fun run/walk for the local humane society with dogs invited, and we took the opportunity to help people better use their retractable leashes. MOST of them did not have a locking mechanism or it was so weak it was useless.

      Pet stores should only sell high quality ones or not at all.

  12. There is no doubt…toss them out. Wish they would ban them. Thank you for writing this article. Hope many people read this and get rid of those dangerous retractable leashes. They truly are an accident waiting to happen.

  13. I use a retractable leash for my smaller dog, but I see the potential disasters. I think the biggest problem is people not knowing how to use them. I do keep my finger near the “trigger” and it’s become a reflex to lock it when I need to. I disagree that “reeling” them back in is a problem, but again, I really think the issue is (mostly) operator error.

  14. I live in downtown NYC, Manhattan. I have a greyhound and a terrier. They both get walked on standard 5 foot leashes. There are a lot of new dog owners with their pandemic puppies….most on flexi leashes. They like it, I get it. But they don’t know what they’re doing so as We walk near them, I ask them to please lock their leash.
    I’m always worried that one of those flexi ropes or tapes will wrap around my greyhound’s long skinny legs. So we never say hi! to anyone walking their dog on a flexi. We keep our distance.
    I wish they were banned.

  15. Like Michelle, I have had good results over the years, with retractables. I really liked them. I even liked them after I got a nasty slice in my calf from one (my fault — I was not paying close attention) — I also have had burns from a regular leash. What with decades of dogs in my life, i can easily say I have had everything go wrong and right with both.
    My current little rescue does not like the retractable tension at all so I have gone back to a regular leash. I don’t miss the retractables, especially the risk of another bad slice and the bouncing and frightening effects of a dropped one. I was almost swayed into retractable disapproval but recalled all those 100’s of quiet walks and sniff-arounds. The retractables did give them some freedoms in our overgrown, semi-wild urban alleys. I don’t know if I will ever go back to them or not. In my old age, perhaps the regular leashes are easier and less risky.

    • That’s one of the problems (as I see it) with retractable leashes. You have to pay attention! Some people simply can’t be “bothered” to pay attention to what their dog is doing (and I am NOT accusing you of being one of those kinds of people!). For those of us who do pay attention, it’s very easy to get temporarily distracted by something and an instant later, you’ve got a disaster on your hands.

      • It’s impossible to be completely non-distracted all the time, both for human and dog! There could be a sudden child screaming, a delicious-looking squirrel, anything. Boom, leash disaster.

        When I dogsit I use a belt leash, I could never forgive myself if something happened to a friend’s dog.

      • Honestly? You have to pay attention with EVERYTHING. I’ve seen dogs almost hit on 6-foot leashes, including my own in the beginning. Standing near the road, ready to cross with my new rescue dog. I had NO idea that the UPS truck that would trundle by would be such a THING but she tried to run out in front of it. I had to yank her back hard to stop her from getting hit.

        My husband had a nasty fall when she bolted on a 6-foot leash suddenly and he tripped over a part of the sidewalk that was uneven. Couldn’t play his fiddle for over a year due to tendon injuries. Again, not paying attention.

        I’ve seen people on cell phones get pulled over or drop the leash when their dog suddenly bolted. I’ve seen dogs hurt their necks when suddenly bolting with a head collar on because the person didn’t notice something (dog, squirrel, whatever).

        Paying attention is necessary no matter WHAT you use. The issue is not the leash. The issue is people are so distracted by their phones these days that they aren’t watching around them.