Pitfalls of Retractable Leashes

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?

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