Reel It In – Why I Don’t Like Retractable Leashes

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There’s an old joke about if there’s one thing that two dog trainers can agree on, it’s that the third one is doing it wrong. But if you know me at all, you know I hate online squabbles; I don’t participate in digital fights about training methods or tools. That said, I think I’ve found something that very nearly ALL dog trainers agree on, and that I will defend anywhere, anytime, and it’s this: Retractable leashes have no place in dog training.

It almost reaches the level of a joke: If you go to a dog park or almost any gathering of dog people and their dogs, the worst-behaved dogs will be the ones on retractable leashes. It’s sort of a chicken or the egg thing: What came first, the poorly behaved dog or the leash that teaches him nothing?

I get how convenient it is to be able to walk along with your dog on leash and have your dog stop for a moment to smell something or take a quick pee, and you only have to slow your pace for a moment, rather than stop dead. When he’s through or he hits the end of the retractable line, he can trot to catch up, and you don’t have to scoop up all that line the way you would with a long leash, you can just allow the spring-loaded retractable thingie to wind it up.

However, what do you do when your dog is at or near the end of the line and:

  • You are suddenly confronted by a loose dog, looking a little aggressive, coming your way, fast.
  • Someone walks quickly out of a storefront, in between you and your dog.
  • Your dog suddenly sees a squirrel on the ground across the street and bolts into the street in an effort to reach the squirrel.

The biggest problem is with these and countless other situations, when your dog is more than a couple of feet from you, there is nothing you can do very quickly to get him back to your side. The products can retract only when there is not tension on the line. As you know if you’ve ever used one, you really cannot grab the part of the cord that retracts into the handle and pull even a smallish strong dog back toward you. About the only way you could pull a dog to safety would be to mash the lock button down, while quickly turning in the opposite direction and trying to call or drag your dog in the other direction – depending on whether you’ve trained him to do emergency U-turns or whether he’s engaged already with the other dog or still on the hunt for the squirrel.

And to retract the slack when there is a chaotic situation brewing, like when that loose dog – or even one on leash! – is squaring off with your dog, and they are spinning around? Lock to prevent the dog from getting farther away, release to retract, lock, release, lock, release . . . it’s darned hard to do in calm circumstances.

When I want a dog to explore his environment without taking him off leash, I use a long line – a 20 or even 30-foot leash. I only use a tool like this in an environment where there are NO other people or dogs who might get tangled up with us, and the line is as smooth and easy to handle as my leash; I can easily grab anywhere on the line and manually reel in the dog if I have to.

And what about the many cases in which someone accidentally dropped the handle, which started dragging on the ground and clattering loudly behind the dog, and spooked him into running in a blind panic into traffic? A dog who takes off dragging a regular leash stands a good chance of being caught by someone who manages to step on or grab the leash. But the retractable leash is likely to retract after being dragged a way, so that it’s short and very difficult to grab.

We don’t even have to discuss emergency situations to get most trainers to chime in about how useless these tools are. They more or less train dogs to pull against pressure, by rewarding/reinforcing the dog when he pulls against the product’s spring (there is always some tension, even when the operator isn’t pressing the lock button) in order to reach something he wants to investigate. Getting to sniff something he was curious about is a reward – and behaviors that are rewarded get repeated. Simple as that.

Yes, a person can lock the handle and prevent the dog from pulling the line out of the device, preventing him from getting this reward. But then, you may as well just have a fixed-length leash.

As a final point against them, all I can say is, when this blog gets posted to the WDJ Facebook page, go ahead and post your photos of the deep, slashing cuts that you or someone you know has received when a retractable cord got wound around their leg when a dog was going nuts. That should give a little credence to the warnings against these products.

Can anyone honestly make a case for the responsible use of retractable leashes?

112 COMMENTS

  1. Surprised you didn’t mention that people don’t especially appreciate a dog running up onto their lawn and urinating or walking through their beds on retractable leashes. I wish someone would address dog/owner etiquette.

    • Agreed. I constantly encounter people who have no common sense. My dogs are barking at them and they continue to approach with no respect for my dogs or me. They also let their kids do the same. Common sense – people! Get some! This is a common occurrence no matter what leash my dogs are on.

      • I saw a woman in this neighborhood walking with her 2 year old child and large dog.
        The dog was on a retractable lead and the 2 year old was holding the handle of the lead!
        As they got farther down the sidewalk I heard the child crying. I looked and she had fallen. I have no doubt the dog pulled her down.

      • Lorna: I understand your annoyance at trying to control upset dogs when it seems like the people who are causing them angst are just making it worse by walking towards you. And at the same time I can understand that people are just trying to walk down the street and mind their own business (I’m assuming no one’s coming up to try and pet your dogs while they’re barking at them).

        Their mindset is they know theyre not going to harm your dog and assume you have control over your dogs so everything will be ok. This is actually a good turnout because it shows your dog that they were not dangerous after all and with enough experience of people walking towards them without harming them, they will eventually learn that there’s no threat. This is a key part of socialization with puppies (meeting lots of different people) Where they learn there are all kinds of different looking humans, and about the about the intentions of others (strangers walking towards you is not a threat on its own).

        If they’re barking to get attention from them, then the message becomes -> humans walks by without interaction and thus the barking doesnt get you the attention you are demanding.

    • I almost watched my neighbors dog get hit in our parking lot a week ago. It ran off the sidewalk to greet us and directly in front of an incoming car,which fortunately stopped in time. They are lovely people, but also said they didn’t want to train their dog because they didn’t want to change her personality.
      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        • I will also add, another neighbor was using one for his 70-80lbs one year old male lab (BOISTEROUS!) which is risky enough, but then rhe handle slipped away from him and the exact situation the article describes played out. The handle hit the ground, retracted, hit the dog on the butt then spun around a low “keep off the grass” sign; the line snapped and the dog is now zooming in circles on the lawn next to a very major city street. It was the ribbon type leash that had snapped off the wire extension and good luck trying to catch a spazzing out lab by a sliver of ribbon, in the dark! He finally got it under control without major damage done, but I did tell him, that’s why you’re not supposed to use those types of leashes…

          • Cause people NEVER drop the 6ft leashes, right?
            A spazzy lab is ALWAYS going to be extra fun to catch!

          • Running late to an appointment yesterday, I made a quick left onto a street only to slam on my brakes. In my direct path was a small dachshund—at the far end of a sixteen foot retractable trotting ACROSS the street from the owner. She simply smiled. Boy, did I want to yell at her about her stupidity. I guess it takes an accident for some people to get it.

      • That’s just as stupid as people refusing to get their female dog/cat spayed because they want them to feel what it’s like to have babies or people who refuse to neuter their dog because it’ll make them less manly or macho!

    • I think they’re actual against most city and county ordinances. Most leash laws specify leash length (frequently 6’).

      I’ve used them before. I’ve never had a problem with my dogs pulling on a regular leash as a result of using a retractable one (my dogs can tell the difference) and I only used them in open areas without other people around.

      I’d say there’s a place for them.

  2. I was thrilled to learn that retractable leashes are banned in many towns in California. I wish the rest of the world would jump on this bandwagon. These leashes are destructive at best and I’ve been the victim of having another walker’s dog go round and round my ankles so I can’t move and can’t pull my feet out of the grasp. It’s very upsetting. These leashes also get caught on car fenders and pull the dog under to his death. I have a ten foot regular leash that I use for recall practice but I can reel that in to 4 feet once the recall is accomplished. I agree with you, they are EVIL and make dogs believe THEY are in charge, not us.

  3. A retractable lead is a tool. Like all tools in the right hands, under the right circumstances it is a useful addition to a dog owners ‘tool box’. It is very fashionable and i think lazy writing to knock these leads. Generally I enjoy WholeDog Journal articles. This however was it seems, a band wagon jumping piece of lazy writing. Weather Seeking to alienate some dog owners, or believing that people that choose to use these leads are lazy or ignorant of how to safely use this useful tool. I agree, they can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Many people do use them in inappropriate situations. But…..I believe most readers of this journal have the wherewithal to use this tool appropriately, safely and responsibly. All this said, keep up the great work on this site and….vive le difference!

    • There are no instructions on these leads when people are buying them, the pictures of them being used shows them clipped to a collar which can break a dog’s neck. Many people buying them have no understanding of dogs, you see it all the time on Facebook, owners asking for advice because they can’t cope with their dog’s behaviour.

      Don’t blame Whole Dog, they are trying to get the message out about the dangers of these leads, if you are going to blame anyone, blame the manufacturers who don’t bother to give information on how they should be used nor that dogs have to be trained to be on one.

      • I agree with you Margaret. I have a large 110 lb dog that I walk on a short lead to keep him next to me on our daily walks. I am 4’11” and need to have control of him, especially because his is reactive to other dogs out walking. I have yet to see anyone that uses those retractable leashes actually use it to keep their dogs out of harms way. The owners are usually texting or talking on their cell phones while their dog is meandering all over the place including running up to mine. Then when my dog barks and gets excited, only then do these owners pay attention to what’s happening and give me a dirty look as if my dog was the culprit. And of course there is the danger factor with these leashes. From what I have seen in my own neighborhood, I do think some dog owners think that it replaces traditional leash training.

        • U r 100% accurate!..it’s the owners , who do not use the JESCH correctly that r at fault..put your damn phones away..don’t let your dog be on a long lead if there is s chance he could dart into traffic…USE YOUR DAMN HEAD!!!!..#ITSNOTTHELEASH!!..#ITSTHEOWNERS!!!

    • Stuart , sadly, I think you are overestimating people. I own a pet store & grooming business and I can tell you endless horror stories (broken merchandise, dog fights, peeing inappropriately, cord burns on staff) about retractable leashes. The vast majority of users either do not know the leash has a lock feature or don’t understand what an appropriate situation to use one is (like indoors for one). We even have signs. I hand people the dog back with the leash locked and half of them unlock it instantly. Additionally, walking a dog on a retractable teaches a dog to pull and that they are in control. I constantly have people looking for product solutions for dogs that pull on walks. First question I ask is what kind of leash do you use. A dog should not be walked with the leash unlocked. If you want your dog to stop and sniff or pee, then stop, unlock it, and relock it when you are ready to continue walking. They are great for people to give dogs potty breaks when they don’t have a fenced yard. Other than that, what is the purpose? They are banned at all dog sporting events and show events that I have ever been to. I know vets, groomers, stores and so on who have banned them and so on. They wouldn’t be need to be banned if most people knew what eh right circumstance was to use this tool.

      • The fact that many people are stupid (sorry but that’s what it is) doesn’t mean the tool is wrong and should be banned.
        I definitely wouldn’t use retractable leash for training, but for the older and/or trained dog this is a great way to walk.

    • I agree that most readers of WDJ most likely already know better than to use these leashes. However, I plan to share this article to my FB page, as many of my FB friends have asked me “why not?”. This article explains it better than I have been able to. I hope many others will also share it. I only wish she had led with and expanded on how they teach dogs to pull on the leash. I intend to copy and paste that paragraph at the top, since many people are not going to read a long article on FB.

    • I agree. I use a retractable leash when we hike. I have never had an issue “reeling in” my dogs when others approach, nor has anyone ever been injured while we used them. When we walk in town and around populated areas or busy trails I retract it in and lock it down to a 5-6 ft length. First and foremost, my dogs were trained on regular leashes and took obedience classes as puppies and taught manners. Frankly, more dogs run up on my dogs on regular leashes then retractable ones so manners should be the topic, not leashes.

      • Thank you Sandi. I was going to say just that. My dogs were trained using regular leashes (they are certified Canine Good Citizens). I walk them using a regular leash when we are in dense urban environments but when we go hiking a retractable leash just gives them a little more freedom to sniff, explore and the stretch their legs a little more than they could otherwise. Unfortunately there are no off leash trails where I live so unless I choose to break the law a retractable leash is a helpful tool to give my dogs a little more freedom. I agree, there is a time and place for everything. Retractable leashes would probably not be a wise choice for reactive dogs. But in my case they have been a helpful tool, in certain settings and environments.

      • EXACTLY!!

        I actually lock mine down to 1 inch when in populated/busy areas… my mastiff is tall, so having a simple handle attached to her collar is great! And she’s smart enough to know the difference between the “pull” of the retractable, the locked in resistance and being off-leash. It’s really not difficult when you know how to train your dog. My mastiff is also registered CGC.

        Our last dog was a bit more exuberant when out walking with our dog sitter. We had to have her walk him on a simple 6ft leash. He was fine with me on the retractable… but she was a bit looser with the rules, and he took advantage. Know your dog, know your own limits!

    • Thank you Stuart. I live in the country in Colorado. In many situations I use the retractable leashes on my two mini Aussies so that they can explore their environments on our walks/hikes without suddenly spotting a wild turkey or deer and taking off after it to the animal’s or my own dog’s harm. There can definitely be a “time and a place” for such a thing. BTW, when we are in town I use my regular leashes to keep the pups under control. So you see, you can be a responsible retractable leash walker under the right circumstances. Not everyone lives in the city where those leashes are less practical.

      • I have a small labradoodle and have worked with him extensively in regards to walking with a retractable or a short lead. When we walk in the evening, he is on a retractable and knows he can explore and smell all he wants. If we’re going to the vet or a store he’s on a short lead and walks beside me. I’m am always respectful of others on our walk and try to be cognizant of my surroundings ( to reign in or stop). I think one needs to know their dog and use what’s best. I do, however, think there needs to be some kind of warning, or videos the owners need to watch on etiquette!

    • Totally Agree – All the examples of how bad the retractable leash is are really examples of how irresponsibly people use them. Would be more useful to do an article on responsible use of a retractable leash.

    • Finally ! Everything in that article is correct – but totally one-sided. While it should not be your only leash , there is a place for the retractable one, certainly for a dog of small to medium size. But you have to know your dog , pup has to be trained and inclined to obey , terrain must not be crowded with dogs and / or people, must be visible to you for more than a few meters , and most important YOU CANNOT LET ANYTHING DISTRACT YOU from your dog and your surroundings . That is the price of giving your pup a bit of autonomy in a safe environment…
      I would not dream of using the retractable leash downtown Toronto, but I use it in the parks and the quieter areas, especially now at six years of age…

  4. I use a retractable leash because I am in a motorized wheelchair and one hand is on the joy stick and the lease on the other. I keep by 14 lbs dog close when I am in an area with peo