Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why I love my retractable leash

A perfect reason to use a retractable leash!  Do you want
to step into that snow with her so she can explore?
It's making the rounds again. Retractable leashes are dangerous.  People who use retractable leashes don't know how to train their dogs.  They're lazy.  They let their dogs run up to other dogs or out into the road.  They're as bad as [insert aversive tool of choice].  They teach dogs to pull.  They should be banned!!

I hear these things a lot from other dog owners and trainers and while some aspects may have some merit, I tend to disagree with many of the statements. Can retractable leashes be dangerous?  Sure.  There's no denying that.  But knowing how to use it (which is ultimately not very hard) minimizes the potential danger of the leash.  Could dogs run up to other dogs or out into the road?  Sure.  The leashes do usually extend anywhere from 12 to 26 feet.  This gives a fair amount of leeway and if the owner is negligent and not watching their dog or what's going on around them anything could happen.  But that comes down to the owner.  I've had people let their dogs come up to mine when it was on a 6-foot leash and I've seen owners standing near the sidewalk let their dog wander into the road on a 6-foot leash.  And worse, I've seen plenty of folks walking untrained dogs off leash.  Do retractable leashes teach dogs to pull?  Not in my experience.  Are they as bad as choke chains or prong collars?  No.  That's a pretty ridiculous statement.  They are intended to be a means of containment not an aversive way to stop a dog from doing something.

Should they be banned?  Absolutely not.

I do, however, have certain rules for the type of dog I will use a retractable leash with and when/where I will use the leash.

Rules for the Dog

1. The dog must not be able to pull me off my feet if it hits the end of the leash at a full run.  This means I am likely to only use the leash with small to medium sized dogs instead of larger ones.  My dog is 50 pounds.  I use the leash with her.  I'm not sure I'd be comfortable using the leash with a dog who was larger or more muscular.

2. The dog must not be a dedicated puller.  A dog who pulls once in awhile is ok.  But if the dog pulls constantly and is always at the end of the leash then the reason for the leash is pointless.  I will only use a 6-foot leash with such a dog until he/she has learned not to pull.

3. The dog must not be an unpredictable bolter.  In other words, if a dog tends to be a squirrel chaser and gives no warning signs that they've seen the squirrel before giving chase, then a retractable is not the right leash for this dog.  My dog does like to chase squirrels but (a) she gives plenty of warning signs (e.g. she freezes in place and stares first) and (b) I've trained her to only chase when I give her the command so her freezing in place has become more pronounced over time.

4. The dog must be trained and under voice control.  It doesn't have to be perfect voice control, but a dog who is able to respond to "stop" and/or "come" is a good candidate for a retractable leash.  If it breaks (and in over three years I've yet to have one break), I want to be able to control the dog with my voice.

Rules for Me

1. I will pay attention to my dog.  If she is wandering too close to the street, I will reel her in and/or lock the leash.  If there is a dog nearby, I will reel her in and/or lock the leash.  If there is a squirrel she wants to chase I will allow her if it's safe (running with her so she doesn't hit the end of the leash) or I will reel her in and/or lock the leash.

2. I will pay attention to our surroundings.  I will be aware of where cars and other people are.  I will keep an eye out for other dogs.  I will not let her precede me around corners where I cannot see what is coming first.  I will never ever listen to music or talk on the cell phone while out on a walk with her.  What is going on around us is important.

3. I will not choose a knock-off leash made by some unknown company (I use Flexi brand leashes only).  I will not use a corded leash, instead using the "full leash" retractable leashes as they are less dangerous and break less often.  They are sturdier leashes, especially when used with a larger dog.

4. I will make sure I know how to use the leash and will keep it in good repair.  I will keep my thumb hovering over the lock mechanism and will use that mechanism at a moment's notice.

Rules for When to Use the Leash

1. I will not use a retractable in places where the dog must always be kept close at my side.  This includes festivals and walking in the city, among other places.

2. I will not use the retractable in classes or at trials.  Again, she needs to be kept close to me during class.  She also likes to tug on her leash as part of getting excited to go out and "work," and retractable leashes should not be played with in such a way.

So obviously I have thought long and hard about when and where and with whom to use a retractable leash.  People can call me and my dog whatever acronym they want (the latest annoying one is ROAR: Rover on a Retractable), but it's not going to prevent me from using my retractable leash.  I use it wisely and responsibly and my dog is happy to have the bit of freedom for sniffing that the leash allows her to have.


  1. There are times and places for retractable leashes - but it sounds like you've found the right combination.

    A friend of mine walks her dog only on a retractable leash when on lead. That dog pulls like crazy, because said friend also doesn't enforce a difference between 'walk with me' and 'now you can pull ahead'. My friend is also extremely lazy when it comes to training, so there's probably a correlation there. :)

    FWIW I wouldn't use a retractable leash with Lola - but only because we had such trouble with them way back when we first got Jess. In a single year, she went through five (chewed through one in literally five minutes when she was in the car; we lost another; she broke all three others - and these were ones intended for large dogs) AND even though she's only around 30lbs, she managed to take off at full speed and make my mother fall face-first. Hilarious, but not safe at all!

  2. Dahlia took off at full speed when we first got her (chasing ducks at the pond). It was our own damned fault but I had no problem hanging onto her (she, however, yelped when she hit the end). We stopped taking her on a retractable around the ducks and instead taught her to chase on command and return to us immediately. It worked well!

    Chewers would be another good example of when not to use them, especially if they're left with them on (I don't leave Dahlia's on when she's in the car -- once it wrapped around another dog's leg and scared the crap out of me so retractables stay OFF in the car!).

    There are definitely times and places for them and not, but it drives me nuts to have people think every single person who uses them are idiots who can't be bothered to train their dogs! After all, I meet plenty of people being pulled all over the place and not bothering to train their dogs on other types of leashes too!

    With Dahlia, she almost never pulls, not even on the retractable. She seems to be able to feel the change in pressure and when she gets to the end of the leash slows down. MOST of the time she's within 6 feet of me anyway but occasionally goes further out to sniff things. I'm thankful I don't have to step into wet grass or snow to let her sniff something she finds interesting!

  3. 'After all, I meet plenty of people being pulled all over the place and not bothering to train their dogs on other types of leashes too!'

    I probably look like this sometimes. :) I actually trained Lola TO pull on cue, so that she can get more exercise from handwalking if I don't have long or I have Jess out too. Lola goes crazy when I let her pull, and it must look like I'm so incompetent that I let my 14lb dog tow me along!

    It sounds like Dahlia is pretty much a perfect candidate for the retractable leash. The problem I have is that a lot of people will put their dogs on one and not pay the dog any attention... because it's on leash (so "secure" to them), whilst being far enough away that whilst on their phones or talking, they don't notice or care what the dog is up to. I still infinitely prefer dogs on retractables to dogs off lead in places they shouldn't be though!

  4. Our new trainer mentions that if dogs who are frustration reactive (or reactive in general) and are accustomed to an extensive amount of leeway (i.e. 16ft on a Flexi) it can and does increase their reactivity. Perhaps an addition to your list for dog rules. :)

    I use a Flexi with Dolce on hikes at the Regional Park. He loves exploring, and it's a perfect tool for that. I use it with a harness that I clip to the back, so it doesn't confuse him at all when I walk him either in his martingale, front-cillpped harness, or Gentle Leader.

    Vigilance is key! They are technically only the length you want, and that can be a huge perk in tight spaces and you want to shorten up without wrapping it around your hand a million times.

    Oh, and I generally recommend a 6ft leash for training, but a 4ft leash for daily walks. My dogs tend to get caught up in 6footers, but 4footers never get tangled.

    Otherwise, I agree with you 100%! Anti-Flexi speakers are like BSL peeps. It's not the leash, it's the owner... It's not the dog, it's the owner. ;-)

  5. Here's the sort of weird thing: I used the leash to train Dahlia out of her reactivity. I found that my tightening up the leash helped contribute to the issue, and so with the retractable there was always a LITTLE bit of pressure on the leash, so the sudden releasing of all pressure (by locking the leash down and letting it dangle a bit) seemed to help keep her calmer.